Yesterday (December 6) Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan concluded a two-day visit to Greece in a sign of a continuing rapprochement between the two neighbors. However, although the recent improvement in ties has undoubtedly considerably reduced the possibility of the two countries going to war, deeply ingrained suspicions and prejudices are proving harder to erase.
In August 1999, a little over three years since they almost went to war over the disputed islet of Imia/Kardak, Greece and Turkey sent aid to each other after both were struck by powerful earthquakes within the space of a few weeks. Over the months that followed, “earthquake diplomacy” gradually developed into a political dialogue. Despite continuing differences – particularly over their respective territorial waters and air space, the treatment of ethnic minorities and continuing failure to resolve the Cyprus problem – there was a mutual acknowledgment that each country stood to gain more from cooperation than from conflict.
The result was series of confidence-building measures, including the establishment of a telephone hotline between the two countries’ militaries and a readjustment in their respective defense procurement programs to reflect the reduced possibility of another Greco-Turkish war. In recent years, Greek businesses have also begun to invest heavily in Turkey, particularly in the financial sector. In 2006 the National Bank of Greece bought Finansbank, which became the largest foreign-owned bank in Turkey with total assets of over $15 billion. On November 18, 2007, the two countries inaugurated a pipeline project that is eventually expected to carry Caspian natural gas via Turkey and Greece to Western Europe (see EDM, November 15).
At a joint press conference in Athens, Babacan and Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyianni announced a further set of confidence-building measures, including an increase in high-level visits between the two countries’ armed forces, joint missions within NATO, and greater cooperation in peacekeeping and disaster relief. Babacan and Bakoyianni said that they had also agreed to establish a joint military unit for use in peacekeeping operations, although the full details are expected to be finalized in talks between the two countries’ militaries. In addition, Babacan confirmed that Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis is expected to pay an official visit to Ankara in January, which will be the first visit to Turkey by a serving Greek prime minister in nearly 50 years (Zaman, Hurriyet, Radikal, December 6).
But tensions remain. Greece and Turkey are unusual in that each fought its “war of national liberation” against the other. As a result, whether explicitly or implicitly, hostility is embedded in the nationalist mythologies that are still enthusiastically inculcated through both the Greek and Turkish educational systems. In practice, the two countries’ determination to focus on improving ties despite their differences, rather than trying to solve them, continues to cause problems. Both countries’ militaries regularly accuse the other of violating their territorial waters and airspace. Aerial dogfights are not uncommon. The Turkish General Staff (TGS) even maintains a running log of alleged violations by Greek planes and ships on its website. On October 5, the TGS bitterly denounced Greece for its alleged failure to abide by the terms of bilateral agreements to cooperate against trafficking in illegal migrants. It even posted a scorecard of what it claimed was the increasing number of illegal migrants being dumped by the Greek authorities in Turkish territorial waters, including 3,047 in the first ten months of 2007 alone (www.tsk.mil.tr).
Inevitably, the Turkish minority in Greece and the Greek Orthodox minority in Turkey have often had to pay the price of tensions between Athens and Greece. In theory, the rights of each community are guaranteed by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Both Greece and Turkey frequently accuse the other of failing to fulfill its obligations under the treaty. In truth, neither has ever made a concerted attempt to do so.
Although the situation of the approximately 100,000 ethnic Turks in northern Greece has improved in recent years, they still frequently suffer discrimination, and the government in Athens has consistently refused to recognize the Muslim religious leaders chosen by the community. Continuing Greek suspicions were demonstrated when Babacan paid the first visit by a Turkish foreign minister to the ethnic Turkish community in northern Greece for 46 years; provoking howls of outrage from the Greek nationalist press, which regarded the visit as evidence of recidivist Turkish ambitions to encourage the community to reaffirm its separate identity as a prelude to the region being eventually annexed by Turkey.
The position of the dwindling Greek Orthodox community in Turkey is even more precarious. Despite pressure from both Athens and the EU, Ankara still refuses to reopen the Greek Orthodox seminary on the island of Heybeliada, which is regarded by the Greek Orthodox Church as a prerequisite for the survival of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, which has been based in Istanbul for nearly 1,700 years. Years of discrimination, persecution and occasional pogroms have seen the Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul shrink from several hundred thousand in the 1920s to less than 1,500 today. On December 5, Andreas Rombopoulos, a member of Istanbul’s Greek Orthodox community and correspondent for the Greek television channel Mega TV, was hospitalized with cuts to his head and a broken hand after being attacked with clubs by two assailants outside his office. The assailants have yet to be caught, although few doubt that it was no coincidence that the attack took place while Babacan was conducting meetings with his Greek counterparts in Athens (Milliyet, Hurriyet, Radikal, Sabah, Vatan, NTV, CNN-Turk, September 6).