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050620 - While French and Dutch voters were rejecting the European Union constitution
While French and Dutch voters were rejecting the European Union constitution - with opposition to enlargement in the forefront of their minds - Turkey was handing its army of critics another reason to object to its membership credentials.
Amid allegations of treason and following an extraordinary intervention by a senior minister, Bosphorus University in Istanbul postponed a conference of Turkish historians which was to discuss the fate of the Ottoman Empire's Armenian inhabitants in 1915 and 1916.

The university's decision caused an outcry in Turkey and dismayed diplomats in Ankara, who say the suppression of the views expected to be aired at the conference raises questions about Turkey's commitment to academic freedom and open debate on Turkish history.

The views would have deviated from the official Turkish position on Armenian claims of genocide during the first world war but would not necessarily have endorsed those claims, say participating historians.

Armenia claims that in a deliberate act of genocide Ottoman soldiers killed up to 1.5m Armenian inhabitants of the disintegrating empire.

Turkey denies genocide. It counters that the Armenian death toll was about 600,000, most of them as a result of civil war, hunger and deportation, and that the controversy ignores the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Turks at the same time.

Although the issue has not arisen in its negotiations to join the EU, scheduled to begin in earnest in October, Turkey will have to address the controversy, if only because Brussels demands that Turkey normalise ties with Armenia, with which it has no diplomatic relations.

France, home to a large part of the Armenian diaspora, has repeatedly called on Turkey to "reflect" on its historical record.

The EU believes better Turkish-Armenian ties would improve security in the region and help defuse the dispute over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Turkey's "brother nation".

But Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, which believes its oil riches will eventually give it the muscle to win the territory back, insists that Turkey keep Armenia isolated.

Opponents of the conference, led by senior officials in the opposition People's Republican party (CHP) and at the Turkish Historical Society and supported by the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP), had two main objections. One, that it would not have a speaker to deliver the official Turkish version of the Armenian controversy; the other, that since Bosphorus University is a state institution, its decision to host the conference was a betrayal of the state.

The university buckled when Cemil Cicek, justice minister, attacked the conference and criticised "traitors . . . preparing to stab Turkey in the back".

Mr Cicek, who was red-faced and banged his fist on the podium as he spoke, stood by his statement. But other ministers, rattled by the controversy, said he was speaking personally, even though he is the government spokesman and delivered his comments in the parliament.

A European diplomat said Mr Cicek's speech was "the worst statement I have heard in my years here in Turkey".

Diplomats say the forced postponement of a conference on an issue that Turkey has struggled to come to terms with may yet cost it support in the EU, and among Turkish liberals, who may not even be sensitive to the Armenian case.

"This is a really sad incident," says Ayhan Aktar, professor of sociology at Marmara University. "It will make Turkish diplomacy pay a heavy price."

The pressure to cancel or postpone the conference was "intolerable", he says, after Mr Cicek's remarks and the prospect that hundreds of nationalist students from other universities, mobilised by its opponents, would converge on Bosphorus University to disrupt proceedings.

Prof Aktar says those who shut the conference down misunderstood, or perhaps misrepresented, its agenda. "They tried to brand this conference as one that would support the genocide allegation, which was absolutely not the case." Additional reporting by Daniel Dombey in Brussels

* US President George W. Bush yesterday praised Turkey as an example of democracy after talks with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, that covered the rule of law, terrorism and Cyprus, Bloomberg reports from Washington.

"Turkey's democracy is an important example for the people in the broader Middle East," Mr Bush said.

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Turkey pulls plug on 'traitorous' genocide debate
By Vincent Boland
Published: June 9 2005 03:00 | Last updated: June 9 2005 03:00


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