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Turkish PM In 'Revolutionary' Visit To Greece

  • RFE/RL

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou (left) greets his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Athens.

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou (left) greets his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Athens.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has arrived in Greece for two days of talks calling for an arms deal that he said would ease the burden on his debt-crippled Aegean neighbor.

Speaking during a meeting with his Greek host, President Karolos Papoulias, Erdogan said he expected the two-day visit would "be the start for putting Greek-Turkish relations on a better foundation."

The two countries also held their first-ever joint cabinet meeting.

Ahead of his first visit to Athens since 2004, Erdogan had said Greece and Turkey needed to curb an arms race that forced both countries to spend heavily on defense at a time of economic crisis.

"Both countries have very large defense budgets," Erdogan said in an interview with Greek state television. "We must reduce these expenditures and use the money for other purposes."

His remarks came days after the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) agreed a 110 billion-euro ($140 billion) bailout package aimed at rescuing Greece from bankruptcy.

Greece has been roiled in recent weeks by mass protests against drastic spending cuts expected to be imposed as a condition of the rescue.

Erdogan, who is being accompanied by 10 cabinet ministers, said he would be visiting Greece in a spirit of empathy.

"We intend to stand by you in solidarity and that is why we are visiting you together with my ministers. We must help with this process," Erdogan said.

"Our economies supplement each other...if our two countries cooperate we can maximize the benefits for both our countries."

Around 100 Turkish businessmen are taking part in the visit, which is expected to result in the signing of 21 accords and protocols, including an agreement allowing illegal immigrants entering Greece from through Turkey to be sent back.

History Of Tension

Greece's current woes echo those experienced by Turkey in 2001 when it was rescued by the IMF after an economic crisis.

The reference to defense spending reflects decades of hostility between Ankara and Athens, which have long regarded each other as adversaries despite both being members of the NATO alliance.

Greece spends a higher proportion of its GDP on defense than any other EU country, a commitment driven by its frequently tense relations with its larger neighbor. The Greek defense minister, Evangelos Venizelos, has pledged to reduce military spending by 25 percent this year but has said arms-buying programs would be excluded from the cuts -- with salaries and operating costs being targeted for savings.

The deputy defense minister, Panos Beglitis, appeared to pour cold water on Erdogan's call for joint spending cuts by saying they should be contingent on a lessening of Turko-Greek tensions. "Otherwise, it would be like placing the cart before the horse.... It is not usual practice to first discuss armaments reductions and then solve the problems," Beglitis told state radio on May 14.

Greece and Turkey have come close to war three times since 1974, most recently in 1996 over an uninhabited islet in the Aegean. They embarked on a period of rapprochement in 1999 after each experienced destructive earthquakes, prompting mutual aid efforts.

However, the thaw in relations appears to have cooled again in recent years. Serious differences remain over airspace and territorial waters in the Aegean and over Cyprus, where Turkish troops are stationed in the north of the divided island.

On arriving in Athens, Erdogan stressed that he aimed to resurrect the rapprochement process, telling the Greek parliamentary speaker Filipos Petsalnikos: "This visit for us is historic and has special importance."

Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, told Haber Turk television that the visit would be "revolutionary” and would help eliminate tensions between the two states.

"A psychological threshold will be surmounted," Davutoglu said.

with agency reports
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