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Erdogan, German president exchange barbs

The exchange of words between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and German President Joachim Gauck is symptomatic of deeper problems in Turkey and its ties to Europe.
Turkey's President Abdullah Gul (R) and his German counterpart Joachim Gauck speak on a balcony of the Presidential Palace of Cankaya in Ankara April 28, 2014. REUTERS/Umit Bektas (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3MW2W

If what German President Joachim Gauck said in his joint press briefing with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and later in his speech at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University (METU) — a school with the reputation of a traditional leftist stronghold — can be classified as “strong criticism,” then the reaction of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has to be classified as hate speech.

This two-day Turkish-German diatribe should not be regarded as merely strong-worded polemics between the two allied statesmen. It is rather a reflection of the troubled course of relations of Turkey under Erdogan with the Western world, and above all with the European Union.

Gauck had raised four questions for his Turkish counterpart during their joint press conference:

  • Did Turkey have to ban Twitter and YouTube?
  • Why was the supreme justice so critical? This was a reference to the recent harsh criticism by Turkish Constitutional Court’s Supreme Justice Hasim Kilic, directed at Erdogan’s government.
  • Will the current government’s intervention with the judiciary, when it has such mammoth power after an extraordinary electoral victory, truly strengthen democracy?
  • Why is the government taking action against the judiciary, and why is it flexing its muscles against the media?

After he asked these questions at the press conference, Gauck touched on some very sensitive issues for Erdogan in his METU speech. In the opening of his speech to METU students, he said, “I have heard that your campus is a place of open and liberal thoughts.” The German president asked his audience, "Please don’t misunderstand me. What I have been saying is not interference in domestic affairs. It is a desire to share equally. What I have said are the concerns of a citizen who has become a defender of democracy after years of experience gained under a totalitarian state.”

Gauck, who criticized the recently enacted law for the National Intelligence Organization that was criticized by the Turkish opposition as being tantamount to turning Turkey into a “mukhabarat” (secret police) state, and also criticized the attitude of the government about the 2013 Gezi protests, added, "I must admit, these developments frighten me, particularly for restricting freedom of opinion and press. Democracy requires respecting others. Nobody can forcefully intervene with the lifestyle of others. To poison the language used in the public sphere and to create an image of hostility will damage the social arena.”

The pro-government media covered Gauck’s visit, emphasizing his remarks with what sounded like insulting reactions to them. Everyone then waited to hear what Erdogan would say in the weekly meeting of parliament. Erdogan surprised no one when he rose to the occasion with his tough response. Responding to Gauck, he blamed him: “In Germany, there is something called ‘Alevism without Ali,’ which is an atheist belief also supported by him.” Then, recalling Gauck was a former pastor, Erdogan sarcastically said, “President Gauck supports Turkish atheists in Germany, a sign that he probably thinks that he is still a pastor."

Erdogan is considered one of the veteran statesmen of the world, holding the title of prime minister for 12 years. But in all that time, he doesn’t appear to have accumulated much knowledge. His advisers also seem to be lagging behind. They didn’t have to search hard for it. A simple search for Joachim Gauck on Wikipedia could have informed them about the impeccable democratic credentials of the German president who was a co-founder of the New Forum opposition movement in East Germany and later fought to expose the crimes of the Stasi secret police. If Erdogan had been more aware of Gauck's experience, he probably wouldn’t have mocked the German president for being a pastor and then attempted to teach him a lesson in democracy.

It was important to hear views on the state of democracy in Turkey from someone who had spent three-quarters of his life under a totalitarian regime, who had been in the forefront of the struggle to get rid of that regime and who for the last quarter century had gained the accolades of “secret police hunter” and “tireless pro-democracy advocate.” Gauck, with his statement in Ankara, also won the hearts of those pro-democracy Turks who are increasingly worried for their political orientation under Erdogan’s authoritarian rule.

Erdogan, while engaged in fiery polemics with Gauck, could not stop himself from making a mockery of his own recent words on the Armenian issue that had a surprisingly positive influence on a wide scale. Erdogan had said, “As a nation that has suffered so much, we understand the pains of all nations of the globe. We know their sentiments. We are ready to look into history. We are ready to understand our joint pains. We are ready to speak without fear, with hesitation, with clenched fists but with open palms. While we want to reach an understanding of incidents of a century ago, we want to see the same from the other side, too. Both the Armenians and the Armenian Diaspora will see our courageous step, and we expect to see the same from them.”

With these words, he is lowering his last week’s declaration to the level of a foreign policy maneuver that seeks to erase the exclusivity of the 1915 Armenian genocide, to equate the historical pains of one side with those of the other and thus kick the diplomatic ball to the court of Armenia and the Armenian Diaspora.

The visit of Gauck to Turkey once again emphasized the unstoppable historical and political downhill trend of Erdogan. Thanks to the visit of the German president to Turkey, the anti-democratic characteristics of the prime minister of Turkey reveal that his declaration on the Armenian issue, despite its surprising effectiveness, was an exception. 

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