Greece’s neighborhood is changing. The years before 1989 now seem an ice age away. Bulgaria and Romania, for decades deep behind the Iron Curtain, have been invited to join NATO by 2004. Three years later, they are expected to join the European Union. In other words, in five years the last wall between Greece, Bulgaria and Romania will come down. They will be joined in a way not seen since they were all part of the Ottoman Empire – in an even more democratic arrangement than the one dreamed of by the 18th century Greek revolutionary Rigas Velestinlis (or Pheraios), before a fellow Greek betrayed him to the Turks – who put a decisive end to his vision of a republican successor to the Ottoman Empire in the region. (In another sign of how things change, the castle in Belgrade where Pheraios was strangled before his body was dumped into the Sava River in 1798 is about to become a cafeteria, according to outraged Greek reports.) But, apart from Romania and Bulgaria becoming established as democratic «Western» states, the biggest tectonic shift of all is taking place. Turkey is pushing and shoving to get into the European Union sometime in the future. And, for all its efforts, the most powerful country in our part of the world, the successor to the Ottoman Empire that ruled most of the Balkans, Asia Minor and the Middle East for five centuries, finds itself lagging behind almost every other country in the broader region. In another age, Turkey, by sheer population size and military power, would get whatever it wanted. Now it watches as 10 countries prepare to join the 15 already in the European Union in 2004. Romania and Bulgaria will most probably join in 2007 and Turkey will not. In fact, Turkey is fighting to be given a date when the EU will start talking with it about its future accession. Turkey’s sheer weight and difference will constitute a greater shock to the cohesion, identity and funding of the EU than the accession of all 10 impending members, and much valid debate is needed before Ankara raises the EU’s blue flag next to the crescent moon in a red sky. But fundamentally, Turkey wants to be a member of the most democratic union of independent nations the world has known, where membership is granted according to criteria of civilized behavior (and being geographically European) and not by force or wealth. So, as we in Greece like to say, it is truly in our interest that Turkey join the EU. Because, we argue, doing so will entail such a transformation that Turkey in the EU will not be the Turkey with which we have been competing, with varying degrees of intensity, since the Seljuk Sultan Arp Aslan came galloping out of the mists of the east and attacked the Byzantine Empire in 1066 (strangely, the same year the Normans conquered England and the astral body now known as Halley’s Comet hurtled past the earth – so watch out for 2061, its next coming at the end of its 75-year cycle). In the Turkish elections of November 3 only two parties got into Parliament, giving our neighbor the first opportunity in a generation to enjoy stable government. And both the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK) of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the opposition Republican People’s Party, led by Deniz Baykal, are strongly in favor of Turkey’s joining the EU. Interestingly, Erdogan’s party, which was born of the ashes of Islamic parties crushed by Turkey’s secular establishment, knows that its strongest guarantee of survival will be to move closer to the (mostly Christian but secular) EU. On the other hand, Baykal leads the party of Kemal Ataturk, who founded modern Turkey out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, modernized it and made it obsessively secular, turning its back on Islam and the East. If he were alive today, he would be doing all in his considerable power to drag Turkey into the EU. Oddly enough it is Erdogan, a man whose party is seen as the greatest threat to the secular establishment set up by Ataturk, who is leading the charge toward Europe. And it was this that brought him to Athens on Monday, on an exceptionally rare high-level visit by a Turkish official. Erdogan, stripped of his right to run for office, has no official title other than leader of the ruling party, but he is the dominant force in Turkish politics and he was met in Athens by Prime Minister Costas Simitis. In a neatly symbolic twist, both Erdogan and Simitis summoned the ghosts of Kemal Ataturk and Eleftherios Venizelos to declare that their two countries could be friends, in the way that the two greatest statesmen of Turkey and Greece, who had led military campaigns against each other, built a strong (though short-lived) friendship between their nations in the 1930s. Both Erdogan and Simitis made all the right comments and appeared to be two men who could do business together. Erdogan, though professing that he would do all in his power to improve Greek-Turkish relations and help solve the Cyprus issue, indicated that he could not be more specific because his party had not yet formed a government and because Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash was ailing in New York. The result was that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s deadline passed at 7 p.m. that day, with only the Greek Cypriots agreeing that his plan was the basis for negotiations for a comprehensive solution to their island’s division. Simitis said he had suggested to Erdogan that agreeing to Annan’s plan and approving an EU-NATO deal that will allow the EU’s nascent defense force to use NATO assets could help Turkey achieve its desired aim of being given a date for accession talks at the EU summit in Copenhagen on December 12. The same summit is expected to invite Cyprus, Malta and eight former members of the eastern bloc to join the EU, and the United Nations, the EU and the United States are keen to see that a united Cyprus will accede to the Union in 2004. Erdogan must have liked Simitis’s proposal for a quid pro quo. Later in the week, he formulated his own horsetrading with the EU: You give us a date for accession talks and we may tell you by the Thessaloniki summit in June 2003 whether we agree with Annan’s plan and whether we agree to the EU-NATO deal. This was not likely to win any friends for Turkey at the Copenhagen summit, nor in Washington, which is very keen to see Ankara get its EU date but also wants a deal on Cyprus and on the Euroforce. Turkey, by doing its best all the time to get the best possible deal, sometimes seems to get drunk on the bargaining itself and lose sight of its objective. It is notable that Kenan Evren, the leader of a 1980 military coup and later president, said as much on Wednesday when he revealed that Turkish forces had taken more land than they planned to when they invaded Cyprus in 1974. This extra land was to be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Greek Cypriots, he said. But now the Turks and Turkish Cypriots appear determined not to discuss the return of land, seeing its possession as an end in itself, jeopardizing Turkey’s closer ties with the EU. «Why not give up on land? If we miss this opportunity, I don’t know when such an opportunity will arise again,» Evren said. Here, in other words, was the paragon of Turkey’s establishment man (and the general who led land forces in the Cyprus invasion) making a plea for a compromise on Cyprus that would help his country draw closer to Europe – a Europe that would never tolerate Turkey’s invading another country or being ruled by a military dictatorship. It might be difficult for Turkey to make changes, especially when they may be seen not as gains but as concessions; but when two players as different as Erdogan and Evren are vigorously in favor of the same target, anything is possible. But, most crucially, Turkey must earn its place in the EU, not only for the sake of the Union’s other members but for the functioning of its own democracy and human rights. Yesterday’s declarations by Erdogan and opposition leader Baykal at a joint news conference suggested, though, that old habits die hard. «We demand a date for the start of accession talks, it is Turkey’s right to get it,» Erdogan said. «If the decision in Copenhagen is negative, they will bear the consequences,» he said of the EU’s leaders. Baykal said the EU’s «credibility, integrity and dignity» were on the line. This was like the modern equivalent of the old Turkey speaking, the one that had given the Central Europeans a horrible fright before being turned back at the gates of Vienna in 1683. Our neighborhood might be changing but, still, nothing is easy. In the last 10 years the Balkans were riven by war and many problems remain. Countries may even belong to the same international organizations and still quarrel – as Greece and Turkey, who both joined NATO a full 50 years ago, have done over Cyprus. What always matters is how nations deal with each other. It is interesting to note that even here, where conflicting histories so often lead to historical conflicts, when we recall times of peace we remember our greatest statesmen.