Erdogan Invokes Srebrenica Massacre as Dutch Crisis Deepens

  • Turkish president ups criticism in spat over ministers’ access
  • Dutch PM Rutte says comments ‘hysterical’ and ‘unbelievable’

Dutch Election Adds New Twist in Turkey Dispute

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sharply escalated a diplomatic confrontation with the Netherlands, blaming the nation’s “corrupt” character for the 1995 massacre of thousands of Bosnians under the watch of a Dutch contingent of peacekeepers.

“We know the Dutch from the Srebrenica massacre. We know how their character is corrupt from the massacre of 8,000 Bosnians,” Erdogan said on Tuesday in a televised speech in Ankara. He spoke a day after Turkey announced it would bar the Dutch ambassador from re-entering the country in retaliation for the Netherlands’ decision to deny entry to Turkish ministers campaigning to expand Erdogan’s powers.

The Srebrenica massacre -- acknowledged by the United Nations as the deadliest such crime on European soil since the organization’s founding at the end of World War II -- was perpetrated in July 1995 by Serb forces who rounded up thousands of Muslims, most of them men and boys. About 400 Dutch peacekeepers failed to prevent the atrocity in the mostly Muslim Bosnian city, which had been declared a UN safe area.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, in an interview on RTLZ television Tuesday, called the Turkish leader’s comments “hysterical” and “unbelievable.” Erdogan “is on TV three times a day. He’s pumping it up further and further,” Rutte said on the eve of a general election in which his Liberals are being pushed hard by the anti-Islam, anti-EU Freedom Party of Geert Wilders.

“I am angry,” Rutte said. “At some point, talks need to be held. We will not stoop to this level.”

Vote Rallies

Erdogan has a history of lashing out against allies, sometimes turning them into bitter enemies before later making up. He met with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week as the two leaders work to reinstate ties that turned bellicose when Turkey downed a Russian jet near the Syrian border in 2015. Last year, he ended six years of hostility with Israel, restoring ties and opening the way for a potential gas deal.

He’s also become increasingly hostile toward the European Union -- even as Turkey nominally seeks membership in the bloc -- and clashed with its leaders over his strategy to build support among Turkish expatriates for an April 16 referendum on transferring sweeping powers to the presidency. Officials in Europe have been vocal in their disapproval of the plebiscite, saying it would undermine democracy in the NATO member.

Erdogan has been trying to appeal to nationalist votes ahead of the referendum, as opinion polls show the race is still too close to call with an unusually high number of undecided voters. Erdogan’s ruling AK Party has so far only won the public backing of one other parliamentary group, the nationalist MHP.

About 3 million Turks outside their country can vote, though fewer than half of them did so in Turkey’s last general election in 2015.

Putin Pragmatism

Erdogan may be miscalculating if he is expecting to mend ties with the EU when the current furor subsides, according to Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of Teneo Intelligence. Europeans may not turn out to be as pragmatic when it comes to Turkey as Putin has been, he said.

“I think Erdogan has crossed a line and there is no going back,” Piccoli said by email from London on Tuesday. “There is now a real possibility that Turkey’s EU accession process will be suspended later this year, particularly if the referendum produces a ‘Yes’ vote.”

In his speech on Tuesday, Erdogan lashed out again at German Chancellor Angela Merkel for siding with the Netherlands. The diplomatic spat began in Germany after officials there canceled pro-referendum rallies by Turkish ministers. Erdogan shot back, accusing Germany of using “Nazi practices” and of supporting “terrorist organizations,” including the separatist Kurdish PKK group. Merkel’s chief spokesman, Steffen Seibert, dismissed the allegations as “clearly absurd.”

“Fascism that has surfaced in Europe is affecting all Muslims and foreigners in a negative way,” Erdogan said Tuesday. “Europe is a very important continent that can’t be left to the mercy of bandit states.”

Refugee Deal

On Monday, he had accused Europe of shirking its obligations under a 2016 deal that was to stem the flow of refugees from Turkey to Europe in return for waiving travel visas for Turkish citizens. The Foreign Ministry on Tuesday accused the European Union of fueling hostility toward Turks and foreigners in general by siding with the Netherlands.

In addition to barring the re-entry of the Dutch ambassador, Turkey’s deputy premier, Numan Kurtulmus, said his country would suspend all high-level meetings with the Netherlands and deny Dutch diplomats permission to fly in and out of Turkey. Parliament has also been advised to abolish a friendship group with the Netherlands, Kurtulmus said.

“There is a deep crisis and it’s not Turkey’s fault,” he said. “The Netherlands must take steps to mend ties.”

— With assistance by Anne Van Der Schoot, and Benjamin Harvey

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