Athens-Ankara relations

Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have now met twice in a mere 10 days. Friday’s meeting between the two politicians, this time in Vienna, however, cannot be explained by the recent government announcement that laid out the content of the forthcoming bilateral talks. It is not plausible that Erdogan asked for a meeting to discuss measures for boosting tourism cooperation between the two neighbors or of decongesting car traffic on the Evros bridge linking the two countries. Nor is it likely that the conservative government in Athens has entered into a dialogue with Ankara on substantive issues even while systematically misleading Greek voters by making deals that are contrary to the national interest. Erdogan is clearly facing domestic challenges, with Turkish elections set to take place by the end of the year. Hence it is no surprise that the leader of the Islamic-leaning Justice and Development Party (AKP) is trying to rally his forces and prove that he continues to enjoy strong influence among allied countries, including Greece. On the sidelines of the recent Balkan summit in Sofia, Erdogan asked the Greek premier to make his long-delayed visit to Ankara, but Karamanlis is said to have kindly turned down the invitation. Instead, Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis is expected to attend a journalism conference in Istanbul on June 10. During that event, Bakoyannis is likely to take questions from Turkish journalists that will be then analyzed by the local and Greek media in what will be another step in the ongoing «citizen diplomacy.» But some important issues should also be on the agenda as the former Athens mayor is expected to meet Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. One would hope that Ankara will avoid any military provocations this time (former foreign minister Petros Molyviatis cut short his Ankara visit after Turkish fighter jets violated Greek air space over the Aegean) but there is no guarantee. To be sure, dialogue is always necessary. But given the timing of Bakoyannis’s upcoming visit, ahead of the elections in the neighboring country, her visiting agenda has been expanded beyond the usual issues of security in the Aegean Sea and Turkey’s policy toward EU-member Cyprus. During the recent Sofia meeting, Erdogan suggested that the mufti in western Thrace be elected by members of the Muslim minority but this failed to draw a response from Karamanlis. In Vienna, Erdogan objected to the unveiling last Saturday of a monument commemorating he deaths of hundreds of thousands of Pontic Greeks during World War I and in the 1922 Asia Minor catastrophe at the hands of the Turks. Of course Erdogan could not possibly expect Greece to show understanding on issues such as the Muslim minority or the memory of Pontic Greek victims. The political survival of the Turkish premier is not the business of the Karamanlis government. One other issue is high on the Turkish agenda yet was not discussed in public after the meeting between the two leaders: the heavy clouds now looming over Turkey’s European path. Speaking on Europe Day on May 9, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the need to define Europe’s final borders. In what was a clear hint at Turkey, Merkel said that European leaders should make clear to some countries that EU membership in the near future is impossible. Skepticism is not exclusive to Germany. France, Austria and the Netherlands are expressing similar reservations. Ankara is trying to make sure that the Greek government does not withdraw its support for Turkey’s EU aspirations. These are the issues, rather than talks on tourism cooperation, that explain why Erdogan demanded a fresh meeting with the Greek premier so soon after the last one. The question is whether the Greek government will continue to offer its warm-hearted support for Turkey’s European ambitions or take a more skeptical stance, since the accession process has clearly failed to generate any improvement in Ankara’s behavior toward Greece and the Republic of Cyprus.