Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Echoes of a Genocide: The Turkish prime minister’s anti-Armenian outburst

For all the criticisms that I and others have levelled against the chauvinism of Balkan states such as Serbia and Greece, it must be conceded that such chauvinism has one redeeming feature: it is the chauvinism of relatively small states, hence always somewhat ridiculous. The nationalist posturing of such states, replete with references to mythologised glorious histories, is the posturing of the little man who walks into a bar and brags about how big he is. In this sense, such chauvinism and posturing can never quite compare to that of a really large, powerful state. The threat of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to expel 100,000 ethnic Armenians from Turkey, is therefore uniquely terrifying: ‘There are currently 170,000 Armenians living in our country. Only 70,000 of them are Turkish citizens, but we are tolerating the remaining 100,000. If necessary, I may have to tell these 100,000 to go back to their country because they are not my citizens. I don’t have to keep them in my country.’ The threat was made in response to moves by the US Congress and the Swedish parliament to recognise the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Such posturing is that of a thug who really is one of the biggest and strongest in the bar. At the same time, Erdogan has not only rejected the term ‘genocide’ in relation to what happened to the Armenians in 1915, but denied that Turkey had even every been guilty of atrocities: ‘Our warriors always respected ancestral laws and did not kill innocent people even on the battlefield. I should underline that this country’s soldier is bigger than history and that this country’s history is as clean and clear as the sun. No country’s parliament can tarnish it.’

Erdogan’s chauvinistic outburst proves that the extreme Turkish nationalism responsible for the Armenian Genocide and for the killing or expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Greeks during the 1920s (many of whom were Turkish-speaking Anatolians deemed ‘Greek’ only by virtue of being Christians) still very much dominates the mind-set of the Turkish political classes. It is a nationalism born out of the decay of the Ottoman Empire, in which repeated interventions by Christian Europe on behalf of the Ottomans’ Christian subjects and the resulting Ottoman territorial losses gave rise to a genocidal Turkish impulse vis-a-vis Anatolian Christians, identified as they were as agents of foreign enemies and threats to the territorial integrity of the state. The Turkish War of Independence of the 1920s was at once a legitimate war of national liberation against West European imperialism and Greek aggression, and a murderous assault on the remaining Anatolian Christians that culminated in the burning of the city of Smyrna in 1922 and the massacre of its Greek and Armenian inhabitants. The Turkish victory in that war and the establishment of the Turkish republic halted the Ottoman/Turkish territorial decline, but the readiness to attack and expel members of Christian nationalities remained. As late as 1955, the Turkish government of Adnan Menderes orchestrated a massive anti-Greek pogrom in Istanbul, as a way of pressurising Greece over the Cyprus question, resulting in the virtual disappearance through emigration of Istanbul’s up-till-then large and thriving Greek community. Against this background, Erdogan’s anti-Armenian outburst needs to be taken seriously.

Ironically, Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), to which Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul (who recently won the Chatham House Prize for 2010) belong, represents the moderate wing of traditional Turkish nationalism. The AKP government has improved the rights of Turkey’s Kurdish minority and pursued detente with Cyprus and Armenia. On the other hand, the AKP government has developed a populist Islamic chauvinism of its own, involving demagogic diatribes against Israel, flirtation with anti-Semitism and support for Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s genocidal Islamist regime in Sudan. Erdogan has denied that the latter is guilty of genocide in Darfur, claiming that ‘Muslims don’t commit genocide’. This Islamic populism has gone hand in hand with increasing government assaults on the media, most notably the imposition of a $2.5 billion fine on Dogan Yayin Holding, Turkey’s biggest media group. Meanwhile, Ankara is developing increasingly close friendships with authoritarian states in the region hostile to the West, above all Russia, Iran and Syria.

The AKP regime’s drift away from the West and from Western values must be blamed in large part on Ankara’s increasing loss of confidence in the prospect of EU membership, above all on account of French and German opposition. The appointment of the strongly anti-Turkish and anti-Islamic Herman Van Rompuy as President of the European Council last autumn has only increased the justified impression in Turkey that Europe fundamentally does not want it. ‘Turkey is not a part of Europe and will never be part of Europe’, said Van Rompuy in 2004; ‘An expansion of the EU to include Turkey cannot be considered as just another expansion as in the past. The universal values which are in force in Europe, and which are also fundamental values of Christianity, will lose vigour with the entry of a large Islamic country such as Turkey.’ This is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The carrot of EU membership was a major catalyst for the impressive democratisation of Turkey that took place during the early years of the AKP government. With the carrot apparently unattainable, a major incentive to democratise has gone. The Western alliance is now paying a heavy geopolitical price for French and German selfishness and narrow-mindedness, and for Islamophobia of the Van Rompuy variety.

