Swiss play down Turkish rebuff

Micheline Calmy-Rey was initially riled by the Turkish decision Keystone

Switzerland is refusing to become embroiled in a row with Turkey after Ankara cancelled a visit by the Swiss foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey.

This content was published on October 1, 2003 - 16:36

Turkey claimed on Wednesday that next week’s visit had only been postponed, while Bern declined to comment on the diplomatic snub.

On Thursday, a Swiss parliamentary committee said it was postponing a visit to Turkey planned for next month. The Senate foreign affairs committee said the time was not right for dialogue with Ankara.

The Turkish government withdrew the Calmy-Rey's invitation shortly after a Swiss cantonal parliament officially recognised the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915 as genocide.

Switzerland demanded explanations from the Turkish ambassador to Bern, Metin Örnekol, who was summoned to the foreign ministry on Wednesday. The ministry refused to comment on the talks.

Turkish sensibilities were offended last week when Vaud became the second Swiss canton to recognise the Armenian deaths as genocide.

However, Ankara has denied that the visit was cancelled, claiming it merely requested that it be put back to a less politically sensitive date.

Denial

Kurt Wyss, the Swiss ambassador to Turkey, described the decision as an “affront” to the foreign minister and Switzerland. But he added that relations between the two countries were far from dead.

Wyss said the Turks feared Calmy-Rey’s visit would be used for political ends ahead of Switzerland’s parliamentary elections on October 19.

“We hope that Turkey will suggest some new dates soon,” he added.

In an initial response, Calmy-Rey told Swiss radio on Tuesday that the Turkish government’s reaction was “exaggerated”, and had complicated bilateral relations between the two countries.

"In my opinion, Turkey is completely overreacting, and I would say that we should not do as they have done and respond in an over-the-top manner," she said.

"Turkey’s relationship with its past is difficult and painful, but it’s up to the country to deal with this past itself. It’s not up to us to lecture Turkey, but dealing with the past is part of what it means to be European."

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Swiss parliamentarian Hans-Rudolf Merz was in no doubt that Turkey had made a mistake.

“They should have invited Calmy-Rey to discuss the issue, to give the Turkish government’s viewpoint,” he told Swiss radio on Wednesday.

Merz added that with Turkey keen to join an enlarged European Union, it was in its interests to keep up amicable relations with western European nations such as Switzerland.

Hans Ulrich Jost, a historian at Lausanne University, said he was not surprised by the Swiss government’s low-key reaction.

“When Switzerland has problems with a more powerful nation, the authorities usually choose not to rock the boat to protect Swiss business and financial interests,” he told swissinfo.

Jost said the muted Swiss response also showed that Micheline Calmy-Rey had toned down her political views.

“When she first started in her job as foreign minister, she thought she could play a political role on the international scene,” he said.

“Now she has begun to realise you to have shed some of your principles and come to an arrangement with your partners.”

Strained relations

It is not the first time diplomatic relations between Switzerland and Turkey have been strained.

In June 1993, a guard inside the Turkish embassy in Bern opened fire on Kurdish protesters, killing one person and injuring nine others, including a Swiss police officer. The suspect claimed diplomatic immunity and left the country.

The cantons of Geneva and Vaud have now recognised the slaughter of Armenians as genocide, following the lead of nations such as France and Russia, as well the United Nations human rights panel.

The Swiss parliament narrowly turned down a similar proposal two years ago.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

The Swiss authorities say Turkey cancelled an official visit by the Swiss foreign minister next week, after the canton Vaud parliament recognised the 1915 killings of Armenians as genocide.

Turkey says the visit has been simply delayed for technical reasons.

Observers say Bern's low-key approach to the diplomatic spat fits with the Swiss tradition of not doing anything that could damage its business and financial interests.

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