Greece and Turkey dance, delicately

The Greek-Turkish relationship is like a glacier on a volcano: At times it moves so slowly that it is static for decades, at others an eruption changes the landscape and then the volcano settles down for decades of stillness once again. In this context, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Athens combined a gentle melting of the ice, some movement toward closer ties but also a glimpse of the fire below the surface. That fire can be either dangerous – as in the difficult issues that have plagued relations for decades – or promising – as in the friendship that would release untold benefits for both countries and the region as a whole. Ministers of the two countries signed 21 agreements and established a Supreme Greek-Turkish Cooperation Council, making the visit a historic occasion and a rare cause for optimism on both sides of the Aegean. The Turkish prime minister was accompanied by about 200 businessmen, leading to many intensive meetings with their Greek counterparts and the hope of new opportunities for trade and development. Erdogan and his host, Prime Minister George Papandreou, expressed hope that this was a new start that would also lead to the solution of the most difficult problems between the two countries as well. «I am certain, along with my friend and counterpart George, that we can and will succeed in this difficult task. If we remain determined, we will get past all obstacles. Of course there will be those who will try to obstruct these steps. We politicians, however, will get past these obstacles if we remain determined, because we know well that the economy demands risks. And we know, above all, that life itself means taking risks. But we must take the necessary steps,» he said. Erdogan’s comment may have sounded like the usual good wishes at such events but, such being the relationship between Greece and Turkey, they were pregnant with meaning – and ambiguity. Who are those who oppose closer ties? The Turkish military or Greek journalists? From comments that Erdogan made later during his visit, it would appear that he considers both groups responsible for maintaining tension. The reference to the economy was aimed at reminding his Greek audience that the purpose of his visit was to create opportunities for developing commercial and business ties at a time when Greece is floundering toward bankruptcy. Erdogan’s repeated statements that Greece and Turkey were now not only neighbors but partners, were most welcome in Greece. So were comments regarding Erdogan’s apparent acceptance of the ecumenical nature of the Patiarchate and his expectation of positive developments regarding the Orthodox seminary on Halki, which has been closed for nearly four decades, and the return to the Patriarchate of an orphanage building. On the issues of Cyprus, territorial rights in the Aegean and the Turkish parliament’s vote declaring war on Greece if it extends its territorial waters, Erdogan stuck to his country’s positions but indicated that these problems could be solved with concessions on both sides. On all these issues, Greeks would beg to differ, seeing themselves on the defensive against Turkey’s persistent questioning of their rights. Among all the benefits of the visit, Erdogan’s irritation at the constant reference to violations of Greece’s air space by Turkish warplanes may seem like a black mark. On the contrary, this may signal that Turkey’s political leadership will realize just how much relations are harmed by such actions. Erdogan has put his reputation on the line to press for closer ties with Greece and he has seen that Papandreou is the Greek leader who can move in this direction more than any other. It must be clear to him that playing up the differences between the two countries is beneficial to no one, damages good will and holds up progress that will benefit both sides. Having shown time and again that he fears nothing, if Erdogan tackles the problem of Aegean air space in a way that eases tension, then his visit will truly open a new era in relations between Greeks and Turks and lead to the solution of even more difficult problems.

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