x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Nato chief tries to polish image in Turkey

The former Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen attends an iftar in a gesture towards Muslims.

ISTANBUL // There were conciliatory gestures. There were statements of mutual respect. But in the end, the first visit of Anders Fogh Rasmussen to Turkey as general secretary of Nato was just as difficult as could be expected. Praising Turkey as an "important strategic partner", Mr Rasmussen told reporters in Ankara yesterday that one of his priorities as Nato chief would be to build better relations with the Muslim world. He is facing an uphill struggle, as his visit made clear.

For Turkey, the only Muslim Nato member, Mr Rasmussen ranks among the most controversial of European politicians. Not only did he refuse to apologise for the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed by a Danish newspaper when he was prime minister in Copenhagen in 2005, he also disappointed Ankara by allowing a satellite television channel that is considered a mouthpiece for Kurdish rebels to broadcast from Denmark. And he is known as an opponent of Turkey's application to join the European Union.

As a result, Turkey tried to block Mr Rasmussen's candidacy for the post of Nato chief earlier this year and only backed down after pressure from the United States. Mr Rasmussen tried to use his visit to Ankara to counter the perception that he is a foe of Islam. "Please see my presence here tonight as a clear manifestation of my respect for Islam as one of the world's great religions," he said at an iftar dinner given by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, on Thursday. He said virtues such as patience and modesty which played an important role during Ramadan were "universal human values that go beyond cultures and religions". Yesterday, Mr Rasmussen said the iftar had been an extraordinary experience for him.

He saw the invitation as a signal by Mr Erdogan that he is willing to put the past behind them. His participation in breaking the fast was "a meaningful message to the people of my country and the Muslim world", Mr Erdogan said. Still, the memory of the cartoon crisis was ever-present during the visit. Mr Rasmussen was confronted with questions concerning the events of 2005 during his news conference yesterday. He said disagreements like the ones four years ago were normal in democracies.

Mr Erdogan drew a different message from the cartoon controversy. "Drawing on isolated incidents to portray a whole religion and all its followers as potential terrorists, trying to disseminate such perceptions and tolerating such attitudes is, to say the least, a crime against humanity," he said. Current political issues shaping the agenda of the Nato chief's talks proved to be just as difficult.

Mr Rasmussen, who had visited Greece just before coming to Turkey, said frictions between the two Nato members caused difficulties for the alliance in important missions such as Afghanistan. Nato and the EU have been unable to sign a security agreement because the conflict surrounding the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which has been split into a Greek and a Turkish sector since 1974. Turkey does not accept the participation of the Greek republic of Cyprus in joint meetings between the alliance and the EU; Greece and Cyprus have been rejecting Turkey's participation in the European Defense Agency

Mr Rasmussen said Nato troops and EU personnel in Afghanistan could be in danger as a result of these disagreements. The Turkish government failed to get Mr Rasmussen to officially embrace the idea of a meeting between the foreign ministers of Nato and the 57 states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, or OIC. tseibert@thenational.ae