For all its increasing authoritarianism and Islamic populism, the AKP government remains in one respect a driving force behind further democratisation: it is successfully taming the Turkish military, which has been responsible for overthrowing several democratically elected Turkish governments in the past. The Turkish government has every right to pursue and punish elements in the military that plot coups and internal disorder. Yet there are reasons to fear that the huge ‘Ergenekon’ investigation of these elements is also being used to hound the AKP’s political opponents. The democratically elected AKP government is successfully overturning an old authoritarian order, but threatens to establish a new authoritarianism in its place. In the struggle between the old Kemalist establishment and the new Islamic middle class represented by the AKP, a total defeat for either side would be bad for democracy; the two sides should rather become the two wings of a pluralistic Turkey – like the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats in Germany, or the Republicans and Democrats in the US.

Turkey, in other words, is a country at a political crossroads: between democracy, authoritarianism and political chaos at home and between a Western and anti-Western authoritarianism abroad. It is in the vital interests of the Western alliance to steer Turkey as much as possible in a pro-democratic, pro-Western direction. The alternative is an authoritarian, anti-Semitic regime – either in Islamist or extreme-nationalist Kemalist garb -allied to the West’s enemies abroad.

In these circumstances, parliamentary resolutions in Western countries recognising the Armenian genocide are equivalent to pouring petrol on the flames. Such resolutions are objectively anti-Turkish: many members of the Western alliance, not to mention of the wider international community, have historically been guilty of genocide or of crimes on a par with genocide, yet it is Turkey alone – alone – whose historic crimes are being singled out for parliamentary recognition by its own supposed allies. If the Armenian Genocide is being recognised by parliaments that have absolutely no intention of recognising the genocide of the Native Americans or the Australian aborigines, for example, or the European powers’ colonial crimes in Africa and Asia – some of which undoubtedly constituted genocide or were on a par with it – then Turkey has every reason to view such recognition as aggressive and hostile. Many citizens of Turkey are descended from Balkan and Caucasian Muslim peoples who were the victims of genocidal crimes at the hands of Russia and the Balkan Christian states during the eighteenth, nineteenth or early twentieth centuries; the hypocrisy of Western states that remain silent about these crimes while formally recognising the Armenian Genocide is clear to everyone in Turkey.

The tragedy is that such Western hypocrisy discredits the cause of Armenian Genocide recognition in Turkey itself and hands a powerful trump card to the Turkish government, which has long been aggressively persecuting those Turkish citizens brave enough to speak about about what happened to the Armenians in 1915. Defying popular chauvinism and government intimidation, over 22,000 Turkish citizens signed a petition in 2008 apologising for the crime against the Armenians: ‘My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.’

This growing movement in Turkey to reject the national chauvinist paradigm and come to terms with the country’s historical crimes represents an essential part of Turkey’s democratisation. Turkey will only become a genuine democracy when its citizens are free to discuss what happened to the Armenians in 1915, and to call it genocide if they wish, without fear of persecution or arrest. The tragedy is that clumsy, hypocritical genocide resolutions actually set this process back. As the New York Times reported earlier this month: ‘Turkish intellectuals had made some progress at pushing the [Armenian] issue into the public debate. Ethnic Armenians in Turkey fear that passage of the [genocide]resolution by the full House — which would be unprecedented — would seriously harm those efforts.’ As Turkish university professor Soli Ozel said back in December 2008, ‘If they were to free Turkey of the pressures [of these bills], we would be able to talk about the issue in a more desirable way.’ So long as the Turkish government can present the campaign for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide as the work of the international Armenian lobby and hypocritical anti-Turkish governments, it only weakens the position of those brave and principled Turks who wish to wish to raise the issue at home. As Ergodan’s chauvinistic outburst threatens, there is always the danger that the AKP government, frightened for its political future, will respond to further foreign recognitions of the Armenian Genocide by retaliating against its own Armenian minority. This is quite apart from the fact that such recognitions will only further alienate Turkey and the Turkish public from the Western alliance and push them into the arms of our enemies, and that they are highly problematic from the point of view of genocide scholarship as well.

There is a simply way in which the Armenian Genocide issue can become a help rather than a hindrance to Turkey’s democratisation: instead of passing resolutions recognising the Armenian Genocide, Western parliaments should pass resolutions calling upon Turkey to permit the issue to be freely debated at home and abroad; to desist from arresting, persecuting or intimidating anyone for stating their opinion about what happened to the Armenians in 1915. Unlike parliamentary recognition of genocide, there would be nothing hypocritical about this: the US, Britain and other EU and NATO members do not for the most part recognise their own or each other’s historic acts of genocide, but they do permit these crimes to be freely discussed and debated.

