Turkey's relations with Europe take another hit

By bne IntelliNews February 7, 2012

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Swiss officials have launched a probe into comments by Turkey's European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bagis for denying genocide. The news represents another slap in the face for Ankara, and will only add fire to Turkey's tumultuous relationship with the EU.

Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung broke the news on February 5 that officials in Zurich are looking into comments made by Bagis at the Davos Economic Forum in late January denying that Ottoman Turks committed genocide against Armenians in the early 20th century. The minister reportedly told journalists that the Swiss authorities could come and arrest him if they wanted.

The topic is a hot one, having hit the headlines in January as Turkey was infuriated by France's recognition of claims that the killing of 1.5m ethnic Armenians was genocide. The Turkish view of history contends that the Ottomans were under attack by Armenians supported by foreign powers and the killings that occurred were events of war.

However, Switzerland also recognises the killings as genocide and under Swiss anti-racism laws it is a crime to deny genocide. The country has prosecuted at least four Turks for the same offence in the last five years, including the leader of Turkish Workers' Party in 2007. The Zurich state prosecutor announced the investigation against Bagis after it received complaints from the Switzerland-Armenia group.

Diplomatic comeuppance

The outspoken Bagis looks to be on the receiving end of a certain comeuppance for his "above the law" take on international diplomacy, although he clearly hoped to provoke some sort of reaction.

He remains extremely bullish, reports the Turkish daily Zaman, and told reporters at Istanbul's Ataturk International Airport on February 7, as he left on an official visit to Brussels: "No genocide took place in 1915. I will say this again and again. Such initiatives are null and void for us. I do not know of any power that can arrest a minister of the Republic of Turkey."

The Turks, who recently demanded the extradition of the UK's Duchess of York over the covert filming of the poor condition of orphanages in Turkey, are likely to retaliate, and Ankara summoned the Swiss Ambassador in Ankara on February 6 to complain about the probe. "Can't a minister of a country express his views speaking in another country? It's ridiculous," Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag declared to reporters.

The issue risks antagonising an already fractious relationship between Turkey and the EU now that a country generally perceived as being anti-Muslim has moved against a high-ranking Turkish official. Should Turkey start hitting out at foreign diplomats for their statements to the media, as seems the most likely reaction, it would put the absurd demands for the extradition of a member of the British royal family into perspective. Europe would do well, say exports, to interpret such actions as no more than the result of wounded pride, an eager judicial system, and nationalist posturing for domestic consumption on the part of politicians. It's worth noting that Brussels has been increasing pressure on Turkey over freedom of speech recently.

Another stick in the spokes of its relations with the EU is about the last thing Turkey needs at the moment. Ankara has already clashed with Paris over its proposed recognition of Armenia's genocide claims this year, and has also threatened to freeze relations with Brussels should Cyprus take over the bloc's rotating presidency in the summer.

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