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Turkey’s leader counters French law with accusations of colonial-era genocide 24 décembre 2011

Posted by Acturca in Economy / Economie, France, History / Histoire, Middle East / Moyen Orient, Turkey / Turquie.
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The New York Times (USA) Saturday, December 24, 2011, p. A 6

By Dan Bilefsky

In a deepening diplomatic rupture, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey accused France on Friday of genocide against Algerians in the period of French colonial rule, one day after France made it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turks.

« Approximately 15 percent of the population in Algeria have been subjected to a massacre by the French starting from 1945, » Mr. Erdogan said of the French dominion, which ended in 1962. « This is genocide. »

Mr. Erdogan’s sharp remarks seemed to severely dent Turkey’s already fraught talks on joining the European Union. But more immediately, they underscored concerns both at home and abroad that Turkey’s expansive new sense of self-confidence — buttressed by its emerging role as a leader in the Middle East — might be tipping into arrogance, threatening to alienate allies and foes at a critical time.

Turkey halted diplomatic consultations and military dealings with France on Thursday after the lower house of the French Parliament backed the bill, which would impose a fine of about $58,700 and a year in jail for those who deny the genocide of up to 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1918. Turkish lawmakers also called on France to investigate its own atrocities in Algeria.

Turkey faces a raft of foreign-policy challenges on its doorstep, any one of which could derail its long-term goal of obtaining regional power status. France, a powerful member of the European Union, has played a leading role in thwarting Turkey’s efforts to join the group, so the latest clash is likely to harden French attitudes even more.

An increasingly outsize national ego, analysts say, had already helped to fray ties with Europe. With talks to join the union hopelessly stalled, many of Turkey’s 79 million people have greeted the euro crisis with barely concealed glee, saying Europe has rejected them because they are Muslim.

Closer to home, three of the most volatile states in the world — Syria, Iraq and Iran — are lined up along Turkey’s southern and eastern borders. Syria is already in a state of civil war, and Iraq seems to be flirting once again with sectarian strife and dissolution. Throw in an alienated Kurdish minority combined with an Iran that erupted in 2009 and is now struggling with economic sanctions and inflation, and the possibilities of regional destabilization, mass refugee flows and even war do not seem terribly remote.

Facing such threats, analysts and diplomats say, Turkey needs to resist the temptation to gloat and swagger. Soli Ozel, professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, said that European and American economic decline, coupled with the Arab Spring, were magnifying Turkey’s sense of its own importance as it evolves into the model of democracy for the Arab world.

« Turks are saying, ‘We are now on the rise, you are running out of steam and we don’t have to take any nonsense from Westerners,’  » he said. But he added, « There is a fine line between self-confidence and hubris. »

Turkey and its charismatic prime minister, Mr. Erdogan, could be forgiven for displaying some vanity. He has overhauled a country once haunted by military coups into a regional democratic powerhouse. He is so popular in the Arab world that there has been a surge in babies named Tayyip.

While Turkey’s economy surges — growing by 8.2 percent in the third quarter, second only to China — Europe is sputtering and Greece, a longtime rival, has been flattened by the sovereign debt crisis. With its new clout as a leader in a region long dominated by the United States, Turkey has also been basking in its roles as the voice of regional indignation against Syria and the chief critic of Israel.

Earlier this month a deputy prime minister boldly lectured Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. that it was Turkey, and not the struggling economies of the United States and Europe, that would win the 21st century.

« The fast fish, not the big fish, eats the small fish, » said the official, Ali Babacan, who oversees the economy. Challenging his host’s boastful tone, Mr. Biden reminded the audience that in a sea of young sharks, the United States was still the whale.

Six years ago, Burak Turna, a Turkish writer, was mocked here as a literary shock jock after he wrote a futuristic novel in which Turkish commandos besiege Berlin, lay waste to Europe and take control of the Continent. Now, he says, the same people who once dismissed him are celebrating him. « There is a new air being pumped into the Turkish consciousness, » he said. But, he warned, « We shouldn’t be too brave or overconfident. »

Indeed, for all of Turkey’s recent achievements, its aim of having « zero problems » with its neighbors has shown few successes.

Turkish officials tried in vain for months to persuade President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to halt his violent crackdown against civilians, before finally turning against him. Turkey has been unable to resolve conflicts with Cyprus and Armenia. Its recent decision to host a NATO radar installation has rankled Iran. Relations with Israel collapsed after Israeli troops killed nine people aboard a Turkish flotilla trying to break the blockade of Gaza.

In September, the limits of Turkey’s appeal as a political model were laid bare when Mr. Erdogan told the Egyptian satellite channel Dream TV that secularism was not the enemy of religion and that Egypt should embrace a secular constitution. A spokesman for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which won first-round parliamentary elections there, told the Egyptian daily Al Ahram that Mr. Erdogan was interfering in Egyptian affairs. (Mr. Erdogan’s aides said the term secularism had been mistranslated as atheism.)

Nor were many Kosovar Albanians amused in August when Turkey’s minister of education, Omer Dincer, asked his Kosovo counterpart to alter offending paragraphs from history textbooks, which he said insulted the Ottoman Turks. Local historians protested that Turkey was trying to whitewash centuries of Ottoman subjugation.

The perils of standing in Turkey’s way became abundantly clear at the United Nations during the annual General Assembly meeting of world leaders this fall.

Mr. Erdogan was on the fourth floor of the General Assembly hall when he learned that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, whom he ardently supports, was making his address demanding full United Nations membership for Palestine. When Mr. Erdogan rushed to the nearest entrance to take Turkey’s seat on the main floor, a security guard refused to let him pass. When Mr. Erdogan pressed forward, a loud scuffle erupted that was audible four flours below.

One Western diplomat noted that « the Turks were literally throwing their weight around. »

Yet Turkey’s many defenders say the West cannot expect Turkey to play regional leader and then criticize it when it flexes its muscles. Moreover, they note, the country is entitled to defend its dignity.

At the summit meeting of the Group of 20 major economies in Cannes, France, in November, cameras showed Mr. Erdogan suddenly kneeling down when he noticed a sticker of the Turkish flag on the floor to mark the position where he was supposed to stand for a group photo, near President Obama.

He gently folded it and put it in his pocket.

Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting fom Istanbul


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