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Turkey/Greece: Traditional Foes Offer Symbolic Message For Middle East

Since 1999, Turkey and Greece have moved steadily toward seeking a solution to their long-standing disputes in a bid to pave the way for Ankara's accession to the European Union. This sustained rapprochement policy has been made possible mainly thanks to the personal relationship that exists between the foreign ministers of both countries. Earlier this week, the two diplomats set a precedent by announcing plans to travel together to the Middle East to help mediate between Israelis and Palestinians. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch discusses with two regional analysts how this initiative fits in with the broader issue of Turkey-EU relations.

Prague, 12 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Historical rivals Turkey and Greece have signaled further thawing in their tormented relationship by announcing plans to launch a joint diplomatic initiative aimed at promoting peace in the Middle East.

On 9 April, Turkish and Greek media quoted Ismail Cem and Giorgos Papandreou, the respective foreign ministers of Turkey and Greece, as saying they are planning a joint visit to Israel next week in an attempt to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians.

Cem said he and Papandreou first want to be sure Israeli authorities will allow them to meet Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the besieged West Bank city of Ramallah before setting off.

Although it is unlikely the visit, provided it takes place, will attain any result, this joint initiative -- the first of its kind in the history of Turkish-Greek relations -- represents a significant step in the slow rapprochement between both countries that has taken place in recent years.

Nathalie Tocci is a Turkey analyst at the Center for European Policy Studies, or CEPS, an independent policy research institute based in Brussels. She was asked by RFE/RL to assess the planned visit.

"I think it is a hugely important initiative, but I just see it as being one of the many steps, some of which have been taken, some of which are being taken, [to bring Turkey and Greece closer]. I mean [I see it] as part of a process. I don't see it, as a particular event,as being anything critical as such. But as part of a process, it is a very important step," Tocci said.

Greece's Athens News Agency on 9 April quoted Papandreou as saying that, beyond the need to preserve the interests that both countries have in the Middle East, the aim of his planned visit with Cem is to convey "a symbolic message that two traditional rivals can work together to promote political solutions and dialogue."

Animosity between the two countries dates from nearly 500 years of Ottoman rule in Greece. Populations in both countries keep vivid memories of the two devastating Balkans wars that precipitated the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, as well as of Greece's occupation of Smyrna -- known today as Izmir -- and its hinterland in the immediate aftermath of World War I.

Although both countries normalized their relations following the creation of the republic of Turkey in 1923, bilateral ties have remained strained for most of the century. Athens and Ankara have been on the brink of war three times since 1976 over territorial rights in the Aegean Sea and remain at odds over the partitioned island of Cyprus.

Despite this, tension began to abate progressively in 1987, when then-Turkish President Turgut Ozal -- who saw Ankara's integration into the West as a priority -- agreed on a thawing with then-Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou.

The relationship did not develop much until the late 1990s, when both countries began slowly, though steadily, working toward improving bilateral ties, mostly through the impetus given by their respective foreign ministers.

Analysts generally agree that the personal relationship Cem has developed with Papandreou since the latter was appointed foreign minister of Greece in 1999 has been instrumental in bringing the two countries closer on a number of issues, though many obstacles remain on the road toward full normalization.

Eberhard Rhein is a senior advisor at the Brussels-based European Policy Center independent think tank, or EPC. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said personal relations between what he described as the "ideal couple" of Cem and Papandreou have been of primary importance, especially given the reluctance of Turkey's influential army generals to compromise on territorial issues.

"I think the role [played by this relationship] is very important. I would say that personal chemistry between the two men is working well, but Cem has to act with caution because he has to permanently keep an eye on the military. Papandreou has the full backing of [Greek Prime Minister Constantinos] Simitis, while Cem is in a much more delicate situation. Unlike Cem, many in Turkey look unfavorably at the prospect of too quick a rapprochement with Greece," Rhein said.

