Prague, 3 November 1997 (RFE/RL) - With both countries currently holding military exercises in the eastern Mediterranean, the prime ministers of Greece and Turkey are meeting today to try to de-fuse their disputes over Cyprus and other long-standing bilateral issues.
Their progress will be closely watched at European Union headquarters in Brussels. Union officials admit that the 15-nation bloc's plans to offer membership to 10 Central and Eastern Europe could be disrupted or delayed by a failure of the two nations to reach a compromise on Cyprus. The EU is due to decide at a summit meeting in less than six weeks with which candidates it will open accession talks early next year.
At the insistence of Greece -- an EU member since 1981 -- the Greek-Cypriot government, which controls two-thirds of the island, was granted EU candidacy before any of the Eastern states. Unless Nicosia is allowed to open accession talks early next year, along with some or all of the Eastern candidates, Greece could unilaterally hold up the enlargement process.
Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 after a failed attempt by Greek-Cypriots to attach it to their homeland. Turkey still maintains 32,000 troops in the northern third of the island, where Turkish Cypriots created their own state in 1983, recognized as an independent entity only by Ankara. Complicating matters further, Turkey has itself been seeking admission to the EU for more than three decades, and would not be happy to see two Greek-speaking nations in the Union while it is again left out.
The meeting between Greece's Costas Simitis and Turkey's Mesut Yilmaz is taking place at a coastal resort on the Greek island of Crete. There, the leaders of seven southeast European nations -- plus a lower-level participant from Bosnia -- this morning began a two-day summit aimed at promoting cooperation in the area.
Late yesterday, there was a hint from Foreign Minister Ismail Cem that Turkey might be ready to make a key concession at the Simitis-Yilmaz talks. Arriving in Crete, Cem told reporters that Ankara was "ready to solve all problems...through negotiations, third parties, arbitrations." Greece has insisted for many months that Athens and Ankara take a sovereignty dispute over a few tiny islands in the Aegean Sea -- a quarrel that last year almost led to war between the two countries -- to the International Court of Justice in the Hague. Until now, Turkey has called for the two neighbors and long-time adversaries to settle the problem between themselves.
If Cem's remarks were meant to be taken literally, Turkey may be ready to allow third-party arbitration of all its disputes with Greece. In addition to the Aegean islets, they include control over the sea and its airspace, sea-beds, mineral rights and, most intractable of all, the war-divided island-nation of Cyprus. That would be a big first step toward resolving all outstanding issues and make it hard for Greece not to respond in kind.
But a similar statement of good intentions was made only four months ago at NATO's summit meeting in Madrid by the Greek and Turkish presidents, Constantinos Stefanopoulos and Suleyman Demirel. They pledged both countries to renewed efforts to end their quarrels. Since then, the usual mutual hostile rhetoric between the two countries has escalated considerably. And in the last month, threats have been accompanied by some strong military gestures.
First Greece held some maneuvers with Greek-Cypriot forces in their portion of the island. Then, in retaliation, Turkey interfered with the flights of Greek military planes to the island, including harassing a plane carrying the Greek Defense Minister. Over the weekend, Turkey launched two large-scale military exercises in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean and off Cyprus, where some its warships docked yesterday. And in an apparent response, Greek warships on Friday began their own war games near the Turkish coast. Each side accuses the other of seeking a confrontation.
Does all this mean war is imminent? Almost certainly not, says Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. mediator who last year got the two nations to step back from war over the two Aegean islets. In weekend interviews with both Greek and Turkish media, Holbrooke said that, in his view, "this is not a real crisis." The leaders of both countries, he said, are "reasonable and intelligent people (who) are protecting their interests." Neither side, Holbrooke concluded, wants to start a war.
But neither side has so far demonstrated by actions that it wants real peace, either. And that's where the EU's problems come in. Without real progress on a Cyprus settlement, it will be faced with a painful choice: start membership talks with the Greek-Cypriot Government, and thereby alienate Turkey, or insist on progress toward a settlement before opening negotiations with Nicosia, which would alienate member-state Greece.
Some analysts say that the EU must take a much tougher line toward Greece, insisting that the price of Cypriot admission must be prior resolution of the Cyprus problem and Greek acceptance of ultimate Union membership for Turkey. They believe, too, that Ankara should press Turkish Cypriots to agree to a settlement and resolve its other disputes with Greece. As a reward, they suggest, Turkey should be allowed to participate, like all other candidate nations, in the proposed EU standing "European Conference," due to get underway in February. The conference is intended to clarify the EU's ultimate shape by grouping all present and future members -- and, not incidentally, to mollify those candidates who are not selected for the first wave of accession talks.
These recommendations are certainly reasonable, but are they feasible? Past experience of Greek-Turkish conflicts suggests deep resistance on both sides to reasonable resolutions. And past EU experience shows how difficult it is for the Union to take action against a member state which can exercise its veto power. That means that if today's Simitis-Yilmaz talks end with no more than just pious restatements of good intentions, the EU and its 10 Eastern candidates are in for some rough times in the near future.