A democratic Turkey’s membership of the EU would tremendously strengthen Western security. But so long as Turkey threatens its minorities and criminalises mention of the Armenian Genocide, it does not deserve membership. Turkey should be encouraged to become a pillar of Europe, rather than an embarrassment to it.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

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Friday, 26 March 2010 Posted by | Armenians, Balkans, Genocide, Turkey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Intolerance that disgraces the European Union

Image: Volen Siderov, leader of the Bulgarian fascist party ‘Ataka’

The recent ban on the construction of minarets in Switzerland, following a referendum, was, in the words of one commentator, ‘a reflex of the Swiss tendency for self-isolation’. It is evidence that, for all its long tradition of prosperity and stability, Switzerland would be a less than ideal member of the European Union, were it to join. Switzerland did not permit women to vote in national elections until 1971;  it was not until the 1990s that women achieved the right to vote everywhere in Switzerland at the cantonal level. We may lament rich, stable Switzerland’s unwillingness to join the EU, but it has come with a definite silver lining. For with the forces of intolerance on the upsurge in many parts of Europe, the last thing we need is to strengthen their ranks within the EU.

In Slovakia, legislation came into force on 1 September of this year that criminalises the use of non-Slovak languages in the public sphere, including Hungarian, which is the first language of Slovakia’s Hungarian minority, comprising nearly ten percent of Slovakia’s population of just over five million. The legislation means that an ethnic Hungarian train-conductor responding to an ethnic-Hungarian passenger in Hungarian or a Roma doctor addressing a Roma patient in Romani could face prosecution. The legislation is the work of Robert Fico’s governing coalition, which includes the racist and far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) of Jan Slota. It was passed in a context, in the words of the European Council’s European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, in which ‘the rise of anti-Hungarian discourse by some political figures has created a negative public climate which has led to an increase in intolerance against the Hungarian minority in Slovaka as well as acts of racially motivated crimes against members of this group.’ Not coincidentally, Slovakia is one of only five EU members that refuse to recognise the independence of Kosova; in Slovakia’s case, because it fears that Kosova’s independence from Serbia sets a precedent that its own Hungarian minority could follow. Since Kosova’s independence was the result of the brutal persecution and ethnic cleansing of Kosova Albanians by the former regime of Slobodan Milosevic, this suggests that Bratislava sees itself as following in Milosevic’s footsteps so far as minority rights are concerned – which, to an extent, it is.

The response from the ranks of the EU has, however, been muted. Fico’s ‘Direction – Social Democracy’ party had its membership temporarily suspended in the Party of European Socialists – which includes Britain’s Labour Party – in response to its alliance with the SNS, but this suspension has now been lifted, the language law notwithstanding. In other words, Slovakia’s mainstream Social Democrats are allied to fascists and promoting chauvinistic, anti-minority legislation, and this is being tolerated by the Social Democratic mainstream in Europe.

The implications for regional stability are potentially dangerous. The language law is poisoning Slovakia’s relations with neighbouring Hungary, which recently dropped its support for Bratislava’s bid to host the Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators (ACER). Like ethnic Serbs and Albanians, ethnic Hungarians are dispersed among several Central European and Balkan states; a reopened Hungarian question would have potentially grave implications for regional stability. Former Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi stated recently that ethnic Hungarians outside of Hungary must always remain a determining element of Hungary’s foreign policy; this sounds reasonable given Bratislava’s current behaviour, but it is uncomfortably reminiscent of the ‘concern’ expressed by Serbia’s politicians in the early 1990s for the Serbs outside Serbia.

Slovakia’s is not the only government in the EU that has promoted anti-minority legislation in order to appease fascist elements. Earlier this month, Bulgaria’s prime minister, Boyko Borisov, announced the holding of a referendum on the abolition of Turkish-language news broadcasts on Bulgaria’s BNT1 public television channel. Nearly 10% of Bulgaria’s population of nearly eight million is ethnic-Turkish, and the minority has a long experience of persecution, most notably at the hands of the Communist tyrant Todor Zhivkov in the 1980s. Borisov announced this move in a joint news conference with Volen Siderov, the leader of the fascist party National Union of Attack (‘Ataka’), with whom his own inappropriately named Citizens for European Development in Bulgaria (GERB) party is in coalition. According to Borisov, ‘This is a very delicate situation and we don’t want the matter being exploited against Bulgarian Muslims or by them. That’s why I support the idea of solving the issue on a referendum as this is the most democratic way.’ He added, ‘We don’t want other minorities to feel neglected. Soon we might have the Roma asking for news in their language’, enlightening his audience by pointing out that Bulgarian was the country’s official language.

