OPINION

Conditional talks

Rumors long rife in diplomatic circles have finally been confirmed by Greece’s foreign minister, George Papandreou. After nearly 30 months of Greek-Turkish dialogue over non-controversial issues, the two sides will start addressing crucial issues, namely the dispute over the Aegean Sea’s continental shelf. Papandreou says that, in the framework of this dialogue, Greece will explore the possibility of signing an agreement to refer the issue of the delimitation of the continental shelf to the International Court of Justice at The Hague, but this is more a Greek ambition than a pragmatic expectation. During the talks, to take place between top-ranking Foreign Ministry officials of the two countries, each side will be able to raise the issues they consider bilateral disputes. This in practice means that Ankara will be well positioned to raise the whole range of its unilateral claims made so far – from the shrinking of its national air space to the infamous «gray zones.» Turkey is granted this right by the Helsinki summit decisions, which mandate that the two countries negotiate their territorial disputes and if no progress has been achieved by 2004, that any disputes be taken to the international tribunal. In truth, then, Prime Minister Costas Simitis’s government will take part in a comprehensive dialogue over the status of the Aegean Sea, something all post-1974 governments have been endeavoring to avoid. In this sense, a significant shift is under way in Greece’s foreign policy. The responsible government officials do not ignore this fact, but invoke the argument that this process is necessary so that, when the time comes, they will be able to request that any disputes be taken to The Hague. This process, however, is not as innocent as it first seems. Experience and the positions of both countries leave little room for optimism as regards the outcome. Turkey will most likely try to exploit the talks to legitimize its unilateral, expansionist claims in the Aegean. Given that Athens has entered this slippery path, the only way it can avert such a development and emerge unscathed is to demand a prior agreement that both sides will approach the issues in legal terms and not in terms of political bargaining, as Ankara desires. In practice, this means that Turkey has to commit itself to keep its positions in line with international law and respectful of international treaties. UN special envoy for Cyprus Alvaro de Soto is guiding the talks, but is said to be taking a back seat at this early stage. Media reports suggest he will take a more active role in bridging the constitutional gap between Clerides and Denktash after the break. The United Nations has budgeted $1.41 million for 10 rounds of talks, eight in Cyprus and probably one round in New York and Geneva. The talks are based on an «everything is on the table» and «nothing agreed until everything is agreed» premise. The two veteran negotiators, who have known each other for some 50 years, met December 4 for their first face-to-face talks in four years and agreed the first signs of a solution should emerge by June.