Suspicion and Skepticism: Turkish-German Relations Under Strain

"Turkish Press Not Wanted," read the headline, in German, on the European edition of the Turkish newspaper  Hürriyet  late last week. Zoom
DPA

"Turkish Press Not Wanted," read the headline, in German, on the European edition of the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet late last week.

Turkey has become increasingly mistrustful of German authorities in recent weeks following two house fires and a court's refusal to grant press accreditation to Turkish media outlets for a high-profile neo-Nazi trial. Government officials on both sides have now become involved in the spat.

Ankara's relationship with Berlin has long been a challenging one. Chancellor Angela Merkel's open opposition to Turkey's membership in the European Union together with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's occasional attempts to pose as a representative of Turks living in Germany have caused tensions in recent years.

Recent events have put ties between the two countries under even greater pressure. Two fires in Germany -- in buildings housing large numbers of people of Turkish origin -- as well as the approaching trial of the last surviving member of the NSU neo-Nazi terror trio that murdered eight people of Turkish descent in the 2000s have Turkish officials looking with deep skepticism at their German counterparts. And they haven't been shy about voicing their concerns.

Indeed, the rhetoric from Ankara has become so pointed in the last few days that the chairman of the Foreign Affairs committee in the German parliament has warned Turkey to stand down. "I want to strongly warn Turkish politicians to refrain from spinning the wheel of criticism one more time," said Ruprecht Polenz, a senior member of Merkel's Christian Democrats, on Tuesday in an interview with Berliner Zeitung.

Specifically, Polenz was referring to Turkish concerns regarding the distribution of media accreditations for the NSU trial, which begins on April 17 in Munich. The court followed a first-come-first-served system, the result of which is that not a single Turkish media outlet has a guaranteed seat in the courtroom. Given the immense interest in the trial in Turkey -- partially due to the fact that German investigators for years suspected that the murders were the product of Turkish crime syndicates rather than of right-wing extremists -- criticism of the court, in both Germany and Turkey, has been intense.

'Small-Mindedness'

Over the Easter weekend, in fact, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke with his German counterpart, Guido Westerwelle, and demanded that room be made available for both Turkish journalists and for representatives of the Turkish government. Westerwelle reportedly expressed his understanding for the demand but said he was unable to interfere with the court's independence.

The court has also declined to provide a video feed in another room in the courthouse to satisfy the immense interest in the case, saying it would be a violation of court rules. Sigmar Gabriel, head of the center-left Social Democrats, accused the court of "small-mindedness" on Monday.

The depth of Turkey's current mistrust of Germany has also been on display elsewhere in recent days. Following a fire on Saturday evening in a residential building in Cologne, the Turkish government was quick to voice criticism of German authorities. Two people died in the fire, neither of whom were of Turkish background. But there were several Turks among the 13 people injured in the blaze.

Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag, who is charged with representing Turks living abroad, said that German officials look "ridiculous" when they say "five minutes after a fire" that a given blaze could not have been the result of a neo-Nazi arson attack, according to Turkish media on Monday. He also wondered why only buildings housing Turks seem to catch fire in Germany.

Outside Looking In

In the case of Saturday's fire, Bozdag's criticism appeared to be unwarranted. German officials issued a statement after the blaze that they were following all leads in an effort to determine if it was the product of arson and, if so, who might have been behind it.

Bozdag's comments come just weeks after a deadly fire in the southern German town of Backnang in which eight people of Turkish descent -- seven of them children -- lost their lives. Authorities quickly announced after the fire that they did not suspect arson, earning them censure from Turkish President Abdullah Gül as well as Bozdag. Both demanded a detailed investigation into the cause of the blaze. Final results from that inquiry have not yet been presented, but authorities believe that a technical problem was to blame for the fire.

Turkish immigrants were the targets of two arson attacks in the 1990s in Mölln and Solingen which killed a total of eight people.

Merkel has in recent months been eager to do what she can to improve ties with Ankara. Not only has she sought to emphasize her government's concern over the missteps made in the investigation of the NSU murders, but on a recent trip to Turkey in February she also made sure not to reiterate her party's opposition to Turkish EU membership.

Still, the mistrust is not likely to disappear soon. The Munich court where the NSU trial is to take place once again emphasized on Monday that it did not intend to revisit its media accreditation process. Turkish media will remain on the outside looking in.

cgh -- with wire reports

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