COLOGNE (Reuters) - Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan told a cheering arena of 16,000 diaspora supporters in Germany on Saturday to integrate but not assimilate and slammed German criticism of his response to a mining tragedy, in a defiant hour-long speech.
Earlier in Cologne some 45,000 protesters, had marched against the Turkish Prime Minister, according to authorities’ estimates, some wearing miners’ helmets and with banners calling Erdogan a dictator, laying bare Turkey’s political divisions in the western German city.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had appealed to Erdogan to be sensitive in his address at a 10th anniversary rally of the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD), amidst criticism from German lawmakers that holding such a speech was insensitive 11 days after a mining accident in the southwestern Turkish town of Soma killed 301.
The event also falls a year after anti-government protests swept Turkey, fired largely by a violent police crackdown on a small demonstration against development of a city park.
“A certain type of media here and organizations have been trying to exploit the Soma disaster by insulting the prime minister of the Turkish Republic,” Erdogan said.
“Tayyip Erdogan knows the smell of those coal mines. I have been inside those mines and have walked 4-5 kilometers in them,” he added.
The government was widely criticized for its handling of the disaster. An Erdogan aide kicked a protester, for which he was sacked, and Erdogan himself became embroiled in angry altercations.
The Turkish leader went on to condemn the “lies and intrigue” spread by his opponents, calling this “black propaganda”.
In power for more than a decade, Erdogan has weathered a bitter power struggle with an influential Islamic preacher, as well as a graft scandal he says was engineered to undermine him.
Erdogan has often addressed mass audiences of expatriate Turks when visiting Germany in rousing patriotic affairs with thousands waving the Turkish flag.
He repeated remarks made in 2008 in which he warned Germany’s largest minority against assimilation.
“Assimilation? No. I have said this before and I’m saying it again - we don’t compromise our language, religion and culture.”
There is deep doubt in Europe about the direction Ankara is taking - two months before Erdogan is expected to stand for a presidency he aspires to turn from a largely figurehead role to that of a strong executive head of state.
“Turkey, with its mission, values and its people is now part of Europe and European politicians should see and accept this. The problems of European politics will be solved with Turkey, not by using Turkey,” Erodgan added.
Critics said Erdogan’s very appearance in Germany was inevitably an appeal for support from expatriate Turks, significant voters after changes to the electoral system. He was introduced in Cologne as the “architect of the new Turkey”.
Some 3 million people of Turkish origin live in Germany and 1.4 million Turkish citizens can vote, a number equivalent to the electorate of Turkey’s fifth largest city Adana, according to the Institute of Turkish Studies and Integration (ZfTI).
Under previous rules, expats could only vote at Turkey’s borders.
Martin Schluz, the Socialists’ candidate for European Commission president, repeated his criticism of the visit on Saturday. “I’d prefer it if Prime Minister Erdogan concerned himself with Turkey’s problems instead of waging election campaigns abroad in Cologne. But, we are a tolerant and democratic country in which of course a foreign leader can speak,” he said.
Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk in Istanbul, Michael Nienhaber in Berlin, Reuters television in Cologne, Writing by Alexandra Hudson, editing by David Evans