Erdogan is back in town

Not long ago, meetings between leaders of Greece and Turkey were monumental affairs, highly publicized intervals between decades of saber-rattling and tactical maneuvers. Now Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to hold his third meeting with George Papandreou since the latter was elected prime minister just a year ago. Times have changed and, with them, Greece and Turkey. Since leading his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in March 2003 – a time during which Greece has had three prime ministers – Erdogan has established himself as the most important politician in the region: He has reshaped Turkey’s domestic political landscape radically and changed its standing on the global scene and in relation to all its neighbors. Since Erdogan’s election, Turkey’s influence in the region has increased, despite the fact that he faced great challenges both in politics and in the economy. Greece’s pull, on the other hand, has dwindled, in inverse proportion to its deficits and debt. Cyprus remains the nettle that Turkey refuses to let go of but Cyprus’s fate, since it joined the European Union in 2004 and rejected a United Nations plan for reunification, is very much in Nicosia’s own hands. Domestically, Erdogan’s triumph in last September’s referendum allowed him to push forward reforms defanging the military and judicial forces that dominated Turkey since Kemal Ataturk founded the republic in 1923. Each time the establishment challenged him, Erdogan upped the stakes and beat the «deep state» at its own game – defeating in court an effort to outlaw his party and its leaders, pushing through his own candidate for president and jailing alleged conspirators against him. An Islamist, Erdogan undermined the pro-Western elite’s raison d’etre by pushing Turkey toward the EU, adopting reforms that will prevent the armed forces from overturning elected governments, as they did in the past. The self-confidence with which Erdogan has acted allowed Turkey to oppose US policy in Iraq and Iran without losing influence in Washington. He has also raised high the flag of opposition to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. In an interview with Skai TV on Monday (see Pages 4-5), Erdogan declared flatly that he would not come to Greece on Friday if his Israeli counterpart were to attend the climate conference. Apart from gaining influence in the Muslim and Arab world, Ankara has pursued a policy of «zero problems» with its neighbors and has sought to regain influence among Turkic-speaking nations in the broader region. Whatever else he does, Erdogan will go down in history as one of Turkey’s most important leaders. And that is what makes it all the more difficult for Greeks to understand why – despite the huge changes that both countries have undergone in the past few years – Turkey and Greece have still not managed to come to a viable modus vivendi, to enjoy the peace dividend that both need. Erdogan and Papandreou are the two leaders who could come closer than any others, yet both are forced to hold back – through lack of daring because of entrenched opinions on both sides. The Turkish prime minister has repeatedly made conciliatory statements regarding the thorns of Turkish overflights in the Aegean and the threat of war, should Greece exercise its right (in accordance with the Law of the Sea) to double its territorial waters to 12 miles. But he has qualified this in a way that Ankara gets precisely what it wants out of Athens in return. This is not a compromise, it is the dictation of terms. Last time he was here, in May, Erdogan declared a historic turning point in relations, noting that 21 agreements had been signed. He was angered, however, when, in a meeting with newspaper editors, he was persistently questioned over the issue of Turkish warplanes flights over Greek islands. In his interview with Skai, ahead of his latest visit, Erdogan made his strongest statement yet against the overflights. And yet, he again blamed his country’s armed forces for this, as if he were powerless to affect them. The Greeks, however, see Erdogan as the man who managed to impose his will on the Turkish establishment on much more important issues. The argument that he cannot stop the overflights does not hold water here. As the most dynamic player on the scene, it is up to him to show, in deeds, exactly where he stands with regard to Greece.

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