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Protests and high security as Erdogan meets Merkel

Ben Knight | Jefferson Chase (Berlin)
September 28, 2018

Angela Merkel says she raised human rights issues with Recep Tayyip Erdogan — an issue where they can only agree to disagree. The Turkish president's visit to Berlin was met with protests from public and press alike.

A demonstrator holds up a sign against Erdogan
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Schreiber

The elephant in the room when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Friday was the fundmantal disagreement between their countries on human rights. Germany has been very critical of Ankara on this score, while Erdogan has insisted that Berlin do more on German soil to go after detractors he claims are terrorists.

At their post-meeting press conference, Merkel argued that the important thing was that the two sides were talking.

"I consider the visit very important because when there are differences, a personal meeting is vital to resolve them," Merkel said.

 Ties with Germany deteriorated following a failed coup attempt in Turkey two years ago that prompted Ankara to react with draconian measures, including jailing journalists, soldiers and public servants, among them several German citizens. Relations reached a low point last year when Erdogan compared the current government to the Nazi regime.

Friday's meeting was seen as a chance to put that level of hostility to rest.

"I have called for these cases to be resolved as quickly as possible," Merkel said, referring to the jailed Germans. Erdogan glossed over the criticism, insisting that the fundamental point was respect for the Turkish judiciary.

As if to illustrate the depth of the conflict, the press conference was briefly disrupted by a protester wearing a T-shirt that read "freedom for journalists" in Turkish. As he was removed by security, the two leaders looked at each other and noticably tensed up. The journalist was later named as Adil Yigit, a Turkish journalist who runs the Avrupa Postasi online news portal from Hamburg.

Deutschland | Protest T-Shirt auf PK vom Merkel und Erdogan
The journalist Adil Yigit briefly disrupted the press conference to demand press freedomImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

An unhappy partnership

Both Merkel and Erdogan seemed at pains to suppress any hints of personal acrimony, and there was no hiding that the two are not only not close friends but that at present German-Turkish relations are dominated by necessity, not affinity.

Merkel stressed the central role played by Turkey in restricting the flow of refugees, particularly from Syria to Europe — a hot-button issue for her own government at the moment. Merkel also stressed the special connection between the two countries based on the some 3.5 million people in Germany who are either Turkish citizens or have Turkish roots. Both leaders underscored the economic importance of the two countries for one another, with Erdogan keen to suggest the struggling Turkish economy was actually in robust health.

Read more: How Erdogan fills a political gap for German-Turks 

Still, while Germany and Turkey undeniably need one another in a number of respects, they don't see eye to eye on basic democratic standards. Erdogan fails to understand why Germany isn't more active in extraditing leaders of Gulen and PKK movements he holds responsible for the failed coup against him in 2016.

"If the tables were turned, I would hand over people Germany put on an extradition list," the Turkish president said.

For her part, Merkel acknowledged that Germany is generally skeptical about democratic freedoms and the rule of law in Erdogan's Turkey. In the press conference, she diplomatically declined to comment on any particular extradition cases, especially that of a prominent Turkish journalist in exile in Germany.

Can Dündar
Can Dundar decided not to attend the press conference after being informed he could not ask a questionImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

Exiled Turkish journalist absent from press conference

A government-friendly Turkish newspaper, Yeni Asir, reported Friday that Turkey had already requested the extradition of the journalist Can Dundar in the run-up to Erdogan's visit, along with a "terror list" detailing 69 names of people wanted by Ankara.

"It will only enhance the peace and security in both countries to do so," said Erdogan during the press conference. 

Dundar, former editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaperwho has been living in exile in Germany for more than two years, was convicted in Turkey over an article about weapons supplied to Syria by Turkish intelligence. He is accused of spying, betrayal of state secrets and propaganda.

A controversy erupted ahead of Friday's press conference, as reports emerged that the German government press office had accredited Dundar to attend the event — though without giving him the right to ask a question. In the end, after Erdogan reportedly threatened to call it off the press conference over Dundar's presence, the journalist said that he would not be take part.

At the press conference, Merkel said that Dundar himself made the decision not to attend. Erdogan, meanwhile, described the journalist as an "agent who revealed state secrets to the public." 

Later on Friday, at a hastily called press gathering in the offices of investigative journalism organization Correctiv, Dundar confirmed Merkel's statement, underlining that he had not been asked to stay away. "If I had received any pressure not to go, then I definitely would have gone," he said.

Dundar, who now edits the Correctiv magazine Özgürüz ("We are free"), also accused Erdogan of lying about him during the afternoon's press conference with Merkel. "Erdogan looked the whole world in the eyes and lied. I am not an agent, I am a journalist."

"What he presented as state secrets were illegal weapons exports to foreign countries," Dundar went on. "Erdogan knows very well that our report was not a lie, and that what he did was a crime. There is no legally binding sentence against me at all — the sentence of five years and ten months was overturned by the highest Turkish court. The whole case is now being reconsidered."

Read more: Turkey lifts state of emergency, but fear of repression lingers 

'Fascist, dictator, terrorist!'

Dundar also described Berlin as being in a  "kind of state of emergency."

"Demonstrators have been pushed out of the city center. There are snipers on the rooftops — in other words, Erdogan brought Turkey with him to Germany," the journalist said.

As Friday afternoon wore on, thousands of Erdogan opponents congregated for various demonstrations in different parts of the German capital. At the largest event, entitled "Erdogan not welcome," protestors held up placards of the Turkish president's likeness sporting a Hitler moustache and chanted, "Erdogan is a fascist, a dictator, a terrorist."

Some members of the crowd held up photos a young Kurdish man who set himself on fire earlier in the week in the city of Ingolstadt, taking his own life to protest Erdogan's visit.

Two protesters hold up posters opposing Erdogan
These two protesters made no secret of their opposition to ErdoganImage: DW/Jefferson Chase

Many of the demonstrators voiced support for Turkey's large Kurdish minority, while others focused their criticism on Erdogan's treatment of journalists and political dissidents and Germany's millions in weapons exports to Turkey. They also skewered the honors, including a full military reception, Erdogan has received in Berlin.

"It's a scandal that this country has rolled out the red carpet for a dictator," said one of the speakers at the "Erdogan not welcome" demo.

Cordoned off by the sort of security normally reserved for the leaders of the United States or Russia, Erdogan likely may not have registered the protests as all. While his detractors were taking to the streets, he was readying himself for an official state banquet, which Merkel and other prominent political leaders have declined to attend.

Erdogan in Germany: Friend or foe?

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight