Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan prompted a fresh outcry in The Netherlands yesterday (14 February) with a jibe about the Srebrenica massacre, warning of retaliation in a spiralling diplomatic crisis.
Keeping an uncompromising tone in a tumultuous dispute that risks wrecking the entire Ankara-Brussels relationship, Erdoğan said a ‘Yes’ vote in a 16 April referendum on expanding his powers would be the best response to Turkey’s “enemies”.
He said the Dutch character was “broken” after its peacekeepers failed to prevent the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of Bosnian Muslims in the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, comments described as “repugnant” by The Netherlands.
Ankara had a day earlier announced it was suspending high-level relations after The Netherlands prevented two Turkish ministers from holding rallies to woo expatriate support ahead of the referendum.
The Dutch ambassador to Ankara – currently outside the country – has also been blocked from returning to his post.
Erdoğan also sparked a new row with Germany late on Monday (13 March) by lashing out at Chancellor Angela Merkel for “supporting terrorists”.
‘We know them from Srebrenica’
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and the bloc’s Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn had urged Erdoğan to show moderation, calling on Turkey to “refrain from excessive statements and actions that risk further exacerbating the situation”.
But far from stepping back, Erdoğan accused The Netherlands of “state terror” in preventing Turkish ministers from holding pro-‘Yes’ rallies and said more sanctions were planned.
“We are going to work more” on measures against The Netherlands, he said. “These wrongs won’t be solved with a sorry, we have more things to do.”
Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus later said Turkey’s retaliation could extend to economic sanctions against The Netherlands, a key trade and investment partner.
“We started with political sanctions and economic sanctions could come,” he told the CNN Turk channel.
Erdoğan had previously angered The Netherlands by saying the authorities had behaved like the Nazis, who had occupied and bombed the country in World War II.
But on Tuesday he touched an arguably even rawer nerve, recalling Srebrenica, where Dutch UN peacekeepers failed to prevent an episode that remains a national trauma to this day.
“The Netherlands and the Dutch, we know them from the Srebrenica massacre,” he said.
“We know how much their morality, their character is broken from the 8,000 Bosnians that were massacred,” Erdoğan said.
“We know this well. No one should give us a lesson in civilisation. Their history is dark but ours is clean.”
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called his claim a “repugnant historical falsehood” and said “Erdoğan’s tone is getting more and more hysterical”.
“We won’t sink to that level,” he said.
Rotterdam destroyed by Nazis. Today w/ Moroccan-born mayor. Anyone seeing fascism there is detached from reality. We are Europeans & proud.
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) March 15, 2017
‘The best answer’
Erdoğan’s latest broadside against Merkel infuriated Germany, which had also last week prevented Turkish ministers from holding rallies in the country.
Merkel’s spokesman described the terror accusations as “absurd”, saying the chancellor had no intention of taking part in a “competition of provocations”.
Germany’s Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere on Tuesday said Ankara was playing the role of the victim with its broadsides against NATO allies, as Erdoğan seeks to “build solidarity” ahead of the referendum.
In response to the controversy, German state Saarland said yesterday that it would ban all foreign officials from holding election rallies on its soil.
Responding to the EU’s criticism, the Turkish foreign ministry spat back that its “short-sighted” statement had “no value for our country.”
But with international concern mounting over Turkey’s relations with its NATO allies, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner called on both sides to “avoid escalatory rhetoric and work together to resolve the situation”.
The move by The Netherlands to block the rallies by Turkish ministers comes as Rutte prepares to face the far-right populist Geert Wilders in a general election today.
Analysts say that with polls indicating a tight outcome in Turkey’s referendum, Erdoğan is keen to exploit the crisis to win the support of nationalist voters considered crucial in determining the outcome.
“Our nation on April 16 at the ballot box… will give the best answer to Turkey’s enemies,” Erdoğan said.
In Germany, there are over 1.4 million Turkish citizens eligible to vote. There are nearly 250,000 in The Netherlands, according to official figures from November 2015.