Silent work to improve ties with Greece

For some time now, Greek-Turkish relations have been witnessing a good mixture of silent and public diplomacy efforts with frequent high-profile appearances here and there, leading observers of foreign policy to the belief that something is definitely up in solving the decades-long problems between the two neighbors.

It is well established that both political elites in the respective countries believe there is an important and unique opportunity at this juncture to capitalize on, and they are willing to take a leap of faith to advance and solve some of the thorny issues that have affected good neighborly relations for many years. The only serious handicap remaining seems to be Greek public opinion, influenced by a national media that seems stuck in the Cold War era and still sensationalizes issues with Turkey. In contrast, however, the Turkish public cares little or pays no attention to what is happening in Greece, as Greek-related news hardly makes it onto newspaper pages or to the broadcast media in Turkey anymore.

Bilateral meetings at the highest governmental level have already had a trickle-down impact on the lower echelons of the bureaucracy on both sides of the Aegean Sea. For example, little was reported about the visit of Vice Adm. Dimitrios Elefsiniotis to Ankara last week, but it was surely a significant one from that perspective. Though both commanders played down expectations in their public remarks, my sources are telling me that Elefsiniotis proposed a sort of gentlemen’s agreement to his counterpart, Adm. Eşref Uğur Yiğit, that naval vessels will avoid any friction in disputed territorial waters in order to reduce tension in the Aegean, with a possibility of further cooperation to follow.

The cordial meeting followed another one with Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Işık Koşaner, who said during closed-door discussions that both military forces need to adopt a number of confidence building measures to follow the example already set by their politicians. Underlining that reported violations of territorial waters were reduced in 2010 when compared to previous years, the Greek commander said cooperation in the sea may lead to further engagement in other areas as well. In fact, the Greek navy in recent years has halted its practice of seizing private Turkish vessels or arresting their crews when they allegedly violate territorial waters.

It looks like many forces are at work at the same time to improve ties between the two countries, and it is not just limited to government-to-government contacts. The business community and nongovernmental organizations are also pitching in to develop more friendly ties. Of course, there are limitations and hard-to-crack problematic issues out there, and one needs to be extra careful and should pay due diligence when approaching the problems captivating the two nations for many years.

But hopes are certainly running high at both ends. Even in the latest revision of the Red Book, also called the secret constitution of Turkey drafted by the National Security Council (MGK), there were conciliatory remarks about relations with Greece. The country, for the first time, was taken out as a national security threat, though the issue of the extension of Greek territorial waters to 12 nautical miles remained as a “casus belli.” Discussions are under way to solve the dispute on territorial waters, but there has been no agreement on that yet. I do not know how, but Greece may come to an understanding with Turkey that extending the claim to 12 miles may suffocate Turkey in the Aegean without dropping the official claim in lieu of an international maritime agreement.

Cooperation also showed results in the air, where dogfights between warplanes decreased significantly. According to Greek media reports, there were 239 dogfights over the Aegean in 2009, whereas the number of incidents dropped sharply to only 14 during the January-October 2010 period. The order to “keep your distance” given by top air force commanders in their respective countries in order to avoid catastrophe has played a significant role in this and should be commended. If we leave aside our differences on narrow strait passages in the Aegean, both militaries can cooperate on a number of issues much more effectively and efficiently, for example on illegal immigration and human and drug trafficking.

It is worth mentioning here that Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou is expected to attend a traditional foreign policy meeting with Turkish diplomats serving abroad in January next year in Ankara. This is the first time a Greek prime minister will address close to 200 Turkish diplomats who are either serving abroad as permanent representatives or as ambassadors. All indications are that Papandreou is personally committed to improving ties with his eastern neighbor and is determined to advance on a number of sticky issues. He personally knows how the militarization of policies damages ties, as his late father was forced to live in exile after the Greek military junta took over power.

It may be ironic, but in the late 1980s, the senior Papandreou failed to reciprocate calls from Turkish Prime Minster Turgut Özal for a new beginning in relations by shelving tough issues and focusing on economic cooperation. Nobody could claim that conditions were ripe on the Turkish side to accept such rapprochement either. But the junior Papandreou seems to be acting in a way so as to not miss another chance to put ties with Turkey on the right track. This is a win-win situation, and it will benefit both countries immensely as we have seen in windfall profits stemming from economic cooperation.

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