In late June 1997 – just 17 months after the Imia crisis and while Greek-Turkish relations remained extremely taught – I met in Washington with Peter Petrihos from the State Department’s Southeast Europe bureau at the time. He had insisted that we go out for a coffee. We met in Georgetown. We knew each other by virtue of his position and his dealing with Greece and the region, but also of his Greek heritage.
Petrihos asked me what I would be doing the following week, and I told him I would be going to Troutbeck in upstate New York for the Cyprus talks. I had a feeling there’d be some interesting developments, I told him. My feeling wasn’t based just on the fact that United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan would be attending, but mainly on the influential presence of the United States’ special envoy for Cyprus, Richard Holbrooke. The involvement of the architect of the Dayton Accords and the man who had been a catalyst in the interim agreement between Athens and Skopje a few years earlier gave the talks a whole new dynamic.
The talks would be taking place in the shadow of Cyprus’ purchase of a Russian S-300 anti-missile defense system as well as the European Commission’s decision to begin accession talks with the Republic of Cyprus the following year. The tension was as evident as the buzz of activity.
As I was speaking with some enthusiasm about the upcoming Cyprus talks, Petrihos interrupted me: “Why don’t you go to the NATO summit in Madrid instead?” “It’s just another summit, you know, leaders shaking hands and exchanging views, but in Troutbeck…” I answered.
“But everyone’s going to be in Madrid. [Then Greek prime minister Kostas] Simitis, [Turkey’s Süleyman] Demirel and, of course, us,” the American diplomat countered in an effort to send me a message which, I admit, I missed at the time.
I insisted that I did not want to downplay a summit attended by the likes of US President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, but that I expected real developments in Troutbeck. He gave up trying to convince me after three or four more attempts and it wasn’t until a week later that I realized why he had insisted: American diplomacy had been busy quietly laying the groundwork for the agreement signed between Simitis and Demirel on the sidelines of the Madrid summit on July 8.
In their new book about what they describe as the “agreement that turned the Aegean gray,” journalists Michael Ignatius and Nikos Meletis document the journey to the Madrid Declaration, drawing information from official US documents.
The US had started working on getting an agreement between the two sides right after the Imia crisis in January 1996. As the writers note, a series of confidential US telegrams laid out the planning, the talks and the bargaining that led to Madrid and everything that came after that.
Now, 23 years later, that agreement remains part of the equation of Greek-Turkish relations as it notes Turkey’s “legal and vital interests” in the Aegean and the commitment to “refrain from unilateral acts,” which concerns both parties.
The research done by the writers and the historical evidence presented are useful tools for anyone, in a book that is especially poignant at this particular time.