Swiss Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin has begun his weeklong trip to Turkey by approving a cultural goods treaty between the two countries.This content was published on February 5, 2007 - 15:37
But the visit looks set to be overshadowed by the "Armenian question" – whether Armenians suffered genocide at the hands of Turks almost 100 years ago. Couchepin said he would raise the issue.
Couchepin, who holds the culture portfolio, met Atilla Koç, the Turkish minister for culture and tourism, in Ankara on Monday and the pair agreed to pursue an accord aimed at returning cultural goods.
Turkey has many significant classical antiques, from the Byzantine era as well as modern times. Switzerland is the world's fourth-largest art trade hub – behind the United States, Britain and France – with a market worth SFr1.5 billion ($1.2 billion).
Couchepin is also set to meet the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other ministers on Tuesday.
He will then spend two days in the southeastern part of the country, populated mostly by Kurds, where he will meet local dignitaries and visit projects supported by Switzerland. On Friday, he will attend a meeting with Turkish intellectuals.
Couchepin is visiting Turkey at a tense time. On January 19 Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian editor who wrote articles referring to a "genocide" of Armenians, was murdered in Istanbul by an ultra-nationalist Turk.
Armenians say Ottoman Turks slaughtered up to 1.8 million Armenians in a planned genocide between 1915 and 1919. Turkey vehemently denies that the mass killings were genocide, saying the death toll is inflated and Armenians were killed in civil unrest as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.
In an interview on Swiss radio on Sunday, Couchepin said the topic would be brought up in the course of his visit, adding that the Swiss government's position was clear: "History should be left to the historians".
He said an important step would be the creation of an international commission that would "examine the issues and look for the causes of the events of that time – including the massacre".
The Swiss government does not officially speak of genocide.
Previous visits by Swiss politicians to Turkey have hardly gone smoothly – if at all.
On an official visit in October to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Turkey's adoption of the Swiss civil code, Swiss Justice Minister Christoph Blocher attacked Swiss anti-racism laws that have led to investigations against two Turks for denying the 1915 massacre.
Blocher's comments raised a storm of protest in Switzerland and Couchepin described them as "unacceptable".
In August 2005 the Turkish authorities postponed a visit by the then economics minister, Joseph Deiss, citing "agenda problems" of his Turkish counterpart, although it was widely considered in Switzerland that the real cause for the postponement was the Armenian genocide issue.
Ankara had criticised Swiss authorities for opening an investigation into Doğu Perinçek, head of the Turkish Workers' Party who denied the Armenian genocide at a news conference in canton Zurich in July 2005.
A cultural goods treaty with Turkey is the latest in a series of measures by Switzerland to combat trafficking in stolen antiquities.
In December Couchepin signed an accord with Peru aimed at returning stolen goods, particularly archaeological artefacts, and in October Switzerland and neighbouring Italy agreed a similar deal against the traffic of illicit goods.
The authorities say the measures have already boosted Switzerland's standing as a place for dealing in art and antiquities.
Previously the country had gained an unwelcome reputation as a transit point for stolen artefacts because of its previous reluctance to tighten its laws on the transfer of cultural goods.
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The historical interpretation of the deaths or deportations of between 800,000 and 1.8 million Armenians between 1915 and 1919 has caused tensions between Turkey and many European countries.
The killings have been recognised as genocide by the parliaments of several countries, including France, Russia and Italy.
The European Parliament recognised it in 1987.
The Swiss House of Representatives followed suit in 2003, but the Senate did not.
The Swiss government does not officially speak of "genocide", but of "mass deportation" and "massacre".
There are 80,000 Turks living in Switzerland and 6,000 people with Armenian roots.
In 2004, Swiss exports to Turkey were worth SFr1.9 billion ($1.45 billion), 17% more than in 2003.
Among Swiss firms established in Turkey are Novartis, Nestlé, ABB, Ciba, Roche, Givaudan and Syngenta.
Cultural goods law
1962: Switzerland ratified The Hague convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict.
October 2003: Swiss ratification of the 1970 Unesco convention against illegal trafficking of cultural property.
June 2005: New legislation, approved by parliament in 2003, comes into effect in Switzerland in line with the Unesco convention obliging art dealers and auction houses to identify customers. Foreign owners of stolen artwork now have 30 years to claim it back.
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