Karamanlis visit to Turkey: Let’s not be too pessimistic

Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis’s visit ended without major concrete results. Is it that simple? Certainly not. We at the newsroom of the Turkish Daily News were amazed to read from our colleagues at Athens-based newspaper Kathimerini that the Greek administration was keeping its eyes wide open ahead of the visit in order to ensure it does not turn into a complete disaster. Apparently crisis-response scenarios even went as far as cutting the visit short if necessary and getting the prime minister out of Turkey if any particular unpleasant incident occurred. We on this side of the Aegean never thought for a moment that the visit might turn into a major disaster. It never entered our minds that Karamanlis might cut short his visit. But our cooperation with Kathimerini, exchanging reports about the visit, demonstrated once again how the perception gap between the two sides is still quite wide. Probably, there will also be a different interpretation of the outcome of the visit. As far as the Turkish side is concerned, the first and foremost outcome of the visit was the fact that Greece’s stance on avoiding an official visit without a guaranteed concrete result is left behind. Hence, the Greek prime minister can come to Turkey without Ankara backing down from considering extension of Greek territorial waters a cause for war, and it’s not the end of the world. The second major outcome of the visit is the fact that the two countries, for the first time after a five- or six-year honeymoon in their relationship, tackled all the contentious issues at the highest level. Exploratory talks, the mechanism established to pave the way for a solution to the problems in the Aegean, became highly insignificant largely after Karamanlis came to power in 2004. his visit to Ankara will help the exploratory talks pick up momentum. The obvious question is: To what degree did the honeymoon that started in 1999 bridge the gap on reciprocal positions? Statements at the press conference in Ankara prevent us from being highly optimistic. Karamanlis talked about opening a new page in relations, but his rhetoric did not reflect the spirit that «a new era» requires. He reiterated the longstanding Greek position that the disagreement on continental shelf rights should be taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague. To our knowledge, exploratory talks are being conducted to find a package solution to four major problems which the Turkish side believes are interlinked: Continental shelf, territorial waters, air space and demilitarization of the islands. The Turkish side does not exclude going to The Hague. In fact Turkey made a major policy change in 1996 and reversed its position of avoiding going to the ICJ. However, the understanding with the PASOK government at the time was to reach an agreement based on «give and take,» where recourse to The Hague will be just one of the options for a possible solution. If Karamanlis is genuine about his desire for a total normalization of relations, he will have to realize that at some stage a solution based on compromise from both sides will have to be reached. Will Karamanlis be bold enough to face criticism from within his party and public opinion when the time comes for a compromise solution? Or will he prefer to play for time and use the European Union as leverage in the hope that the Turkish side will become more flexible as its accession process progresses? Unlike Karamanlis, Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed a bit more flexible on the traditional Turkish stance concerning the status of the Greek Orthodox patriarch or the reopening of the Orthodox seminary in Halki (Heybeliada). It came for instance as a surprise to Turkish journalists that works were being undertaken to tackle the latter issue. Erdogan’s statement might give a little hope to the Greek side when he said the «ecumenical» title of the patriarch was an issue for the Christian Orthodoxy. At least the rhetoric that the patriarchate is just a Turkish institution has been abandoned. On both issues there is reason to believe that in time the Turkish side will come up with a solution that will be acceptable to all sides. Cyprus is another area where, from the Turkish perspective, the Greeks need to do a lot of catching up with the Turks. No one will contest that it was thanks to pressure from Turkey that the intransigence of the past Turkish-Cypriot administration was overcome. Now Ankara expects the same from Athens. Karamanlis, who has not moved a single finger for the United Nations-brokered plan to be accepted by the Greek Cypriots, did not give us reason to believe that he would now do otherwise and push the Greek-Cypriot administration for a solution. Despite the asymmetry in the outlook to problems, there are still reasons to be optimistic on the future of relations. We on the Turkish side should not forget that Greek public opinion is more sensitive when it comes to Turkey than vice versa. Karamanlis might have chosen a rhetoric that would have created less trouble for him as far as the Greek public is concerned. He might have sounded a bit more flexible behind closed doors compared to what he said in front of the cameras. Furthermore, the change in Greece’s mentality should not be underestimated either. A simple comparison with how relations were just a decade ago testifies to that change. Turkey and Greece are destined to have fully normalized relations. The question is not if but when. The current Turkish government seems to have the courage to tackle thorny issues. Whether its counterpart for paving the way for a major breakthrough will be Karamanlis’s or some other government remains be to seen. (1)Barcin Yinanc is the managing editor of the Turkish Daily News.