NEWS

Greek, Turkish PMs bind ties with 21 pacts

Prime Minister George Papandreou and his visiting Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday signed 21 separate accords aimed at boosting bilateral cooperation across a range of sectors, including the economy, tourism and energy, and said they would seek to make headway on resolving enduring tensions in the Aegean. The meeting between the two premiers was said, by sources, to have taken place in «an exceptionally cordial atmosphere» following Erdogan’s arrival in Athens under a massive security escort. Apart from dozens of bodyguards, the Turkish premier was accompanied by 10 ministers and hundreds of businessmen who met with Greek entrepreneurs at the Hilton later in the day to explore opportunities for cooperation. The 21 agreements signed yesterday foresee the establishment of a joint council of ministers to convene at least once a year and discuss issues of bilateral concern, the encouragement of investment between the two countries, the acceleration of a project aimed at building a natural gas pipeline between Greece and Turkey, increased cooperation in the tourism sectors including the promotion of joint packages to the Chinese market and the return to Turkey of a minimum of 1,000 immigrants entering Greece illegally per year. Erdogan described his visit to Greece as «historic» and «exceptionally significant.» In a clear reference to Greece’s economic problems, Erdogan said, «We intend to show solidarity with Greece.» He added, «Our economies supplement each other… if our two countries cooperate, we can maximize the benefits for both countries.» Papandreou, in his comments, also expressed optimism, but was rather more cautious. «I hope [Erdogan’s] visit will be the cornerstone of a procedure that will lead us to a different relationship,» he said. Papandreou added that he discerned in Erdogan «a sincere desire to move on and leave behind us the myths of the past in Greek-Turkish relations.» In a landmark move, the two premiers presided over a joint council of Greek and Turkish ministers. The issue of tensions in the Aegean was reportedly raised during the council session and expressions of good intent were made by both sides though no agreement was reached on this difficult topic. Nevertheless, a joint statement issued by the two premiers later yesterday declared that «a big step forward has been made to promote relations and lead to the strengthening of peace and stability in the region.» Papandreou, who spearheaded a rapprochement drive when he was foreign minister a decade ago, said the two sides had agreed to establish additional trust-building measures and would «step up» efforts to resolve a longstanding dispute regarding the delineation of the continental shelf. «We will never be able to deal with major issues… if we do not build trust,» Papandreou said. Defense cuts on the agenda but no deal yet The issue of both Greece and Turkey scaling back their defense spending was discussed by the countries’ two leaders yesterday, although it appears that Athens, which is making drastic public expenditure cuts due to its debt problems, is unwilling to commit publicly to any deal at the moment. Although the two sides signed 21 agreements yesterday, these did not include one on arms reductions. However, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that Athens and Ankara should consider such a compromise. «Both countries have large defense budgets,» he told state broadcaster NET ahead of the meeting. «We must reduce these expenditures and use the money for other purposes. If we have the will, there will be results.» Under pressure to rein in spending, the Greek government has already cut 800 million euros from its defense budget this year. However, Greece is one of the world’s largest spenders on defense when each country’s gross domestic product is taken into account. Even with the projected cuts this year, Athens will still invest 2.8 percent of GDP in this sector. The average for NATO members is 1.7 percent. Greece’s Deputy Defense Minister Panos Beglitis made it clear that for Greece to agree to any defense deal with Turkey, its neighbor would have to stop entering Greek air space and territorial waters. «We want to proceed with an arms reduction under a basic political condition: that Turkey undertakes specific action and practices on east Mediterranean issues and shows respect for international law in the Aegean,» he said. Greek military authorities said that just a few hours before Erdogan’s plane touched down in Athens, six Turkish fighter jets, two of which were armed, entered Greek air space without first submitting flight plans. The planes flew over Lemnos and Lesvos before being seen off by Greek fighter jets.