A new age dawns on the Evros border

Yesterday’s meeting between the Greek and Turkish prime ministers on the Evros River border to launch a natural gas pipeline linking the two countries benefited both Costas Karamanlis and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Their first meeting since both were re-elected, it was bound to be a cause for celebration. What remains to be achieved is a full normalization of bilateral relations. By 2012, the new pipeline will have been extended to Italy, transporting natural gas – mostly from Azerbaijan – to European markets, fulfilling the goals of the European Union and the United States. Initially, the flow of gas to Greece will total 700,000 cubic meters a day. Moscow has expressed a desire to convey its own gas through the pipeline, a prospect that the US does not welcome, given its desire to restrict European markets’ dependency on Russian energy sources. The Greek government’s actions are governed by EU directives, according to which no single country should be providing 100 percent of energy requirements. Greece appears determined to invest in its energy link with Moscow, as indicated by its emphasis on the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline. Greece has repeatedly pushed for the demarcation of the continental shelf in the Aegean. After presidential elections in Cyprus this coming February, there will be a new effort to resolve the Cyprus issue, in which US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns is expected to play a leading role and is to visit the island in spring. The first phase of collaboration between Greece and Turkey is to begin immediately. On December 4, Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis is to welcome her Turkish counterpart Ali Babacan in Athens for his first official visit to Greece since his appointment. Although the meeting has not yet been announced, the date has been fixed and is considered certain to take place, barring unforeseen developments. Turkey was not pleased at the postponement last December of a meeting between Bakoyannis and then Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul (now Turkey’s president), so both sides are being very cautious with regard to any official announcement of the visit. Bakoyannis and Babacan are expected to discuss Ankara’s prospective membership of the European Union and the requirement that it implement a customs union with Cyprus, the implementation of confidence-building measures, as well as prospects for a visit to Ankara by Karamanlis, something that his Turkish counterpart has long been keen to arrange. Karamanlis wants to be the Greek leader to cross the Rubicon. After all, it was he who invited Erdogan to Greece in May 2004 and had backed the latter’s desire to be the first Turkish prime minister in half a century to visit Thrace. However, he won’t be able to visit his neighbor without first securing some kind of substantive gesture confirming a better relationship, such as the lifting of the casus belli (inconceivable between allies) passed by the Turkish National Assembly where Erdogan has a comfortable majority. To that end, the ratification of the Law of the Sea by the US supports Greece’s position in the Aegean. At the same time, it is hoped that pressure from Washington will encourage the Erdogan government to recognize the ecumenical character of the Patriarchate in Istanbul and finally allow the Halki Seminary to reopen. Such a move would only benefit Turkey, both practically and as a public relations exercise. Both prime ministers have had a difficult summer that threatened their positions as heads of their respective countries’ political arenas (intervention by the army in Turkey’s constitutional crisis, catastrophic wildfires in Greece) but emerged stronger and with renewed popular mandates. They begin their second terms with seemingly weak opposition parties. In Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) took 46 percent of the vote against just 21 percent for the Social Democrats and 15 percent for the extreme right. In Greece, where there are two major parties, the difference was less marked (42 percent for New Democracy and 38 percent for PASOK) but the crisis within the latter party allows the government more freedom of movement despite its slender parliamentary majority. At present, both leaders have their sights trained on more pressing domestic matters that are affecting their relations with the international community. The Greek government is focusing on its dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which is affecting relations with the USA due to Athens’s decision not to allow FYROM to join NATO before the issue of the country’s name is resolved. Then there is the question of Kosovo, where potentially explosive developments are expected in the next few weeks. Turkey, meanwhile, is tied up with the Kurdish PKK, military operations in northern Iraq and in trying to maintain the fragile equilibrium with Washington.