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Karamanlis, Erdogan: ‘Like two friends who’ve known each other from way back’

“We look forward to the visit of Mr Erdogan to Greece with great pleasure,» Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said on April 21, when he met his Turkish counterpart in Sarajevo. The Greek premier’s statement appeared to be more than a mere formality; it sounded sincere. After many years, and even more problems and difficulties, Athens is preparing itself to receive a Turkish prime minister on an official visit. It is not just the fact that recently there has been a very positive climate in bilateral relations, which had not been tested at such a high level since the 1996 Imia crisis. It is, as a government source remarks, that though the two prime ministers have known each other no more than a decade, they have developed a very warm relationship. «They are like two friends who have known each other since way back,» commented the source, adding that the two men met at a time when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not premier. They had met earlier in Athens and in January 2003, when Karamanlis went to Istanbul for the feast of the Epiphany and took the opportunity to visit Erdogan in Ankara. The first substantive and important discussion took place on that visit, during a dinner at Erdogan’s home. Sources report that the Turkish premier told Karamanlis that he was committed to doing what he could to solve the Cyprus issue and to further improve Greek-Turkish relations. He mentioned measures which would help reduce armaments programs for mutual benefit. With Erdogan due to visit Greece May 6-8, the Greek government expects confirmation of peace and cooperation between the two countries. Indicative of the government’s attitude was the latest statement by government spokesman Theodoros Roussopoulos: «The insecurities of the past have been abandoned, and a relationship of trust is being consolidated every day between the two countries. A relationship which eliminates any kind of suspicion.» At the time of writing, it was still unknown whether the good will of both sides would be expressed purely at the level of announcements or whether more substantial – and not just symbolic – steps might be taken during Erdogan’s visit. Talks date Certainly all the prerequisites are there. Erdogan seems to have strengthened his hand in the proverbially tricky political environment of Ankara. His party’s sweeping victory in recent municipal elections, and his international image following his handling of the Cyprus issue seem to be at risk only if the crucial discussion with the European Union in December over Turkey’s accession has a negative outcome. If Ankara gets a date for EU membership talks, then Erdogan is unlikely to be criticized by any forces in Turkey that oppose him or his policies. Greece has been taking every opportunity to demonstrate its willingness not only to further improve bilateral relations, but also to support Turkey’s path to Europe. It may seem an exaggeration, but one might say that even if all the partners refuse, Greece will vote in favor of starting EU accession talks with its neighbor. Athens believes that Turkey’s path to Europe will benefit all concerned, since adjustment to European values and the much-discussed acquis communautaire will likely have a positive knock-on effect on foreign relations as well. Otherwise, it will not only be the Turkish premier who will face problems. But in that case, according to a diplomatic source, Greece’s decision to show clearly that it will not be a hindrance for Turkey will protect it from misadventures. Visit to minority Erdogan’s visit has acquired more interest from his decision to visit Alexandroupolis and Komotini in Thrace on Saturday morning. These areas have a large Muslim presence, which hardline Turkish government policy refers to as Turkish. The Greek government believes Erdogan will avoid making such references: «He won’t make a mistake like that,» a source commented. And it is not without significance that when responding to a question about this part of Erdogan’s visit, the government spokesman diplomatically, but clearly said: «Mr Erdogan has the right to visit members of the same religion.» Yet however positive the climate, bilateral relations are from being ideal. There are problems, the chief of them being the delineation of the continental shelf (discussions are continuing between the two countries; so far there have been 24). Nor has Turkey’s unilateral package of demands on Greece been forgotten. Among other things, Turkey has raised issues of the Flight Information Region, territorial waters, the Aegean air space, the demilitarization of the islands and «gray zones.» «We aren’t setting the bar too high. Besides, Greek-Turkish issues have remained unsolved for decades,» a government source told Kathimerini, which indicates that Athens has its feet on the ground. Notwithstanding good intentions, it would be inappropriate, if not unrealistic, for anyone to expect miracles now. But special emphasis is being placed on maintaining and further improving the channels of communication between the two countries, since problems and obstacles can more easily be tackled in a good climate.