Accessibility links

Breaking News

Greece/Turkey: 'Positive' Talks To Continue Today

By Gokalp Bayramli

Talks aimed at reducing tensions between traditional rivals Turkey and Greece are due to continue today. So far, talks earlier this week in Ankara focused on non-controversial issues, such as tourism, trade and the environment, and avoided the long-standing disputes over Cyprus and sovereignty rights in the Aegean. As our correspondent in Istanbul reports, today's discussions in Athens are expected to center around more substantive subjects.

Istanbul, 29 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Tomorrow's agenda is expected to focus on joint efforts to combat terrorism, illegal immigration and organized crime. The Turkish side is expected to try to secure a commitment from their Greek counterparts for the signing of an agreement on joint action against terrorism.

For many years, Turkey has accused Greece of providing support to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is fighting for an independent homeland in southeastern Turkey. Turkey says its charges were substantiated after Greece was found to have harbored PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan before Turkish forces captured him in February.

After the arrest of Ocalan, Ankara said there could not be any improvement in bilateral ties unless Athens condemned the PKK as a terrorist group and cut all its alleged ties.

Turkey later softened its position and dropped its demands, but an accord on terrorism is still one of the main goals for Turkey during this week's talks. The importance of a written bilateral accord on terrorism has been emphasized in various Turkish government statements.

At first, Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou denied there was any need for such a bilateral agreement. He stated that Turkish-Greek cooperation could proceed under existing international agreements. Later, in a letter to his Turkish counterpart, however, he said that bilateral and even multilateral agreements could be concluded as a result of advanced cooperation.

Papandreou suggested that bilateral cooperation could also be launched in the areas of tourism, culture, protection of the environment, trade -- which was around $700 million last year -- and the combating of illegal immigration and organized crime. These topics now form the preliminary round of the dialogue between Turkey and Greece.

The speaker of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Servet Atacanli, told reporters that the first round of talks earlier this week was a positive development:

"This period of dialogue and negotiation is without a doubt a positive step to reduce tensions. Of course, you can't expect short-term concrete results from this. Papandreou had mentioned before that both sides are not expecting such fast results." Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit also welcomed the talks, telling parliament today that "positive message have started to come from Greece." Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem said the first round of talks "went well." Greek government spokesman Nicos Athanassakis said the talks have been held in a "positive atmosphere."

Tensions between Turkey and Greece has hindered attempts by the European Union to improve its relations with Turkey. The two countries are locked in a wide range of regional disputes including mineral rights in the Aegean Sea, air and sea boundaries and the rights granted to minority groups in both countries.

Our correspondent reports that this time, the Turkish and the Greek sides seem to be serious about reducing friction while the talks are ongoing.

Greece says it has a 120,000-strong Muslim minority in northern Thrace bordering Turkey. Their status has long been a bone of contention between the two countries. According to the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the minority groups in Greece are characterized by religious and not ethnic background. Since then, Greece has referred to its Turkish minority as Greek Muslims. Last Friday, three members of parliament from Greece's 120,000-strong Muslim community said that the so-called Greek Muslims should have the right to call themselves ethnic Turks.

In an interview given to a Greek magazine yesterday, Foreign Minister Papandreou accepted the existence of a Turkish minority in Greece's Thrace region and explicitly referred to them as Turks. Media in Turkey evaluated this as a sign of goodwill. The Turkish daily Hurriyet, in the headline "Bravo Yorgo," cheered Papandreou for his stance.

The foreign ministers of Greece and Turkey are scheduled to meet on Friday on the sidelines of the Balkan Reconstruction Summit in Sarajevo to evaluate the preliminary results of this week's talks. A second round of discussions is due to be held in September.