Erdogan’s New Year’s Resolutions


By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BERLIN — January 1 is always a good time for pledging better behavior. It is a time for political leaders to reflect on the outgoing year and project plans for the immediate future. Turkey was no exception. In his New Year’s Eve address, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that after a hard year, he was looking forward to being a friend of Europe again. His country would like to minimize the number of its enemies and increase the number of its friends, he said. There were actually no problems, he continued, with European countries, like Germany or the Netherlands; indeed they were old friends.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu flanked the president’s pronouncements with a guest editorial to the Funke media group.  After having experienced a difficult year, he wrote, both Germany and Turkey should seek a new beginning in relations which had gone on “for 300 years in friendship and cooperation.” This, he continued, could occur “only if we break through the current spiral of crisis.” Identifying four preconditions for this, as summarized in the Turkish wire service TRT, he said the two must relate as equal partners, and Germany should recognize the progress Turkey has made over 15 years. The political dialogue, he suggested, should take place at the highest level “in trust and, if necessary, through informal back channels.” Instead of “megaphone diplomacy,” and “avoiding populist, egocentric and short sighted internal political aims,” the dialogue should be pragmatic. What was required was a “language of empathy” for the other side. Germany, he wrote, had “not fully realized” the “trauma for the Turkish population” created by the coup attempt in 2016. Turkey would expect Germany to adopt a “determined attitude” towards the Gülen movement and the PKK.

Echoing Erdogan’s expressed desire for winning friends, Çavusoglu pledged that if Germany took one step in the direction of Turkey, his country would take two steps towards Germany.

Tea Time in Goslar

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That said, the two top diplomats prepared to make their way to Europe, for high-level meetings with their counterparts in Germany and France. Foreign Minister Çavusoglu travelled to Goslar on January 6, the hometown of his German colleague Sigmar Gabriel. It was a return visit, as Gabriel had been his guest in Antalya last November. Prior to the meeting, Gabriel’s spokeswoman said he would take up the “whole gamut” of issues, and “not least the difficult issues.” The reference was to the remaining 8 Germans being held hostage as political prisoners in Turkish jails, the most prominent of whom is journalist Deniz Yücel. Though glad that several others had been released, the spokeswoman said, Germany wanted bilateral relations to return to “sail in normal waters.”

The German foreign minister went all out to make his guest feel welcome. Instead of meeting in a formal setting, he received him in his home, and served Turkish tea out of Turkish tea pots in his winter garden. Photos of the event showed a Turkish foreign minister beaming like a child on a birthday, delighted with what “my friend Sigmar” had prepared for him. Later, they took a walk through the old city, where they visited the Kaiserpfalz, an imperial palace complex from the 11th century. In the historic Reichsaal, where a statement for the press had been planned, they took a few questions as well, which was interpreted as a sign of easing tensions. Çavusoglu entered his name in the golden guest book.

Sigmar Gabriel pours tea for Mevlut Çavuşoğlu (Imago/photothek/F. Gaertner)

The tone was markedly different from that of recent months. Gabriel praised Turkey for the contribution its guest workers had made to Germany’s post-war reconstruction, as well as Turkey’s role in current efforts to help Syrian refugees. Press accounts noted that he spoke of “respect” and relating to each other as equals. At the same time, he said the two were “not always of the same opinion” and had differences. Çavusoglu wanted to put differing views in parentheses, but Gabriel made clear this was not possible.

Deep Discord

The differences are numerous and they are serious. At the top of the list of concerns in Berlin is the continuing imprisonment of German citizens, who have been jailed in Turkey for political reasons. Yücel, correspondent for Die Welt, has been in detention for more than 10 months, until recently in solitary confinement, while no charges have yet been formally presented. The Turkish constitutional court is however expected to rule on a complaint presented by Yücel regarding his conditions in prison.

In addition, German government leaders had been treated to verbal abuse by both Erdogan and his foreign minister, after Germany had refused requests that they appear at campaign events for the controversial presidential referendum in Turkey. Both the government and Chancellor Angela Merkel personally were accused of using “Nazi methods.” In response to continuing arrests of their citizens in Turkey in the context of expanding authoritarian rule, and this sort of mudslinging, the German government effected a foreign policy shift. While Gabriel advised Germans tourists to display special caution in their travel, financial institutions cut off precious assistance to projects in Turkey. The negative economic impact was immediate and enduring. Most sensitive perhaps was that German weapons deliveries to the NATO member country had been suspended as well.

