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Diplomatic tension Turkish intrigue spurs debate over free speech

Turkey's foreign minister in Hamburg, Germany last week

(Keystone)

Switzerland debated free speech but dodged further ensnarement in Turkey’s politicking around Europe when its foreign minister postponed his planned Zurich visit indefinitely.

Turkish politicians including Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu have been speaking around Europe, and sparking protests and controversy, in a campaign to raise support among the Turkish community for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who hopes a referendum on April 16 will cement his authority

Cavuşoğlu planned to visit Zurich on Sunday. The chair of the Union of European-Turkish Democrats, Murat Sahin, said on Facebook, however, that the visit was “postponed to a later date”. He also wrote that “we are approaching the referendum and during this time we have been working diligently.”

Erdogan is courting support among the large number of Turks living around Europe, especially in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, whose Turkish passports give them the right to vote. He wants them to give his presidency broad new powers. An estimated 120,000 to 130,000 people with Turkish roots, including around 68,000 Turkish citizens, live in Switzerland, a nation of 8.3 million whose population is a quarter foreign.

Trouble around Europe

There has been resistance in Germany and Austria at attempts by Turkish politicians to campaign and influence Turkish passport holders who also have the right to vote. Germany and Austria have around 1.5 million and 300,000 residents of Turkish origin respectively.

In Switzerland, Aargau cantonal police decided on Friday to ban Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu from holding an election rally. The Swiss government told the Zurich cantonal government that Cavuşoğlu's visit posed "no heightened threat to domestic security" and there were no grounds to limit his freedom of speech.

The Zurich cantonal government had expressed reservations about Cavuşoğlu’s planned meetings in Zurich with the Turkish consul generals of Switzerland and Austria and with members of the Turkish community. A hotel in Zurich where Cavuşoğlu planned to say said it could not guarantee the safety of hotel guests, attendees and hotel staff.

There have also been clashes with Kurds in Switzerland. Zurich police used tear gas last year to break up an unauthorised demonstration. An annual cabinet report flagged up the risk of clashes between Kurds and Turkish Islamists and nationalists residing in Switzerland as a major ethno-nationalist threat in the country.

An orchestrated campaign

An appearance by the Turkish foreign minister would have been the highlight of a weeks-long campaign involving visits by leading Turkish politicians in Switzerland, many organised by Sahin and the Union of European-Turkish Democrats, Swiss newspaper SonntagsZeitung reported on Sunday.

Already, there have been such visits in places like Basel, Geneva, Zug and Zurich to promote the referendum. There were rallies at a restaurant in Rüti and an industrial area of Baar, then another event with the Turkish ambassador to Switzerland in Gunsberg, the newspaper reported.

Several Turks with diplomatic passports, including one of the highest-ranking envoys in Bern, sought asylum after Erdogan’s crackdown resulting from a failed coup last year. They are among the hundreds of asylum requests Switzerland is processing.

Asylum and free speech

At a parliamentary Q&A session last week, the Swiss cabinet confirmed that 408 Turkish citizens had applied for asylum since the attempted coup in Turkey last July. These include diplomats still based in Switzerland. The Swiss authorities declined to comment on the identities or status of various requests.

Relations worsened on Sunday between NATO allies Turkey and the Netherlands after a Turkish minister was escorted out of the country. That was less than a day after Turkey's foreign minister was denied entry. Erdogan called the Dutch "Nazi remnants."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told Turkey last week to stop comparing the German government to the Nazis over the cancellation of Turkish rallies in Germany. Cavuşoğlu, however, repeated the comparison.

Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter defended the decision not to forbid Cavuşoğlu from entering Switzerland. He told Swiss public radio, RTS, that the basic right to freedom of expression should not be restricted and Switzerland has taken a clear position about this since Turkey’s failed coup.

Another of Switzerland’s top diplomats, State Secretary Pascale Baeriswyl, told Swiss public television, SRF, that “people should express their opinions freely”.

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