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Turkey and Greece: Return to Sanity?

Ugur AKINCI, Ph.D.


(Thursday, April 18, 2002, Turkish Torque) There are many signs these days that the Turkish-Greek relations are returning to a hopeful and rational platform despite the persistence of such geostrategic controversies between the two Aegean neighbors as "ownership of the continental shelf," "demarcation of the FIR line," "definition of territorial waters," etc. I remember the days in January 1996 when Richard Holbrooke was working the phones at the U.S. State Department until the early hours of the morning to avoid a catastrophic clash between the two NATO allies. Turkey and Greece almost went to war in that month of January over the ownership of a few barren islets off the coast of Bodrum.

The devastating earthquakes of 1999 both in Turkey (August 17) and Greece (September 7) broke the thick ice. Both countries rushed to each other's help in time of dire need. Ismail Cem and George Papandreou, the Turkish and Greek foreign ministers who have met earlier on June 30, 1999 in New York and decided to cooperate on Tourism, Environment, Culture, Organized Crime, Drug Trafficking, Illegal Migration, Terrorism, Trade, and Cooperation in the Multilateral Regional Field, should be remembered with gratitude. They've used the tragic earthquakes as a precious opportunity to soften the iron crust of mutual distrust and foster an environment of openness.

It seems like the healthy seeds Cem and Papandreou planted with great statesmanship and foresight back in 1999 are now pushing their green shoots to courageous new altitudes. Here are some recent headlines:

Cem and Papandreou are planning to pay a "Joint Peace Mission" visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah to act as intermediaries between the parties. I don't think that their visit will produce any tangible results for the Israelis or the Palestinians. But still the visit, even its concept, is a further boost for the Turkish-Greek rapprochement.

Cem and Papandreou leveraged their partnership to a philosophical height by attending in February 2002 a discussion panel entitled "Who is 'the Other?' Does it Really Exist?", the final panel of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC)-European Union Joint Forum in Istanbul. Cem, an accomplished author with his classical "The History of Turkey's Underdevelopment" (which was once used in college-level sociology courses as a required reading) and Papanderou, an equally urbane man who has once served as the Greek Minister of Education and Religious Affairs (July 1994-October 1996), proved that they do have the seminal fortitude that will be necessary to bring the thorny issues that still face both countries (e.g. Cyprus) to a mutually satisfactory closure.

The Turkish-Greek talks on the Aegean issues which were launched in Ankara on March 12, continues in Athens with a Turkish team led by Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Ugur Ziyal. The Greek team is headed by Greek Foreign Ministry Political Director Anastasios Skopeletis.

Turkish State Minister for the Economy Kemal Dervis recently met with George Pashalidis, Greece's Minister for Macedonia and Thrace. The two officials discussed plans for a Turkish-Greek "Eastern Express" rail line. The line, already dubbed the "Peace Train," could begin running this summer, and the ministers also spoke of including an Izmir-Thessalonica ferry line. During the meeting, Dervis stressed the necessity for improving transportation between the two countries as a way to further improve economic ties.

"In the last three years, some 60 Greek companies have invested in Turkey," reports The Economist in April 13 issue. "A Greek bank is negotiating to buy Istanbul-based Toprakbank, provided it gets an American partner, for reassurance."

"In the Turkish town of Edremit," The Economist continues, "separated from the Greek islands by a sliver of the Aegean Sea, scores of locals are feverishly studying Greek in crash courses organized by the Chamber of Commerce. Schoolteachers, lawyers, jewelers, hoteliers: they all seem to be at it, hoping to cash in on a rare burst of business between these two ancient rivals."

Greece and Turkey in March 2002 signed a $300 Million contract to build a pipeline to carry gas from Iran and Central Asia to Western Europe via Turkey and Greece. It was like yesterday when Turkey and Greece were posed as though they were bitter rivals in another pipeline project: the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline. I hope this mutually beneficial cooperation in Iranian gas will extend to Caspian oil as well.

Gaziantep Chamber of Commerce and Turkish Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK) have welcomed a delegation of nine Greek businessmen and their Turkish counterparts to Gaziantep, a city in southeast Turkey. Panagiotis Koutsikos, the President of the Greek-Turkish Cooperation Council, said they were interested to study Gaziantep's developed industrial infrastructure. The Turkish-Greek Business Council's Vice President Selim Egeli said "there are very positive steps taken between Greece and Turkey. Our mutual trade volume, which was once $300-400 million, has already surpassed the $1 billion mark. Our aim is to expand this volume even further."

Yannis Cotantis, the Greek Ambassador to Ankara, recently praised the Turkish-Greek friendship during a speech he delivered on the 2004 Olympics, which will be hosted in Athens. "We now realize how many things we have in common," Amb. Cotantis admitted graciously. [NOTE: I have translated his address from Turkish. It may not be the exact words he delivered.] "We are right now in a very positive mood. Even if we take very small steps, we are still trying to get to know one another." After expressing his wish that as many Turks as possible would visit Athens for the Olympics, he admitted: "If I spoke these words in Turkey only a few years ago people would've thought that it was a joke."

A young Turkish-Greek couple has opened the first Turkish-music bar in Athens. I understand the business is doing very well.

To all this, what's there to say except: Çok Güzel, and, Poli Kala!

_ _ _ _ _

Copyright 2002, Ugur Akinci, Ph.D. Turkish Torque: An independent digest of Turkish/American news, media notes and commentary.

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