Analysts say the time is right for a first stept to improve tiesImage: AP
Greece and Turkey talk
May 14, 2010
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is in Greece as the two traditional foes seek rapprochement. Turkey's EU ambitions and Greece's economic woes could be catalysts for improved relations.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has arrived in Athens for talks on Friday with perhaps the highest profile entourage he could muster. Turkey's cabinet ministers for the economy, foreign trade, the interior, foreign affairs, transport, energy, education, tourism, the environment and European affairs are all part of the delegation, not to mention around 100 business leaders.
Greece's and Turkey's historical differences have brought them to the brink of war on several occasions, and the two countries are looking for ways to normalize their ties. The visit is being hailed as historic in Turkey. While that may not yet be true, many analysts believe that now is the perfect time for the neighbors to put their past behind them.
"It's definitely a perfect win-win situation," political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Bahcesehir University in Turkey told Deutsche Welle. "If these two countries can solve their joint problems once and for all, it will be fantastic for both."
Greece and Turkey still dispute the territorial waters of the Aegean Sea, and their air forces still fight mock dog-fights on a regular basis. Both countries have sizeable military budgets, primarily because of these bilateral tensions.
"Neither the people of Greece nor Turkey need new submarines or fighter jets," said Turkey's EU affairs minister, Egemen Bagis, noting how strange it was that two NATO members should spend billions to counter a perceived threat from each other. This military spending has come under particularly sharp focus in Greece as the country battles fiscal insolvency and a bloated public sector.
Greece's defense expenditure as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) is the highest in the EU.
"In order for our people to enjoy the benefits of arms-spending reductions, we must first erase the threats and create necessary trust," said Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman, Gregory Delavekouras.
The Cyprus question
The divided island of Cyprus will also be an unavoidable issue during the talks. Cyprus was split between primarily Greek and Turkish communities in 1974, when Turkey invaded the northern segment of the island after a coup backed by Athens changed the political landscape there.
The Greek part of Cyprus is an EU member, which has vetoed several of Turkey's EU accession chapters. Ankara is keen to join the European Union, but without some kind of settlement in Cyprus, this seems unlikely.
"We want a resolution to the Cyprus problem," said a Foreign Affairs Committee spokesman for the Turkish parliament. "We want to integrate further with the European Union, and Cyprus is a problem."
UN-sponsored talks aimed at reaching a settlement for the island are underway, but in April, Turkish Cypriots elected a new hard-line leader who is critical of the process.
Insiders in Ankara say Prime Minister Erdogan will push his Greek counterpart, George Papandreou, to agree to expanding the UN Cyprus talks, including Greece and Turkey more directly in the negotiations.
"I do fear, if these talks fail now, that we may be looking at a partition on the island of Cyprus for another generation, or longer," Richard Howitt, a member of the European Parliament's committee on Turkey, told Deutsche Welle.
If Ankara has strong political motivations for resolving the Cyprus issue and improving ties with Greece, then Athens has a host of economic reasons to seek a less frosty relationship with Turkey.
The roughly 100 business leaders accompanying the Turkish delegation should also send a clear message to Greece that political stability can have a positive economic impact, as well as reducing military costs.
Athens is desperately trying to reduce its runaway budget deficit and national debt, and has had to call on its eurozone partners and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to step in and help it meet its loan repayments.
Turkey endured similar debt problems a decade ago, soliciting financial aid from the IMF, and the country has offered to share its expertise on this situation with the Greek government.
"There's a lot of empathy in Turkey for Greece right now," a Turkish columnist for a liberal daily newspaper wrote this week. "We know a lot about the IMF, belt-tightening, union unrest, all those things. We've been down that road."
Even though previous attempts by Greek and Turkish leaders to resolve their differences have failed, many analysts observe that both countries now appear to have sufficient desire to improve ties and that some kind of first step is possible.
Turkish political scientist Cengiz Aktar thinks that a comprehensive non-aggression pact could be a plausible development from the two-day visit.
"I think that might have a tremendous, positive effect, especially in terms of peace dividends. It would help the Greek economy's present and future problems."