Tocci of the CEPS also believes personal relations between the two men have played a key role in sustaining the rapprochement of the past three years, but she says there is more to it than that.

"My personal opinion is more of a Greek initiative than a Turkish initiative, this rapprochement policy. As far as Turkey is concerned, I see it as more of a reaction. In fact, I would also say that probably, out of the two, the personal role of Cem as opposed to the rest of the Turkish establishment is more important than Papandreou's personal role. [Papandreou's] personal role is very important, but I think he's got more support in the ranks of PASOK [Greece's ruling Socialist Party] than Cem would have in Turkey. [So] yes, the personal factor is hugely important in this, but there is a context which, of course, is equally -- if not more -- important," Tocci said.

Time is running short for Turkey to settle its differences with Greece, which is scheduled to take over the EU's rotating presidency when Denmark steps down at the end of this year.

Ankara applied to join the European Union in 1987 but was granted candidate status only in December 1999 -- a delay mostly due to concerns over human rights. Turkey stands last among 13 candidates and hopes to join the EU by 2007. The fate of Cyprus is among the issues Brussels wants Turkey to settle with EU member Greece before deciding on a date for the beginning of accession talks.

The island has been territorially divided between Turkish and Greek sectors for nearly 28 years. In July 1974, Turkish troops invaded the island's northeastern third in response to a coup backed by Greece's military junta that had ousted Cypriot President Archbishop Makarios from power.

Nine years later, Ankara presided over the creation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, or TRNC, which, unlike the government of the Republic of Cyprus, is recognized only by Turkey.

The island's partition is a looming problem for EU expansion plans. The Republic of Cyprus applied for admission into the EU in 1990 on behalf of the whole island and is one of the top 10 membership candidates -- along with the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Malta, Slovenia, and the three Baltic states -- expected tojoin the bloc by 2004.

Backed by Turkey, TRNC leader Rauf Denktash insists the partitioned island become a loose confederation of two states, while Greek Cypriot leader Glafcos Clerides demands it be turned into a single state divided into two regions.

The EU has given both leaders until June to reach an agreement, but since the resumption of UN-sponsored reunification talks three months ago, little progress has been achieved so far. Greece has threatened to veto the whole enlargement process if lack of a political settlement would lead to Cyprus being left out of the first accession wave.

Both Greece and Turkey are members of NATO. In December, Athens blocked a deal between Ankara and Brussels that would have given a planned EU rapid-reaction force access to NATO logistical infrastructures in southeastern Europe. The Greek veto is threatening to delay plans for the force to take over from NATO-led peacekeeping operations in Macedonia.

Analysts believe Athens' objections are linked to its feud with Ankara over Cyprus. EU officials blame Denktash for the lack of progress on the issue and reproach Ankara for failing to urge the Turkish Cypriot leader to adopt a more conciliatory policy.

Rhein of the EPC says the ball is in Ankara's court. "Turkey can do something, and Turkey will have to do something, because Turkey knows that its own interests are at stake. As long as the issue of Cyprus is not resolved, I don't see Athens ever giving its green light to opening [accession] negotiations with Turkey, and Turkey wants to have a date, or a time frame, for opening negotiations with the [European] Union and to open them as soon as possible. And ideally, really, [the Turks] hope for this to happen [at the EU summit] in Copenhagen [next December]. So time is running very short."

Pressed by Brussels, Turkey and Greece held talks on 12 March aimed at resolving another long-standing dispute over continental-shelf rights and the boundaries of their respective airspace and territorial waters in the Aegean Sea. A second round of exploratory talks took place yesterday in Athens.

Given this overall context, regional analysts see the planned Cem-Papandreou visit to Israel as directly connected to the broader issue of Ankara-Brussels relations, similar to the forum that brought together delegates from the EU and the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Istanbul on 12 February.

As Tocci says: "I think this visit is partly a Greek-Turkish issue, but it is also part of a wider EU-Turkish foreign-policy question. Both reinforce each other and both are equally important."