The unusually bitter dispute between European countries and Turkey over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attempts to hold political rallies in their cities is sharply escalating as Ankara releases its long-simmering frustration at its perceived mistreatment by its allies.
After its ministers were barred from giving campaign speeches in Cologne, Rotterdam and other cities last week, the Turkish government stoked the crisis by accusing the German government of “Nazi practices,” calling the Dutch “Nazi remnants,” warning that they will “pay the price” and telling the Dutch ambassador not to return to Ankara.
But even before the blowup over the rallies, Turkish officials were slamming the “double standard” they say Europe and the United States use to discriminate against their country.
The anger over European limits on Turkish campaigning ahead of an April 16 referendum intended to expand the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is another indication of the growing estrangement between Europe, the United States and Turkey, the only Muslim-majority country in the NATO alliance. As Erdogan has moved to expand his authority in recent years and strengthen the role of Islam in his country’s governance, European officials have become increasingly critical of his government.
What we are seeing in Europe now is the rise of the right extremist, almost racist groups . . . shaping the mainstream politics in Europe. This is very troubling, obviously.
Ibrahim Kalin, aide to President Erdogan
Turkish officials say the limitations on holding political rallies in countries with 3 million Turkish émigrés will backfire and increase support for the referendum.
“They chose to take sides on the matter of the Turkish referendum, which is a grave mistake, and the Turkish people are making a mental note of this,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters in Ankara, speaking through a translator. “The restrictions will have the opposite effect, and the people will be even more motivated.”
On Sunday, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte condemned Turkey’s behavior as “bizarre, irresponsible and unacceptable,” echoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response last week.
Yildirim was not alone in his anger. His position was echoed in a series of interviews with Turkish officials in the past week.
There is “a systematic, anti-Turkey, anti-Erdogan campaign coming out of certain countries in Europe,” said Ibrahim Kalin, a powerful aide to Erdogan. He attributed the deterioration of relations with countries like Germany and the Netherlands to the growth of “right extremist, almost racist groups.”
“We are very concerned about this road that Europe is taking,” Kalin said. “Instead of condemning, containing this racist, Islamophobic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigration, anti-minority voices, they are becoming a part of the mainstream . . . and they launch attacks from that (against) Turkey, and President Erdogan.”
Turkish officials cite two reasons for the deterioration of relations: the West’s failure to give Turkey credit for its contributions to the battle against the Islamic State and its willingness to take in 3 million Syrian refugees, and the West’s inability to grasp how traumatic last year’s coup attempt was for Turkey, instead blindly criticizing the resulting crackdown.
In the interviews, officials described last July’s failed coup, which left 250 people dead and 1,400 injured, as “traumatic,” “vicious,” “a huge tragedy,” “an awful episode” and “a nightmare.” Several called it an “existential threat” to democracy that was not given serious enough attention by European leaders, who instead have watched his purge of the country’s bureaucracy and civil institutions with alarm.
Since the coup, Turkey’s government has arrested 41,000 people and purged more than 100,000 from its civil service who it says are linked to cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom they accuse of plotting the coup. Gulen, who has lived in Pennsylvania since 1999 in self-imposed exile, denies any involvement.
There is a double standard. People are a lot more lenient with regard to the state of emergency in France, but the one that they declared and the one that we declared, there is no difference.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim
Nejat Basar, the managing editor of the pro-Erdogan newspaper Daily Sabah, said Westerners who did not live through the coup simply could not see it from the proper perspective.
“The West mistakes Erdogan’s being a good politician with authoritarianism,” he said.
The Turkish government has shut down 160 news organizations by decree since the coup, according to the Human Rights Joint Platform, a Turkish monitoring group. These include 45 newspapers, 32 radio stations, 30 television channels and 19 magazines.
Turkish top officials charge that Europe and the U.S. keep shouting numbers at them without trying to understand the reality on the ground.
“Would you in the U.S. allow al Qaida to run newspapers? Would you allow ISIS to run television networks?” said Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey jailed more journalists than any other country in 2016.
Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag condemned such reports as part of “a perception campaign that is carried out against us.”
He said no journalists were being jailed for their work. Instead, those being arrested are guilty of trespassing, drug trafficking, homicide and “propagandizing for terrorist organizations.”
“Our main problem is when people are making decisions about Turkey, they do not make correct observations and do not resort to true and reliable sources,” Bozdag said.
He claimed that journalists in the U.S. and Europe had being influenced by Gulen-linked groups and that U.S. lawmakers are unaware of Gulen’s ties to businessmen and nonprofits they meet. Europe and the U.S. have viewed Turkey’s campaign against Gulen and his supporters with skepticism, and the U.S. has said it does not have sufficient evidence to extradite him.
Turkey’s government has been on a mission to emphasize the brutality of the coup. The Ministry of Justice hands out large coffee-table books to visitors filled with images of clashes during the failed coup attempt. The book is titled “15 July – Treason of the Century, Victory of the Century.”
Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek screened graphic footage of the confrontations during an interview with U.S.-based journalists.
“You see that? The head is gone,” he said, closely watching journalists’ reactions as he narrated videos of dismembered victims lying in pools of blood, set to a dramatic movie soundtrack.
“The Western world stood by soldiers, not democracy,” he declared, showing slides that inaccurately quoted the U.S. Central Command’s Army Gen. Joseph Votel saying, “The plotters are our allies.”