The strong earthquake that hit Turkey could thaw the recently frosty relationship between the two neighbors, making a rapprochement with Greece possible, if certain leaders want it.
Relations between countries always evolve in certain environments. And the tragedy that’s hit Greece’s neighbor created a new yet familiar one.
Twenty years ago, the devastating 7.6-magnitude quake that hit Izmit on August 17, 1999 and killed nearly 17,000, and the deadly 5.9 temblor that killed 143 in Athens a few days later, on September 7, brought forth the so-called “earthquake diplomacy” that led to an unexpected warming in Greek-Turkish relations at a time of great tension, just like today.
It was three years after the crisis over the Imia islets had brought the two countries to the brink and just a few months after the “Ocalan affair” involving the Kurdish guerrilla leader.
Suddenly, the climate changed. Intentions, rhetoric, even some concrete actions, took a different direction.
Perspectives opened up but, in the end, issues remained unresolved. The Aegean did not turn into a sea of peace. And, in the end, the hopeful window closed. But, that moment still has some relevance.
The Izmit earthquake was of a totally different magnitude (50,000 injured, in addition to the dead) to the recent one in Turkey’s southeastern provinces of Elazig and Malatya, although experts do not exclude the possibility of a devastating aftershock.
But this is not a question of numbers. The sincere expressions of solidarity from Greek citizens and the televised scenes of the extraordinary efforts made by Greek emergency workers were etched into the memories of many Turkish citizens back in 1999.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has already spoken with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, expressing the “wholehearted support” of the Greek people and saying that Greece was ready to help in search and rescue efforts. The Turkish president thanked him, but said that, at the moment, is situation is under control.
Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias contacted his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, whom he knows since both were representatives at the Council of Europe, and their conversation was equally warm.
This is a tragic event that, in the present circumstances, could change a very negative relationship that is also fraught with danger.
Back then, each other’s crack rescue units had been sent to the other country. The sight of massive blood donations by Greek citizens broke down stereotypes and was recognized by the Turks, despite their then health minister declaring initially that “we don’t want Greek blood.” Humanity and solidarity prevailed and media on both sides were full of such stories. The climate changed within days.
A climate of friendship and solidarity could still emerge from the ruins, to the benefit of both peoples, but also of their leaderships, if they are really looking for ways to normalize relations.
Obviously, it is Erdogan who must decide if he wants to grasp this opportunity. To seek peaceful coexistence on the basis of good neighborliness and the rules of international law and set aside the threats and provocations. Should he decide in favor, public relations will easily follow and smooth the path.