Keeping an eye on Ankara

Last week’s tragic jet collision over the Aegean, and the subsequent loss of a Greek air force pilot, may be over and done with but it still raises questions of crucial political significance. And the way these issues are tackled will determine the credibility of Costas Karamanlis’s government and the country’s entire political system. First of all, in the ongoing military dispute between Greece and Turkey, our armed forces – more specifically, our air force pilots – constitute the only body of citizens who carry out their duties to the letter. The existence of a Turkish threat was made quite clear by our political leadership several decades ago and our military executives have determined how our armed forces should react in the event of Turkish provocations. As a result, this is not a case of some thoughtless «kids» playing around in the air while our «mature» politicians try to contain any potential crises. But – so that no more lives are lost in vain – the Greek government should either revise its perception of the Turkish threat or – in the event that we witness a systematic perpetuation of Turkish provocations – it should make quite clear what political repercussions Ankara would face as a result of its behavior. No one in their right mind would propose escalating the current «controlled military tension» to a conflict situation. But when our prime minister warns that Turkey’s behavior is incompatible with its bid to join the European Union, then this should come across loud and clear and should not be lost in crowd of voices. Otherwise Greece’s efforts will be in vain and its profile on the international stage will be weakened. Another crucial issue to bear in mind is that the next few months will see tensions escalate for two major reasons: The European environment is becoming increasingly foreboding for Turkey. In December 2004, the only country expressing significant resistance to Turkey’s EU bid was Austria, but over time it was joined by Germany’s Angela Merkel and skeptics from France and the Netherlands – each for different reasons. The second reason for likely tensions is that Ankara has until the end of this year to implement an EU protocol expanding its customs union to include all EU states and thus open its ports and airports to Cypriot ships and aircraft. Otherwise, Nicosia has said that it will impose a veto on the release of further funding to the Turkish-occupied north of Cyprus. In other words, Turkey is facing serious and pressing problems because of its EU bid. It would be a poor choice of tactics if Athens were to give Ankara the impression that it will not hinder its neighbor’s bid under any circumstances (even though it has every reason to do so). Public threats and hostile declarations are out of place in the current environment. Countries far more powerful than Greece, such as the USA, face the political disobedience of backward countries when they slide into excessive rhetoric. But Turkey has until the end of this year to realize that Greece will become one of the strictest critics of its EU bid and that Ankara’s quibbles about fulfilling its commitments to the European Commission will not be tolerated. The Ottoman Empire survived for years as the «sick man of Europe.» It would be a great historical mistake if it is embodied within the EU as a different kind of patient. Apart from the above, there is another pressing issue in Greek-Turkish relations. Bank of Greece Governor Takis Arapoglou has finally conceded to appear before a parliamentary committee to testify about the bank’s purchase of a majority share of Turkey’s Finansbank. Already, the financial expediency of this venture has been questioned. Economy Minister Giorgos Alogoskoufis has distanced himself from the whole affair over the past week, stressing – quite correctly – that his role is not that of investment adviser. Arapoglou is an exceptional economist, according to experts. But the economy is not a matter of bureaucracy, nor can it be dissociated from the political environment. In this case it does not just constitute an investment opportunity but is also a country undergoing an intense domestic crisis and dangerous aggravation. Consequently, the leap eastward being contemplated by National Bank’s governor should be considered with great skepticism.