This move nevertheless provoked strong opposition in Bulgaria itself, including on the part of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms party (MRF), which is predominantly ethnic-Turkish. To its credit, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, the European parliamentary liberal bloc to which the MRF belongs, then threatened to raise the issue of the referendum in the European parliament. Bulgaria also came under pressure from Turkey, with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan raising the issue in a telephone conversation with Borisov. Indeed, a return to the persecution of ethnic Turks in Bulgaria would further complicate the already difficult relations between Turkey and the rest of the Western alliance. Turkey is, of course, itself long guilty of persecuting its Kurdish minority, something most recently manifested in the Turkish Constitutional Court’s ban of the Democratic Society Party, the country’s principal Kurdish party. But Turkey at least has the excuse that it is not in the EU, and that its patchy human-rights record is partly responsible for keeping it out. Unlike Turkey, some EU members appear to be given an undeserved clean pass by the Union and by their allies.

In Bulgaria, nevertheless, the forces of intolerance appear to have suffered a defeat, with Borisov retreating from his plan to hold the referendum. But while Bulgarian resistance to the anti-Turkish measure is heartening, encompassing as it did the president and the parliamentary opposition, less edifying has been the muted response from Europe. GERB’s adoption of an anti-minority measure to satisfy a fascist parliamentary ally did not, apparently, provoke any opposition in the ranks of the European People’s Party, the conservative Euro-federalist bloc in the European parliament of which GERB is a member. Nor, indeed, have the European People’s Party or other EU bodies reacted much to earlier instances of persecution of minorities in Bulgaria. Sofia lost two cases in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), brought by Omo Ilinden Pirin, the party of the ethnic-Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. Both times, the ECHR ordered Sofia to permit the party to register legally and to pay it damages; while the damages were paid, Sofia continues to refuse to allow the party to register.

Indulgence toward anti-minority chauvinism in the EU is nothing new. Greece has for decades pursued a policy of forced assimilation of its ethnic minorities; it refuses to recognise the existence of the ethnic Turkish and Macedonian minorities on its soil, and persecutes and harasses their political and cultural organisations. Athens has been found by the ECHR to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights with regard to both minorities as regards freedom of expression, association and self-identification, yet has disregarded the Court’s verdicts. Thus, over ten years after the ECHR found Greece in violation of human rights for its refusal to permit the registration of the ethnic-Macedonian society ‘Home of Macedonian Culture’, it has continued to refuse, without suffering adverse consequences from the EU. Greece’s policy of trying to force the neighbouring Republic of Macedonia to change its name is closely linked to its programme of forced assimilation of its own Macedonian minority; the EU, through recognising the Greek right to veto Macedonia’s EU accession, enables this chauvinistic policy as well.

So far as Greece’s Turkish minority is concerned, Athens violates its human rights both in national and in religious terms; it denies the right of organisations bearing the appellation ‘Turkish’ to register themselves, and denies the right of Muslims in Greece to elect their own imams and muftis. Religious officials elected by Muslims in Greece on their own initiative have been prosecuted and imprisoned, over which Greece was again found by the ECHR to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights as regards freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The Greco-Turkish relationship is a permanent potential source of discord within NATO ranks, and as Turkey moves to define a new geopolitical role for itself, continued Greco-Turkish cooperation cannot be taken for granted; indeed, there are indications that it is already fraying. Athens’s mistreatment of its Turkish minority may aggravate an already dangerous situation.

Such instances of intolerance toward minorities, on the part of states that belong to both NATO and the EU, are a disgrace to the Western alliance. They are also a threat to our security. With Moscow pursuing an aggressive policy aimed at derailing NATO’s eastward expansion, and with several states of Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe already concerned by our apparently lukewarm commitment to their security, this is not a time for creating new divisions within our ranks. Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece are all NATO members, and it is reasonable to question just how solid a military and political alliance can be while some members are violating the human rights of co-nationals of other members.

We must bring pressure to bear on those EU and NATO members that violate the human rights of their minorities, and make it clear that such behaviour is unacceptable, both because it violates the principles of civilisation and democracy that underpin the EU, and because it threatens our common security. Before these minority issues grow into regional crises, they should be nipped in the bud.

This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.

Hat tip: Andras Riedlmayer

Wednesday, 30 December 2009 Posted by | Balkans, Bulgaria, Central Europe, European Union, Greece, Slovakia, Turkey | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment