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Erdogan’s Charm Offensive in Germany is More Offensive Than Charm

BERLIN — A three-day state visit to Germany by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey was supposed to be aimed at repairing relations at a time of a looming economic crisis at home.

But if Mr. Erdogan was on a charm offensive, Germans seemed to agree that, after just 24 hours in Berlin, it was more offensive than charm.

The first thing the Turkish president did?

Mr. Erdogan apparently flashed a four-fingered Muslim Brotherhood salute in central Berlin and demanded the extradition of 69 Turkish exiles in Germany, among them journalists and lawyers investigating Mr. Erdogan’s government and risking prison at home.

Chancellor Angela Merkel was not impressed.

Standing stiffly next to the Turkish leader at a news conference in Berlin on Friday, she noted “deep-seated differences” between the two countries regarding press freedom and the rule of law, and she insisted that Mr. Erdogan release several political prisoners held in Turkey — including five German citizens.

“I have urged that these cases will be solved as quickly as possible,” Ms. Merkel said, as Mr. Erdogan stared straight ahead.

Facing the worst economic crisis in his country in 15 years, the Turkish leader had toned down his anti-Western rhetoric in recent weeks. Only a year ago, he called the German government “enemies of Turkey.” Turkish officials accused Berlin of deploying Nazi tactics, and Turkish newspapers called German companies in Turkey spies.

This week, Mr. Erdogan said, “We want to completely leave behind all the problems and to create a warm environment between Turkey and Germany — just like it used to be.”

But the facade tumbled quickly, as it has tumbled before.

Among the names on the extradition list, which was submitted to the Foreign Ministry in Berlin on Monday, according to the Turkish newspaper Yeni Akit, is Can Dundar, the former editor in chief of the Turkish newspaper Cumhuriyet.

Mr. Dundar fled Turkey in 2016 after he was convicted of treason and espionage for reporting a year earlier that Turkey’s Secret Service had delivered arms to the Islamic State. His wife remains in Turkey and is not allowed to leave the country.

When Mr. Erdogan was informed that Mr. Dundar planned to be at the news conference with Ms. Merkel, the Turkish president threatened to call off the whole thing. In the end, Mr. Dundar said he would not go to ensure that colleagues would have an opportunity to ask Mr. Erdogan critical questions.

Asked whether Ms. Merkel considered it a provocation that Mr. Dundar’s name was on the extradition list, the chancellor was blunt: “It’s no secret that there is controversy in this case.”

Mr. Erdogan, meanwhile, reiterated that Mr. Dundar was “an agent” who had published state secrets.

Though not holding back her criticism, Ms. Merkel was visibly uncomfortable with a joint appearance that showed clumsy diplomacy not just from the Turkish president but also from a Western power that ultimately has to deal with a budding dictator on Europe’s border.

At one point during the news conference, a photographer in the front row slipped on a T-shirt with a message of support for jailed German journalists in Turkey. The man was swiftly removed by security as Mr. Erdogan looked on and smiled.

The newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung described the scene as one “you’d expect more in Erdogan’s Turkey.”

Ms. Merkel stressed that Germany and Turkey, both NATO members, had many shared strategic interests. She announced a meeting with the leaders of France, Turkey and Russia in October to discuss the situation in Syria, in particular the rebel stronghold of Idlib.

“We have a lot that unites us,” she said at the news conference, singling out questions of migration and the fight against terrorism. She also expressed hope that Turkey’s economic turmoil would abate.

“Germany has an interest in an economically stable Turkey,” she said.

Mr. Erdogan is secure in his newly powerful presidency. But the Turkish economy is in bad shape. The lira has come under severe pressure — losing nearly 40 percent of its value this year — buffeted by high inflation and surging foreign debt. As the lira has fallen in value, Turkish companies have struggled to make debt payments.

But if the Turkish president was looking to reassure financial markets, improve business ties and seek political support, he went about it clumsily.

A photograph of him driving through Berlin and making what appeared to be the four-fingered hand sign used among Muslim Brotherhood supporters and used by Mr. Erdogan on previous occasions, was widely shared on German social media.

“It’s hard to see how to mock the values of our country more,” Julian Reichelt, the editor of Bild, said on Twitter.

Cem Ozdemir, a Turkish-German lawmaker and longtime Erdogan critic, put it in an interview with the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “Erdogan has no intention of changing his spots, despite his attempts at a charm offensive.”

Mr. Erdogan’s diplomatic approach was reminiscent of his trip to Greece last winter, which went less than swimmingly — the Turkish leader suggested readjusting borders, even before he arrived in Athens.

The state visit in Germany is hosted by the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, whose role is largely ceremonial. It has been met with a wave of criticism.

With mass protests planned and Mr. Erdogan delegation staying a stone’s throw from the Brandenburg Gate, security in central Berlin was unusually intense. Some parts of the center were blocked off entirely, and others teeming with police.

Large protests were planned for Friday in Berlin and for Saturday in Cologne, where Mr. Erdogan is scheduled to open a new central mosque of one of Germany’s largest Islamic organizations. The group, Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, or Ditib, is financed by the Turkish government and is suspected of disseminating pro-Erdogan propaganda.

Several German lawmakers have said they would boycott proceedings by joining protests rather than attending a state banquet.

Bijan Djir-Sarai, the foreign policy speaker of the Free Democrats, said he could not dine with Mr. Erdogan “while German citizens sit in Turkish prisons.”

Ms. Merkel defended the decision to host Mr. Erdogan in Germany, saying, “We can only work through our differences if we talk to each other.”

But she, too, will be conspicuously absent from the state dinner Friday night.

Source: NYT > World

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