Cordial words but not a single step forward

Despite the evident eagerness of Costas Simitis’s government to reach a solution to the question of the continental shelf before the next elections, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul’s official visit to Greece did not bring negotiations on that matter a single step forward. The same applies to the rest of the contentious issues which are supposedly on the agenda during these exploratory contacts. Apart from that, the two ministers didn’t stint on warm words confirming their intention to seek peaceful solutions on the matters of Aegean and Cyprus. Both sides also expressed the political will to boost and broaden economic cooperation. It was decided to speed up negotiations on the construction of a natural gas pipeline to link Turkey to Western European countries via Greece. The most specific outcome, however, was that differences were resolved and an agreement on avoiding double tax will be signed in Ankara in December. Internal battle Improving the atmosphere is by no means unimportant. Politically speaking, the temperature is moderate and that is enough to maintain the new dynamic in bilateral relations, even though so far that new dynamic hasn’t managed to break the barrier created by the tension that sometimes arises between Greece and Turkey. For instance, when the Greek side raised the issue of the large number of Greek air space and Athens FIR violations, it came up against a brick wall. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is walking a tightrope in his attempt to find a modus vivendi with the military bureaucracy while seeking solutions to the Cyprus issue and problems concerning the Aegean in order to facilitate Turkey’s path toward the European Union. It was indicative of the internal conflict that Gul’s official visit to Athens was held under the heavy shadow of an interview Turkish Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Hilmi Ozkok gave to the Eleftherotypia newspaper. Ozkok’s statements were obviously intended to pre-empt and indirectly delimit the foreign minister’s sphere of action. And of course to serve as a reminder that the Turkish government – at least when it comes to foreign policy and security – is under tutelage. General Ozkok reminded the Greeks of some harsh realities. He stated clearly that there would always be a threat of war if Greece extended its territorial waters, and he highlighted the expansionist theory of «gray zones.» A relatively new element was the indirect but clear attempt to use the issues of Cyprus and the Aegean as leverage in order to promote Turkey’s EU accession. This was the meaning of his comment that if Turkey’s accession moved ahead, all the other problems would be resolved within a week. In fact, his approach carries a whiff of the Eastern approach to political bartering, and which has no basis in reality. It is no coincidence that Gul attempted to soften the impact by saying: «It doesn’t help to think that we have to wait till EU accession. EU accession is not a precondition for resolving the problems. Of course, once we are under the same roof, the atmosphere will be different.» He also seemed more in line with Ozkok’s unvarnished statement that, for security reasons, Turkey would not retreat from Cyprus. «Cyprus is very close to Turkey,» said Ozkok: «When we talk, we have to look at the map. It’s as if it were in Turkey. So it’s natural that the army’s technocrats are worried.» Ankara’s greatest problem is that the Cyprus issue and Greek-Turkish bilateral relations have been linked with its own path to Europe. The Helsinki decision of 1999 recommends, without specifically mentioning them, that Greece and Turkey negotiate their existing border disputes and related issues. The same decision states that if they do not succeed in resolving them, the European Council will examine the situation and take action to settle the differences. The disadvantage of this decision is that Athens indirectly acknowledged unilateral Turkish expansionist claims as existing border disputes. Its advantage is that should matters reach an impasse, next year the Greek side would have a strong argument for requesting EU intervention and to refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice. As for the content of the exploratory talks which have been going on for some time, the general secretaries of the two foreign ministers have released little information. The picture is incomplete and indistinct, but there are many indications that some rapprochement has emerged from the 16 meetings held to date. There is talk of the possibility of bridging the existing gap concerning the issues and areas in dispute by adopting a concerted approach, such as joint exploitation of the continental shelf, and co-management of operations and situation. There are also indications that Ankara aims to link its meeting of certain demands by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to its own demands related to the Muslim minority in Western Thrace. The measures discussed at the government meeting last Thursday had to do with the upcoming elections, but they are not unrelated to this diplomatic tug of war. Despite all the indications that some rapprochement has been achieved, it is by no means certain that there will be any solutions, and so it is likely that we will resort to EU intervention. On that subject Ozkok commented that referring the matter to The Hague is neither automatic nor direct. As far as formalities go he is partly right, but in political terms he is mistaken. Sooner or later, the Europeans will have no choice but to link Turkey’s path to EU succession with a referral to the International Court. Europe and Cyprus Ankara’s European orientation is clearly at odds with its traditional strategy on Cyprus and the Aegean, but the Turkish establishment shows no sign of resolving this contradiction. If it continues along the same path, in December 2004 it will see the setting of the much-desired starting date for negotiation talks postponed once again. In short, it will be the Turks themselves who have undermined their own path to Europe. This path has already been linked with the Cyprus issue. Guenter Verheugen, the European commissioner responsible for EU enlargement, has repeatedly sent this message to Ankara, which has had trouble digesting it. Erdogan’s government, some of the political elite and the business community all seem aware of the situation, but they cannot impose their will on the hard core of the regime. Hence the Turkish premier’s vacillations, which tend to undermine his credibility. Some time ago, he did not hesitate to fall into line with Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, whom he now has digs at. In reality, the effort to resolve the impasse on the Cyprus issue has focused on the breakaway state’s legislative elections in December. The US and Britain are doing their best to support the Turkish-Cypriot opposition. Commenting on the upcoming elections in occupied Cyprus, US special coordinator for Cyprus Thomas Weston said, «This is a decisive opportunity for the Turkish Cypriots to express their wish as to whether they want a solution to the Cyprus issue based on the Kofi Annan plan and their participation in the EU,» and he added, «Reports of the dubious credibility of the electoral roll worry us.» The statement referred to the breakaway state’s mass conferral of nationality on Turkish settlers. Following his talks in Ankara, Weston said, «The Turkish side is sincerely seeking a solution to the Cyprus issue before May 1, 2004.» But he did insist on asking his interlocutors that Turkey not get involved in the electoral process in occupied Cyprus. It is indicative of the climate that Denktash refused to meet him, choosing to speak to the Turkish War Academy instead. There he said, «If the Annan plan is implemented every Turkish presence will be uprooted from Cyprus,» and he added, «Despite this, some are asking for the Annan plan to be accepted as a basis for discussion.» Ankara holds key Even if the Turkish-Cypriot opposition wins the upcoming elections, there is no guarantee that it will manage to bypass Denktash and have its own representative conduct negotiations with the Greek Cypriots in line with the Annan plan. In fact, it is Ankara that holds the key. Erdogan’s government wants the Turkish-Cypriot opposition to win so as to lessen the overwhelming pressure exerted on it by the military bureaucracy and to expand its field of action. On the other hand, however, it is unlikely to express its support openly, because it won’t risk a confrontation with its bosses.