Switzerland and Turkey strive to improve ties

Switzerland and Turkey find common ground Keystone

Swiss cabinet ministers have lined up to visit Turkey this year, signalling rapprochement after the issue of the Armenian massacre in particular had strained ties.

This content was published on November 19, 2008 - 13:35

The sea change since 2005 has been remarkable. Concerns about human rights have been replaced with warm words and close cooperation, a Swiss newspaper correspondent tells swissinfo.

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey visited Turkey at the end of October, followed by President Pascal Couchepin in mid November.

This week Economics Minister Doris Leuthard takes her turn and Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf is scheduled to travel to Turkey at the end of the year.

Back in 2003 it all looked very different. The cantonal parliament of Vaud decided to recognise as genocide the killing of more than 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, at the beginning of the 20th century.

Geneva and the Swiss House of Representatives followed suit. In response, Ankara withdrew an invitation for Calmy-Rey to visit the country. But she eventually made the trip in March 2005.

The then foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, was the next to be snubbed. Turkey cancelled his visit, planned for September 2005, against the backdrop of a case in Switzerland involving a Turkish politician and a Turkish historian accused of publicly denying genocide against the Armenians.

But it was not only the Armenian question that proved to be a large stumbling block in relations between the two countries, explains Amalia van Gent, an expert on Turkey and correspondent for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper.

"The Kurdish question was also a big problem," she told swissinfo. "Calmy-Rey evidently showed she was very friendly towards the Kurds in 2003."

Understanding for Turkey

Then came the turnaround. "In 2006 Blocher [Justice Minister Christoph Blocher, a member of the rightwing Swiss People's Party] was there and he showed understanding for Turkey on these two issues."

"Blocher criticised Swiss anti-racist laws under which the two Turks had been found guilty in Switzerland of denying the genocide. While his statements were welcomed by his Turkish hosts, he was harshly criticised in Switzerland."

"The cabinet regretted that Justice Minister Blocher chose to launch debate on the anti-racism legislation abroad, in Ankara."

At the time, Blocher described his visit as a "giant step" towards improving strained relations between the two countries.

On the sidelines of a World Economic Forum meeting this autumn in Istanbul, Foreign Minister Calmy-Rey met her Turkish counterpart Ali Babacan for bilateral talks.

PKK restrictions

Shortly before Couchepin's visit to Turkey earlier this month, the cabinet decided to restrict the activities of the militant Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK).

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül thanked the Swiss president for this move during his visit.

"Couchepin also strengthened the position of Turkey in the Armenian question, by agreeing that historians should decide whether the tragic events of 1915 should be termed genocide or not. For the Armenians it is a political question and less a question of history," van Gent said.

Swiss economic interests are a priority in Turkey, the newspaper correspondent says.

Bridge for exports

"Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey is being seen by Western European countries as a bridge for industry exports to Central Asia or the Middle East. That also applies to the Swiss pharmaceutical industry."

Turkey is considered a corridor for oil and gas routes from Central Asia to Western Europe. "A pipeline has already been built and now there is a second one planned from Iran via Turkey to Western Europe, in which Switzerland is interested."

The Laufenburg trading company, which signed a controversial gas deal with Iran in March, is involved in the Trans Adriatic Pipeline project.

"Then there is the Ilisu dam, a delicate issue, because the people living in the affected region are clearly against it." Switzerland is in favour of the project but Turkey must first meet a number of conditions agreed on regarding the environment and the resettlement of the population.

Switzerland, Germany and Austria announced in October that they would withdraw export risk guarantees for construction companies if this did not happen.

A declaration of love

With the visit of President Couchepin earlier this month, Switzerland marked the 80th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Bern and Ankara.

Couchepin called Turkey a "central strategic partner". Since he has been a member of the Swiss government the "mutual distrust has decreased" and has now "disappeared", he said.

Couchepin said before his departure that he loved the country (Turkey) more and more. He made the remark despite the fact that the Turkish government is currently abandoning its relatively liberal Kurdish policy and is today striking a hard nationalistic tone, van Gent explains.

"A worsening of the situation is unfortunately to be expected."

swissinfo, based on an article in German by Jean-Michel Berthoud

Key facts

In 2007, Swiss exported goods to Turkey valued at SFr2.64 billion ($2.19 billion).
The main exports from Switzerland are pharmaceuticals, chemicals and machines.
Imports from Turkey totalled SFr859.3 million in 2007.
72,633 people from Turkey lived in Switzerland in 2007 (Federal Migration Office figure). About 1,500 Swiss live in Turkey.

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Between 1915 and 1917, more than 1.5 million Armenians were killed during deportations from the Ottoman Empire – the forerunner of modern Turkey.

Many states, including France, the United States, Russia and Italy, as well as the European Parliament and the majority of historians, have labelled the crimes genocide. Turkey rejects the word and speaks of a lower number of victims.

In Switzerland, the cantons of Vaud and Geneva, and the Swiss House of Representatives have recognised genocide of Armenians. It has not been recognised by the federal government or the Senate.

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