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Geopolitics

Turkey's Erdogan On Campaign Trail - In Vienna

Sure to be the leading candidate in August's first-ever direct election of Turkey's president, the current prime minister is touring Europe to woo Turks living abroad. Not all are convinced.

Mixed reactions indeed
Mixed reactions indeed
Elisalex Henckel

VIENNAThings are quiet in downtown Vienna on this Thursday afternoon. Catholic Austria is celebrating the Feast of Corpus Christi, and everybody else is out enjoying the fine weather. But the scheduled visit of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has the police lined up on the Ringstrasse because they’re expecting anti-Erdogan demonstrations.

Some protesters have already gathered near the Praterstern railroad station. The Turkish and Austrian leftists, Kurds, Alevites and Armenians form a colorful group, but there are hardly 10,000 of them, as announced — more like 2,000. They wave national flags, flags bearing the likenesses of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan or Turkish Communists, and carry placards with portraits of victims of the Gezi Park protests and the Soma mine disaster.

“The sheer breadth of our alliance shows on how many levels Erdogan’s policies have failed,” a spokeswoman for the democratic alliance against Erdogan says from the stage. “Erdogan get out of Vienna” is written in English on a banner behind her. Other speakers call Erdogan a liar, a criminal, a murderer.

A few kilometers outside the city, in front of an ice rink on the other side of the Danube, the picture is more homogenous. People here are waving only one kind of flag: a star and half-moon on a red background, the national flag of Turkey. A couple of men are prone on the ground, praying. Near them, picnicking, are some old women wearing head scarves. T-shirts with a portrait of Erdogan emblazend on them are being sold out of a stretch limousine. Some of the T-shirts read “Sultan of the World” under the prime minister's image.

Inside, in the hall, more people bear more Turkish flags. They are waving them in time to a pop song with a refrain that repeats the name of today’s star guest: “Re-cep Tay-yip Er-do-gan.” His impending appearance also has his supporters breaking out in frenetic cheers every few minutes. “Erdogan is the only leadership figure we have,” a floor leader calls from the stage. When he mentions the Gezi Park protests, the cheers turn to boos.

When the “Sultan of the World” finally walks into the hall, followers throw roses in his path. Literally. He waves to the crowd, greets the dignitaries in the first row, then sits down next to his wife, who is veiled in black.

“Turkey is proud of you,” the 7,000 people in the hall cry out two, three, four times. First, the moderator greets the guest of honor. Then Abdurrahman Karayazili, head of the Vienna branch of the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD), takes the floor. His organization invited “private citizen” Erdogan to participate in the 10th anniversary of its founding. The UETD is considered the foreign arm of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), although Karayazili vehemently denies this. He also denies that Erdogan's trip to Vienna — and travels to Cologne in late May and an impending trip to Lyon — are actually meant to scare up votes among Turks living abroad for the presidential elections coming up in August.

The “sultan” speaks

Ninety minutes later than scheduled, the Turkish prime minister appears on stage. He thanks Austria for its hospitality. He condemns the “campaign” that preceded his appearance in Cologne. He says he does not interfere with German or Austrian domestic politics. “My only goal is you!”

He describes how well the “new Turkey” has emerged through the crisis, and says that nobody should fear Turkey. He mentions the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Then he invokes Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the Ottoman Empire whose territorial conquests in Europe were checked by the Siege of Vienna in 1529. “We are all his grandchildren,” Erdogan shouts amid public cheers.

At the high point of the speech, Erdogan launches into his familiar credo, “Assimilation no, integration yes!” and then calls on his audience to vote in August. He closes with the words, “We are all brothers and sisters.” The crowd waves their flags one last time, then leaves the hall to cheer the motorcade they assume is driving Erdogan away.

Foreign minister meetup

Less than 100 meters from here, the bright flags of the anti-Erdogan protesters come into view. Their numbers reportedly reached 6,000 before they left Praterstern and headed for the ice rink. The march across the Danube bridge is relatively peaceful. So that things stay that way, the police have barricaded the street between Erdogan’s friends and Erdogan’s enemies. The mood turns tense.

By now German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has arrived in the inner city. His Austrian counterpart Sebastian Kurz met him at the airport and intended — while Erdogan was being cheered at the ice rink — to speak with him about Ukraine and Russia, about Putin’s visit to Vienna next week, and perhaps too about the German government’s toll plans.

Steinmeier makes a passing reference to Turkey in the context of Iraq. “We are interested in knowing if Turkey plays a role in the conflict and, if so, what role,” he says. He will be meeting the next day with Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu. Turkish officials had said they were examining the requirements for military intervention against Islamists in Iraq after they took 80 Turkish citizens hostage.

All governments in the region must help deescalate the situation, Steinmeier warns. Erdogan once perceived Turkey’s role in the Middle East as the great problem solver, and yet his government tolerated Islamists in the border area between Syria and Turkey — and in so doing contributed to strengthening their position.

The two foreign ministers intend to spend their evening at a Heuriger (wine tavern) in Grinzing, the wine country within city bounds. “Just the two of them,” as a spokesperson makes clear. “Private citizen” Erdogan will be meeting with the Austrian foreign minister the next day and “on neutral ground.”

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