NEWS

Erdogan: ‘Greece is not our rival’

The leader of Turkey’s ruling party paid a groundbreaking visit to Athens yesterday and committed himself to helping improve Greek-Turkish relations. Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Prime Minister Costas Simitis, opposition New Democracy party leader Costas Karamanlis and Athens Mayor Dimitris Avramopoulos – an old friend from when Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul. Simitis and Erdogan, accompanied by Foreign Minister George Papandreou and Erdogan’s aide Yasar Yakis (who was named foreign minister a short while later) were scheduled to meet for 15 minutes before being joined by diplomatic teams. Instead, their meeting lasted a full two hours. Afterward, both Simitis and Erdogan referred to the friendship between the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, and Greek statesman Eleftherios Venizelos, around 1930. A source close to Simitis said there was «very good chemistry» between the two men. Another said Ergodan appeared «friendly and willing to contribute» to solving problems between the two countries. But Erdogan was also unwilling to undertake specific commitments regarding Cyprus and the Aegean, saying that his party’s government had not yet been formed and that Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, with whom he wanted to discuss Cyprus, was ill. It was also clear that Erdogan was determined to push for improved ties with the EU. «I consider today’s meeting especially useful. I believe that it set a very good basis for understanding and cooperation, where we will be able to examine problems in a frank way and with a desire for solutions that will serve mutual interests,» Simitis told a joint news conference. He said that he and Erdogan had met in «a very friendly climate.» He added, «The discussion was aimed at our orienting ourselves with regard to each country’s positions, on our thoughts and the potential for cooperation.» Simitis said Greece supported Turkey’s bid to be granted a date for the start of EU accession talks at the Union’s Copenhagen summit on December 12. «I believe that a solution of the Cyprus problem before Copenhagen will improve the climate very much for progress on all the issues that concern Turkey and the EU, and a solution will be greeted with joy by the EU countries. They want it. And I believe Turkey should keep this in mind,» he said. Erdogan appeared to herald a new era in Greek-Turkish ties. «I would like to speak in the name of the founders of the Justice and Development Party,» he said. «We must no longer see Greece as a rival. Greece is not our rival, because this is what our two peoples want. I believe that the two peoples share this feeling. We must continue the cooperation started by the great Ataturk and Eleftherios Venizelos,» he said. «My party’s plan and political program is openly in favor of developing Greek-Turkish relations and I commit myself to fulfilling this promise,» he said. «If Turkey joins the EU, I can say I have a vision of these days when we will have solved all the important problems between us. I dream of a peaceful coexistence in the broader region that will enjoy the fruits of peace,» Erdogan said. During Erdogan’s visit, though, 10 formations of Turkish F-16 fighters entered the Athens FIR without authorization and violated Greek air space 15 times. Greek fighters intercepted them and, in five cases, engaged them in mock dogfights.