Erdogan at the G20 Turkey Against the World

On the eve of the G20, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan showed no signs that he is interested in reconciliation with Germany. But he has driven away many of his other former allies as well.

Turkeys president Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Bloomberg/ Getty Images

Turkeys president Recep Tayyip Erdogan

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"Your support for more freedom, better protections for human rights and less state interference is for you, Mr. Prime Minister, not a concession to Europe. Rather, it stems from your political convictions. (...) You can depend on Germany's support."

Those words were uttered by then-German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder on Oct. 3, 2004, at the presentation of the Quadriga prize "European of the Year" to Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Schröder went on to say that Erdogan was a "great reform politician" and praised him as a convinced democrat.

Today, 13 years later, Erdogan is president of Turkey. And Schröder's words sound like satire.

Schröder wasn't alone at the time in having high hopes for Erdogan. But now, the Turkish leader has transformed himself into an autocrat. Indeed, in recent years only one thing has been certain about the political situation in Turkey -- that the human rights situation in the country would continue to get worse. And in the process, the German-Turkish relationship has also suffered mightily.

Indeed, Erdogan, who arrived in Hamburg on Thursday evening, is coming to the G-20 less as an honorary guest and more as a problem visitor. In contrast to the past, the German government has prohibited the Turkish president from holding a speech for his compatriots in Germany while in Hamburg. In an interview with the German weekly Die Zeit, Erdogan blasted the decision, saying that Germany was committing "political suicide."

A Lot to Talk About

Officials in Germany are likewise concerned that the summit could be accompanied by clashes between Erdogan supporters and Erdogan detractors. Kurdish groups have also announced they will hold demonstrations.

Erdogan was set to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel before the beginning of the summit - and they have a lot to talk about. Several German citizens are currently locked away in Turkish prisons, including journalists Mesale Tolu and Deniz Yücel. The Turkish president, meanwhile, has accused the German government of supporting terrorism because Berlin has refused to extradite soldiers who allegedly took part in last July's coup attempt and who have applied for asylum in Germany. In addition, Germany is in the process of withdrawing its surveillance aircraft from the Turkish military base in Incirlik because Ankara had repeatedly refused to allow German parliamentarians to visit German troops stationed there.

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How many of these issues will actually be addressed during the meeting between Merkel and Erdogan is unclear. German government spokesman Steffen Seibert has said that the G-20 "is not a summit over bilateral German-Turkish relations." The German government will do its best not to antagonize Erdogan, though Merkel did say in an interview this week that she would address the ongoing imprisonment of Yücel and other German citizens. The chancellor might find the Turkish president's authoritarian path objectionable, but she believes she still needs him to help keep Syrian refugees at bay.

Turkey Against the World

For Erdogan, the meeting in Hamburg is an opportunity to show that he is a member in the club of the powerful -- even if he has largely isolated his country due to his erratic foreign policy. Indeed, Turkey has failed in its attempt to assume a position of primacy in the Middle East. In Syria, the country sought unsuccessfully to topple the country's leader Bashar Assad and Saudi Arabian media are accusing Erdogan of supporting terrorists. Egypt has even called for a boycott of Turkey.

Erdogan is also at odds with the United States over the Kurdish question. Washington sees the YPG, the Syrian arm of the banned Kurdish Workers' Party PKK, as its most important ally in Syria in the fight against Islamic State. Turkey, by contrast, considers the YPG to be a terrorist organization. Many in Europe, meanwhile, haven't forgotten his accusations lobbed at Merkel this spring that she was using "Nazi methods" in refusing to allow Turkish government ministers to campaign ahead of the constitutional referendum -- particularly because he said this week in an interview with France 24 that he didn't regret making those comments.

Domestically, Erdogan's authoritarian chest-thumping has done him no harm and his supporters admire his self-confident tone when speaking to foreign leaders. On the long term, though, Turkey can't afford to go it alone against the rest of the world.

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