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The Greek Anti-Racism Bill and Turkey

0 Comments 🕔20.Feb 2015

This article is part of our Genocide Denial and the Law feature.

Commemoration of the Armenian genocide at Taksim Square. Photo credit: Lars Kjølhede Christensen

 

by Spyros A. Sofos and Umut Ozkirimli

 

On September 9, 2014, the Greek parliament approved a bill that had been debated and fiercely negotiated for a long time, which, among other provisions, made Holocaust denial as well as denial of genocide and war crimes against humanity a criminal act. The legislation, bringing Greece in line with other European Union (EU) countries and the EU’s 2008 Framework Decision against Racism and Xenophobia – which urged all EU states to adopt laws that punish racism, xenophobia, denial of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes – increases the prison term for instigating hate crimes from two to three years and allows prosecutors to investigate crimes even if the victims fail to report them to authorities. It also imposes fines of up to 30,000 euros for those instigating racism and up to 100,000 euros for groups involved in racially motivated crimes, in addition to banning them from receiving state funding for up to six months.[1]

It took more than a year of debate for Greece to update the legislation, previously dating from 1979, after external (European Commission, Human Rights Watch and World Jewish Congress, among others) and internal pressure. The bill was shelved this past year after conservatives in Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ New Democracy – the main party in the previous ruling coalition – proposed to exclude state institutions such as the Church and the military from prosecution under the law.

The bill seeks to crack down on a wave of xenophobic attacks that have come amid the country’s worst-ever peacetime financial crisis and that were largely, but not exclusively, orchestrated by Greece’s extreme right, including the Nazi Golden Dawn. The party has managed to maintain a stable electoral base despite a couple of high-profile murders – notably Shehzad Luqman (27), a Pakistani migrant who was stabbed to death in January 2013, and Pavlos Fyssas (34), a Greek anti-Nazi activist and hip-hop artist who was murdered in September 2013 – linked by Magistrates to the party whose top members are in jail awaiting trial on charges of setting up a criminal group that attacks immigrants and opponents.[2]

A gateway into the EU for thousands of migrants from Asia and Africa, Greece is thought to be home (or, on many occasions, a way station) to more than 1 million undocumented migrants.[3] These migrants face growing hostility in part due to the country’s struggle through a six-year recession and record unemployment and in part due to the corrupt political system that has provided opportunities for populist contestation from a left and, more pertinently in this discussion, a far right perspective.

The bill was first submitted to parliament in November 2013. In the turbulent debate that surrounded it, nationalist members of parliament have pushed for an explicit inclusion of references to the genocide of the Pontic (Black Sea) Greeks, as well as the Armenians and Assyrians, to the crime of genocide denial in exchange for allowing the bill to be passed. Yet curiously enough, and despite being directly implicated in the parliamentary debates, neighboring Turkey remained largely silent, even nonchalant.

This was startling given Turkey’s notorious stance vis-à-vis genocide recognition and denial bills in the past. The AKP government went so far as to withdraw its ambassador in France when the French legislators passed a bill criminalizing the denial of the Armenian genocide in December 2012. The decision of the French Constitutional Council to strike down the bill was welcomed by Turkish authorities who praised the French Council for not falling prey to “political concerns” in its decision.[4] Turkey was equally perturbed by the conviction of a Turkish politician, Doğu Perinçek, who had called the Armenian genocide a lie on his visits to Switzerland, by a Lausanne court on March 9, 2007. This decision, too, was overturned, much to Turkey’s delight, this time by the European Court of Human Rights in 2013, which ruled that Perinçek exercised his right to freedom of expression.[5]

Not this time around. It has been reported that the newly elected President Erdoğan warned the former Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras at the NATO Summit in Wales on September 5, 2014, that a law that does not take Turkish sensitivities into account will adversely affect the relations between the two neighbors. Yet the 50 minute-long meeting was dominated by the Cyprus issue, not the anti-racism bill, with the Greek side simply arguing in response to Erdoğan’s concerns that the Greek law would not violate international law.[6] The Turkish Foreign Ministry has not issued a press release or official statement following the approval of the bill either. On September 10, 2014, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tanju Bilgiç, said in reply to a question that Ankara registered remarks by Athens that the bill does not aim at other countries, including Turkey, and added that it had closely followed the process and made necessary recommendations, noting it would monitor the implementation of the law.[7]

How could we account for this relative indifference and lack of public debate on an issue that has traditionally elicited strong reactions from/in Turkey? Some commentators have argued that Turkey did indeed react to the bill, pointing to the decision to postpone the promised opening of a Greek minority high school on the island of Imroz (Gökçeada). According to Manolis Kostidis of the Independent Balkan News Agency, the “bureaucratic ‘no’ of Ankara came immediately after the strong reaction of Turkey on the ‘anti-racism’ bill approved by the Greek parliament.” This is mere speculation, however, in the absence of concrete evidence that can corroborate a possible relationship.[8] In any case, as shown above, there was hardly a reaction to the bill on an official level, let alone a “strong reaction.” The decision to delay the opening of the school, however frustrating, is in line with the AKP government’s wavering on issues that concern bilateral relations between Greece and Turkey, like the Theological School of Halki, which was left out of the democratization package of September 30, 2013, despite expectations to the contrary.[9]