Topics: Turkey
People: Erdogan

As promised, all these “difficult” issues were addressed, over tea presumably. The Turkish foreign minister made clear the desire for resumption of arms supplies. Press reports had mooted this would depend on Yücel’s release, but Gabriel reportedly made clear there would be no simple quid pro quo, whereby arms would be exported in exchange for Yücel’s freedom. “I have in no way linked the two things,” he said. The two sides would have to solve their multiple problems together. In the next breath, he said that in the following days, the Berlin government was scheduled to examine in detail the delivery of equipment for protection against mines, for Turkish soldiers engaged in the fight against IS.

Considerable political pressure had been building up on the Berlin government to maintain a principled position. Vice-chairman of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) Alexander Lambsdorff had called for Çavusoglu “to bring the German hostages with him in his plane to Germany.” Green Party leader Cem Özdemir also demanded Yücel’s release saying, “Until that happens, there can be no normalization.”

Whatever words were exchanged in Gabriel’s winter garden, there must indeed have been some give and take, and presumably a good deal of giving on the part of the guest from Turkey. Following the tête-a-tête, clear signs emerged of relaxing tensions. Gabriel said one wanted to suggest to the Economics Ministry that it reconvene the bilateral economic commission after Germany had suspended its meetings in 2016. Gabriel noted that the strategic dialogue at the Foreign Ministry level could also be resumed, indicating this had been agreed upon by the government.

Lunch in Paris

Almost in parallel to the foreign ministers’ meeting on German soil, French President Emmanuel Macron welcomed Erdogan in Paris on January 5. It was the first such visit since the failed coup attempt in 2016, and similar pressure had been building in France for the president to adopt a hard line, especially regarding the repression of human rights activists and journalists. In his first New Year’s address as president, Macron announced to the press that he would demand the release of such prisoners, on the occasion of Erdogan’s scheduled visit to the capital.

For his part, the Turkish leader had made his bid for normalizing relations with France in an opinion piece in Le Figaro. The excellent relations between the two countries, he wrote, had started centuries ago, with the letter by King François I to Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in the early 16th century. But perhaps Erdogan was viewing France and its new president more as representatives of the European Union, and hoped that in his capacity as self-proclaimed EU reformer, Macron would be sympathetic to Turkey’s bid for membership. Erdogan wrote that it was due to France’s “rational policy” towards Turkey that “Europe remains a great hope” for him. At the airport in Istanbul before takeoff, he had told reporters, “France is a country whose views and positions on regional and global challenges coincide with ours to a great extent.”

The other issues on the agenda were regional conflicts (Palestine/Israel in the wake of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem), Syria, and the fight against terrorism.

Following lunch at the Élysée Palace, the two presidents held a press conference, which was full of surprises. First, Erdogan had been welcomed in Paris by protesters, not only Amnesty International (which had taken out an ad in the daily Libération demanding action to defend human rights), but also the women’s rights group Femen, who had greeted him at the Élysée in topless attire, handing out menus featuring “minced human rights” and “boiled journalists.”

In the meeting with the reporters, Macron announced he had indeed addressed these issues with his guest and had protested arrests of teachers, students, journalists and so forth.

“Our democracies must be strong standing up to terrorism,” he stated. “But at the same time, our democracies must completely protect the rule of law.” He said he had presented a list of jailed journalists, drawn up by the organization, Reporters sans frontières. Erdogan’s response was to go on the offensive, accusing the press of nurturing terrorists. “Terror doesn’t form by itself. Terror and terrorists have gardeners.” And to explain, he added, “These gardeners are those people regarded as thinkers. They water terror with their columns in the newspapers.” He warned, “And one day you find, these people show up as terrorists in front of you.”

It did not end there. After a French journalist asked him about reports in 2015 in Çumhuriyet that Turkey had smuggled weapons to Islamist terrorists in Syria, he lashed out, “When you ask your questions, be careful on this point. And do not speak with the words of another. And I want you to know,” he concluded, “you do not have someone in front of you who would easily swallow this.” The reporter answered that he was speaking as a journalist.

Worse than the altercation with a reporter, during which he was visibly out of control, there was the cold shower Macron had prepared: Erdogan’s highest hopes of progress on the EU front were dashed, and announced to the press. “It is clear,” said Macron, “that recent developments and choices in Turkey do not permit any progress in the process of accession to the European Union.” He would be lying, he said, if he were to claim otherwise. What he proposed instead was “perhaps a form of cooperation, a sort of partnership,” which may have recalled Merkel’s offer years ago of a “privileged partnership” rather than full membership.

Erdogan was livid and, again, this was visible. “One cannot permanently implore,” he said, “and wait to be finally included.” He said his country had “unfortunately taken the first step in 1963. And it has now been 54 years that Turkey has been waiting in the ante-chamber of the EU.” Quite convincingly, he stated, “This is exhausting us. Maybe this will force us to take a decision.”

Conclusion: it was not the best way to begin a new year. Sometimes resolutions don’t work out quite as they are planned.

(The author can be reached at

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