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Greece/Turkey: Relations Improving Between Long-Time Enemies

By Alexis Papasotiriou and Gokalp Bayramli

Last month's earthquake in Turkey moved many Greeks to put aside their historic enmity with Turks and mobilize aid. Greece and Turkey have long been at odds over a range of issues -- from disputes over air space and territorial waters to the sovereignty of Aegean Sea islands and the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Turkey is now returning the favor by sending its own rescue teams to help Athens dig out from the strong quake that struck the capital yesterday. Our correspondents in Athens and Istanbul report on the ramifications of this warming of relations.

Istanbul/Athens, 8 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- At a summit meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Finland last week, Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou told reporters that there is now what he called an "amazing climate" between the people of Greece and Turkey.

In a significant change of policy, Papandreou said Greece now supports granting Turkey -- its longtime adversary -- the status of a candidate for European Union membership, provided it meets the EU's criteria. Papandreou told reporters that Greece now believes it is in its own interest to see Turkey move closer to Europe.

The new Greek position follows 20 years in which successive governments in Athens maintained hostile relations with Turkey.

The improvement in relations began earlier this year, during NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia, when Papandreou quietly set about establishing better contacts between Greek and Turkish officials on security issues.

Earlier this summer, talks between the two countries began on a more formal basis on non-controversial issues, such as tourism, trade, and the environment. It was hoped that agreements on minor issues would lead to agreements on more important issues.

Papandreou then made a controversial statement concerning the right of self-determination for the Turkish minority in Greece, an idea warmly received in Ankara.

And then a massive earthquake struck Turkey in mid-August, killing more than 15,000 people. Greece was one of the first countries to send aid and rescuers to its traditional enemy, a gesture highlighted in the Turkish press. Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem said Papandreou had been the first person to call him and offer assistance.

In thanks, Turkey today sent its own search-and-rescue team to Athens to help Greek authorities search for survivors of yesterday's strong earthquake, which measured 5.9 on the Richter scale. At least 40 people are dead. Turkish President Suleyman Demirel said yesterday that Ankara will help Greece in any way possible. He expressed the "deep sorrow" of the Turkish people.

Our correspondent in Istanbul spoke with Turkish political analyst Ilter Turan about the improvement in relations. Turan says he has seen a remarkable change in style in Greek public policy toward Turkey. He said Papandreou's statements fit very well with the EU's desire to see a partnership created through bilateral concessions:

"From this point of view, Greece has made a successful change of style. But you cannot be sure whether this change of style will bring changes in the results. I think the new government is able to say 'no' very masterly. But I don't think that they are totally dishonest in their statements. It is possible to assume the following: to share borders with a Turkey that is outside the European Union and has a hostile relationship with the [EU] would be one of the biggest disasters that could happen to Greece."

Turkish relations with the EU have been frozen since the EU refused two years ago to make Turkey a candidate for membership, because of the country's poor human-rights record and its thorny relations with Greece.

EU leaders are due to review the process of enlargement at a December summit in Helsinki. Support for Turkey's eventual membership appears to be growing among EU countries. And Turan said he expects that what he called a "road map" for Ankara's full membership could be drawn up at the summit.

Turan said, however, that there is a danger of using such a road map to disguise a lack of determination of accepting Turkey as a future EU member:

"Considering the road map, I personally have the fear that everybody will add stops and waiting points to this map. This could become a road that will get longer and longer as you proceed. I am not sure about whether Europe has reached the full determination to integrate Turkey into its own system."

Thanassis Platias is a professor of political science at Panteios University's Institute of International Relations in Athens. Platias also credits Papandreou's approach to improving relations with much of the progress that has been made.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL's correspondent in Athens, Platias outlined Papandreou's logic in the following way: "Some things unite us with Turkey, and some things lead us to conflict," Platias said. "George Papandreou tried to put the conflicts aside and bring the common interests together."

In what Platias called an "environment-shaping strategy," he said Papandreou is trying to strengthen Turkey's relations with Europe. As Platias pointed out, "It is in Greece's interest that Turkey enter European institutions. Greece wants a democratic, European and capitalist Turkey that will take part in the globalization process competitively."

But Platias said Turkey must overcome its desire to get the better of any accord with Greece. Turkey, he said, always seems to want the lion's share of any agreement that is reached.

Platias said he is concerned the current positive mood between Greece and Turkey may not last. In the past, he says, similar periods of detente have given way to renewed disputes. For example, Platias said that one of Greece's conditions for lifting its veto on EU funding to Turkey is for Ankara to agree to take the Aegean dispute to the International Court of Justice in The Hague for arbitration. He said it does not appear that Turkey is ready to agree to such a demand.

The Athens News Agency quoted Papandreou on Monday as saying the two peoples must "work for peace, work for cooperation." Papandreou said that while concrete problems like the Cyprus issue have not yet been resolved, the change in climate between Turkey and Greece may ultimately contribute to such an end.