It is more likely that Ankara, embattled by its foreign policy choices in the Middle East, has decided to avoid opening up a new front over what appears to be a relatively minor issue, taking into consideration the fact that the bill sets certain limits to the criminalization of genocide denial.[10] It has also been claimed by some media outlets that Turkey has in fact welcomed the bill – albeit cautiously – saying that the law could benefit ethnic Turks living in Greece who have faced discrimination and racist assaults in the past.[11]

For once then, Turkey has set its priorities straight – if ‘under duress’. ISIL/ID is a much more formidable enemy than Greece, one capable of tearing the Kurdish peace process apart, hence destabilizing the country. And yet Turkey has no ambassadors in three key states in the region – Syria, Egypt, and Israel – and is considered to be at best ‘a reluctant partner’ by the West. A sad state of affairs for a country which had been hailed as a ‘model’ to the Middle East not so long ago. One can only hope that the ‘measured’ reaction to the anti-racism bill sets an example for the future and leaves its imprint on how to deal with bilateral relations – not only with Greece!

 

Spyros A. Sofos is a Researcher at The Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University. His published research includes Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe (with Brian Jenkins, 1996), Tormented by History: Nationalism in Greece and Turkey (with Umut Özkırımlı, 2008), Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks (with Roza Tsagarousianou, 2013). His current work focuses on protest politics in Turkey, Muslims in Europe, contentious politics in Europe and the Middle East and the ‘social construction’ of the Islamic State. He is member of the advisory board of Transconflict, a conflict transformation non-governmental organization, and is editor of the Journal of Contemporary European Studies. He is currently editing a book series on Islam and nationalism (with Umut Özkırımlı) for Palgrave Macmillan.

Umut Ozkirimli is Professor of Political Science at The Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University, and a Research Associate at LSEE – Research on South Eastern Europe, LSE. He has published widely on issues of nationalism, multiculturalism, social movements, Turkish-Greek relations, and the Kurdish question in Turkey. His publications include Theories of Nationalism: A Critical Introduction (2000, 2010); Tormented by History: Nationalism in Greece and Turkey (with Spyros A. Sofos, 2008), and, recently, The Making of a Protest Movement in Turkey: #occupygezi (edited collection, 2014), among others. He is currently working on the third edition of Theories of Nationalism, coordinating a project called “In Search of a Model for the Middle East: A Comparison of the Nordic and Turkish Experiences,” and co-editing a book series on Islam and nationalism for Palgrave Macmillan (with Spyros A. Sofos).

 

This article is part of our Genocide Denial and the Law feature.


[1] “Greece Tightens Anti-Racism Rules amid Series of Attacks,” Reuters (September 9, 2014).

[2] See, for example, “Anti-Racism Protesters Rally in Athens after Stabbing,” Reuters (January 19, 2013); “Greek Golden Dawn Member Arrested over Murder of Leftwing Hip-Hop Artist,” The Guardian (September 18, 2013); and “Backlash against Greek Far-Right as Anti-Fascist Rapper is Laid to Rest,” The Independent (September 19, 2013).

[3] According to the EU external borders agency Frontex, Greece accounted for 90 percent of all irregular border crossings into the EU. See Human Rights Watch Report, “Hate on the Streets: Xenophobic Violence in Greece,” (2012): 31, available at <www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/greece0712ForUpload_0.pdf> (accessed November 20, 2014).

[4] “French Council Strikes Down Bill on Armenian Genocide Denial,” The New York Times (February 28, 2012).

[5] See Information Platform for Human Rights, available at <www.humanrights.ch/en/switzerland/internal-affairs/racism/trials/conviction-denial-armenia-genocide> (accessed November 20, 2014). Switzerland asked the European Court of Human Rights to reconsider its decision in March 2014.

[6] “Erdoğan and Samaras meet in NATO Summit,” Bugün (September 5, 2014), available at <www.bugun.com.tr/son-dakika/erdogan-ve-samaras-nato-zirvesinde–haberi/1246594> (accessed November 20, 2014); “Cyprus Polemic between Erdoğan and Samaras,” Hürriyet (September 7, 2014), available at <www.hurriyet.com.tr/dunya/27155899.asp> (accessed November 20, 2014).

[7] <www.mfa.gov.tr/sc–29_-10-eylul-2014_-disisleri-bakanligi-sozcusu-tanju-bilgic_in-yunan-parlamentosu_nun-9-eylul-2014-tarihinde-kabul-ettigi-ya.tr.mfa> (accessed November 20, 2014).

[8] “Greek High School-Lyceum ‘Yok’ in Imbros,” Independent Balkan News Agency (September 11, 2014, available at <www.balkaneu.com/greek-high-school-lyceum-yok-imbros/> (accessed November 20, 2014).

[9] The then Prime Minister Erdoğan made the reopening the Halki Seminary conditional on the opening to services of the two Ottoman mosques in Athens and the appointment of a Mufti for the 150,000 strong Turkish/Muslim minority in Western Thrace. “Erdoğan Uses Christian Seminary as Chip in Talks with Greece,” Al-Monitor, available at <www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/10/erdogan-seminary-greece-turkey-bargaining-chip.html#>.

[10] The bill specifies that there must be a malicious motive behind genocide denial, thereby exempting those expressing scientific or historical opinions from this provision.

[11] “Ankara Says New Greek Anti-Racism Law May Benefit Turks,” Today’s Zaman (September 11, 2014), available at <www.todayszaman.com/national_ankara-says-new-greek-anti-racism-law-may-benefit-turks_358365.html>.

 

 

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