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Turkey/Greece: diplomatic visit paves way for breakthroughs 30 janvier 2008

Posted by Acturca in South East Europe / Europe du Sud-Est, Turkey / Turquie.
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Inter Press Service, 29 janvier 2008

Analysis by Hilmi Toros, Istanbul

For the first time in half a century, a Greek head of government has paid an official visit to Turkey: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Greek counterpart Costas Karamanlis recently attempted to solve their old disputes.

In the end, the Mediterranean neighbors decided that they need more time to become the best of friends. In the meantime, they are looking to business leaders, artists and civil society groups to lay the groundwork for politicians to build bridges.

The two leaders announced their good intentions but did not hammer out a single accord in their long-running disputes. But the fact that the Jan. 24-26 visit took place at all, and went without any public hitch, is itself considered a success.

Personally, Erdogan and Karamanlis are seen as friends: Karamanlis attended the wedding of Erdogan’s daughter two years ago. They may be ready for breakthroughs.

And the people of Greece and Turkey, moody as they are, may be ready too, save the ultra-nationalists on both sides. It was after all the people who initiated and politicians who followed a surprising détente — the « seismic diplomacy » as it has come to be called.

Greeks rushed to aid Turks after a devastating earthquake near Istanbul in August 1999, and Turkish volunteers reciprocated when a tremor hit Greece a month later.

Also in 1999, in a strategic policy switch, Greece backed Turkey’s bid to become the first large Muslim member of the European Union.

« Greece sees it in its national interest to have a Turkey obliged to EU norms rather than a more bellicose one left outside, » analyst Necdet Kivanc said.

For decades, the two nations, though allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have nevertheless viewed each other as enemies.

To Greeks, Turks were « expansionists. » They lost Istanbul — Greeks still refer to it by its former Greek name, Constantinople — and the seat of their Orthodox Church in the 15th century to the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of modern Turkey. Greece later won its independence through a struggle with the same Empire.

Turkish nationalist policies later reduced a bustling Greek community in Istanbul from 500,000 at the beginning of the 20th century to a mere 2,000 now.

Turks, who outnumber Greeks 70 million to 10 million, and with a significant advantage in military might, have different concerns.

The Turks fought the Greeks in the 1920s when the Turkish Republic came into being from the ashes of the crumbling Ottoman Empire.

At most, Turks regret losing a slew of islands in the Aegean Sea (among them Crete and Rhodes) after Italians, who had taken them over from the Ottoman Empire, ceded them to Greece. Turks also recall remarks in the Greek media characterizing them as « barbarians » and « uncivilized. »

Turks also recall that Greece harbored Turkey’s arch enemy, Abdullah Ocalan, the fleeing head of the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, before his capture in 2001 and conviction to a life term in Turkey.

Amid strained relations, the two countries were on the brink of war as recently as 1996, when both laid claim to two islets in the Aegean Sea. International pressure forced their navies to distance themselves.

The two countries still disagree over territorial waters and the continental shelf with its potential riches. Turkey holds the option that if Greece expands its territorial waters around its islands in the Aegean and Mediterranean, some within sight of Turkey and far from the Greek mainland, it would consider it « causus belli » — reason for war.

The burning controversy, in which coast guard vessels of both countries still face each other, was hardly referred to during Karamanlis’s visit. Neither were disputes over flights by the Turkish Air Force in airspace it considers its own over the Aegean.

No accord was reached on such issues, but Erdogan noted that progress could be expected on two outstanding issues — the status of the Greek Patriarch in Istanbul, and the re-opening of a seminary on an island off the city.

While the patriarch is considered to be the head of an estimated 300 million Orthodox followers around the world, Turks accept him as head of the small Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul rather than a universal and ecumenical head. They fear that global recognition could lead the way to the setting up of a Vatican-like city-state within Istanbul.

The seminary on the island was closed in 1971 when religious training was put under control of the government. The church complains of a shortage of priests since the closure.

« We will need to see the issue differently and rethink it, » Turkish foreign minister Ali Babacan was quoted as saying in the Turkish media.

No headway was reported concerning Cyprus; the island is still divided between the south, an EU member, and a self-proclaimed Turkish republic in the north recognized only by Turkey. Turkey invaded northern Cyprus in 1974, when a coup inspired by the military junta in Greece overturned the Cyprus government to unite the island with Greece.

Nevertheless both leaders voiced support for increased trade between the two countries. It has already gone up from $200 million in 1999 to $3 billion last year. More joint ventures abroad are being encouraged. A natural gas pipeline is to link Turkey and Greece, carrying methane from Azerbaijan to Europe. And, in a transaction that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, the National Bank of Greece bought controlling interest in Finans Bank, a leading private bank in Turkey.

« Cooperation in the economic field opens the way for further rapprochement between the two countries and helps repair damage caused by friction and tension, » Karamanlis told a gathering of Greek and Turkish businessmen before his departure.

« The cooperation of businesses, institutions and NGOs is pushing politicians forward to cooperate and create common policies, » Erdogan said.

Economics has long been a useful tool in overcoming enmity. The European Coal and Steel Community linked together France and Germany along with four other nations barely five years after the end of World War II. That eventually made way for the European Union.

And like business ventures, sports and the arts can build bridges, as well. Turks celebrated the Greek football victory at the European Cup four years ago. A jointly made television series about a Greek man married to a Turkish woman was a hit in both countries. Cultural exchanges are deepening, pushed by civil society organizations.

« Apart from their religion, Turks and Greeks are similar, » said Yavuz Kemal, a restaurant owner in Istanbul who often visits Greece. « We look alike, act alike, eat alike, fight alike, and love and hate alike. I love them — as long as we don’t talk politics. »

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