Erdogan Launches War of Words

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Turkish President Erdogan has sharply rejected criticism by German politicians who accuse of him of trying to interfere in Germany’s national election in September. His attempts to influence how Turks living in Germany will vote are seen as part of his campaign for the next presidential election, in 2019.

  • Facts


    • Turkey has arrested nine German citizens since July 2016, on charges of supporting terrorists in a failed coup attempt last summer.
    • President Erdogan has responded to pointed criticism from German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel with personal attacks.
    • Despite German government warnings against traveling to Turkey, the number of Germans vacationing there continues to rise.
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“Who are you to speak with the president of Turkey?” Source: AP

On Saturday, Turkish-born author Dogan Akhanli was arrested in Spain at the request of Turkish officials, who had flagged the author to Interpol. Mr. Akhanli was released on Sunday.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized Turkey’s request to have Mr. Akhanli arrested. Countries “must not misuse international organizations such as Interpol,” she said on Sunday.

“It is not right and I’m very glad that Spain has now released him,” Ms. Merkel added.

According to his attorney, Ilias Uyar, Mr. Akhanli was arrested on suspicion of being involved in a robbery and murder in a 1989 Istanbul currency exchange – even though he was initially acquitted by a Turkish court. Mr. Uyar was convinced that the case against the author, who has lived in Germany since fleeing Turkey in 1991 and is exclusively a German citizen, is politically motivated. The author has written about the persecutions of Armenians in Turkey.

Foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel intervened personally to secure Akhanli’s release.

“It would be a bad thing if Turkey, even at the other end of Europe, could manage to get people arrested who speak out against President Erdogan,” said the foreign minister, who spoke with his Spanish counterpart on Saturday evening to prevent Mr. Akhanli from being extradited to Ankara.

Nine German citizens have been arrested in Turkey since July 2016. Mr. Erdogan accuses them of supporting last summer’s failed coup attempt or terrorists.

Tensions between Germany and Turkey have only escalated over the last year. Mr. Gabriel has previously protested against the Turkish president’s attempt to interfere in the German parliamentary election. Last week, Mr. Erdogan called upon his fellow Turks living in Germany not to vote for the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) or the Green Party, claiming these parties are “hostile to Turks.” The German foreign minister described Mr. Erdogan’s efforts as an unprecedented interference in German sovereignty.

Mr. Erdogan's verbal outburst was met with outrage among Germany's governing parties.

On Saturday evening, Mr. Erdogan launched into a personal attack against the German foreign minister at an event held by his governing party, the AKP.

“Who are you to speak with the president of Turkey?” he demanded, saying that Mr. Gabriel should address his Turkish counterpart and “know his place.”

“He is trying to stand up and lecture us,” Mr. Erdogan said. “What is your experience in politics, and how old are you?”

The verbal outburst was met with outrage among Germany’s governing parties.

“Unfortunately, emotionalizing and personalizing conflicts is not a new tactic for Erdogan,” Niels Annen, the foreign policy spokesman of the SPD parliamentary group, told Handelsblatt. Despite Mr. Erdogan’s words, he added, Germany must continue to pursue good relations with Turkey, which includes remaining willing to talk, even during difficult times. “But no one can expect us to remain silent while Erdogan transforms his country into a dictatorship and tries to exploit German citizens for his policies.”

Cemile Giousouf, a CDU member of the German parliament, also bridled against Mr. Erdogan’s interference in the German election. With his call for a boycott of three political parties, the Turkish president is merely drawing attention to his simplistic understanding of democracy and electoral freedom, said Ms. Giousouf, who is deputy chair of the German-Turkish parliamentary group.

Germans of Turkish origin are being used as pawns for Mr. Erdogan’s domestic political interests, she added. “Depending on the situation, Germany is declared either a friend or an enemy. This is a transparent game,” Ms. Giousouf said. The low level of participation in the Turkish constitutional referendum by Turks living in Germany showed that the majority of German-Turks are no longer willing to be exploited, she added.

Mr. Erdogan is already campaigning for the next presidential election in 2019, which is one explanation for his attempt to interfere in the German election. Local elections will also take place in Turkey in March of that year.

Although Mr. Gabriel's statements caused disgruntlement in Ankara, the impact has been minimal.

The German government adopted a tougher stance towards Turkey in July, prompted by the arrest of a German human rights activist. Deniz Yücel, a German journalist for Die Welt, also remains in custody in Turkey. On Sunday, Ms. Merkel said those cases have caused her government to “massively change” its policy towards Turkey.

Germany has intensified its travel warnings for the country, and Gabriel cautioned against investing in Turkey. Although Mr. Gabriel’s statements caused disgruntlement in Ankara, the impact has been minimal. The number of Germans vacationing in Turkey continues to rise. And the Turkish government recently awarded a contract worth billions to Siemens, a major German corporation.

Other politicians want to see more serious consequences resulting from Berlin’s policies toward Turkey. It makes no sense to continue negotiating with Ankara over a customs union, said SPD Chairman Martin Schulz. Green Party leader Cem Özdemir called for a reevaluation of police cooperation between the European Union and Turkey.

Ozan Demircan and Frank Specht reported this story for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: demircan@handelsblatt.comspecht@handelsblatt.com

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