During one of the deepest troughs in bilateral relations in the fall of 1999 following the arrest of Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, Greece and Turkey went from being on the brink of war to a rapprochement, spearheaded by their foreign ministers, George Papandreou and the late Ismail Cem.
The thaw was mainly the result of two devastating earthquakes that rocked the two countries in August and September, and by the immediate mobilization of assistance both ways that followed.
“Earthquake diplomacy” allowed the countries to go from harsh and often menacing rhetoric – not just from politicians but also from ordinary citizens – to sincere solidarity within a very short period of time. The prevailing sense of humanity made it easier for willing if not daring politicians to take certain steps that would not have been otherwise unacceptable.
More than two decades have gone by since then and relations are tense once more. There is no need to go into Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s confrontational rhetoric, the Turkish-Libyan memorandum, the Evros crisis or the dangerous summer of 2020.
All these are known. It’s just that the arrival in Athens, today, of Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu serves as a reminder that despite Erdogan’s hold on power and his restrictions of fundamental freedoms, there are still institutional power centers in Turkey independent of the president with their own influence throughout society.
Through that prism, one ventures to encourage the popular mayor of Turkey’s biggest and most important city to take advantage of his role and the gravity of his office, and through his rhetoric and specific actions to contribute to a new rapprochement. The symbolism of Istanbul and Athens – the two countries’ biggest cities – is a solid foundation for effective initiatives.
Athens Mayor Kostas Bakoyannis traveled to Istanbul in March and received a warm welcome; something similar is expected during Imamoglu’s visit to Athens.
Sure, municipalities cannot replace governments. Nevertheless, a positive stance by an influential mayor matters, especially when that mayor represents a large part of the country as a whole, as is the case here.
As a result of the symbolic importance of the cities they represent, Imamoglu and Bakoyannis could – or should, I may say – seek ways and joint actions that will create a more favorable framework and a more positive climate at the city and citizen level that will facilitate, to the degree that this is feasible, an improvement in bilateral relations.