x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Greeks and Turks say love thy neighbour

The two countries have enjoyed, or endured, a fractious relationship for centuries but recent events seem to show they have finally buried the hatchet.

Ahmet Davutoglou, right, the Turkish foreign minister, hosted Dimitris Droutsas, the Greek alternate foreign minister, during the latter's two-day working visit last month. The rival Mediterranean states have signed 21 bilateral agreements in Athens.
Ahmet Davutoglou, right, the Turkish foreign minister, hosted Dimitris Droutsas, the Greek alternate foreign minister, during the latter's two-day working visit last month. The rival Mediterranean states have signed 21 bilateral agreements in Athens.

One of the Mediterranean's most volatile couples seem to have at last been reconciled - and in the style of time-keeping beloved of southern Europeans, it is only about 600 years late. Greece and Turkey's wide-ranging alliance, which was finalised recently through the signing of 21 bilateral agreements in Athens, will mark a new era in strategic co-operation for the traditionally Mediterranean rivals.

What's more, if the "high-level co-operation council" of cabinet ministers continues to meet each year, as it did last weekend, Greece and Turkey might begin collaborating indefinitely on matters of energy, security, tourism and defence. As the Greek and Turkish flags flew side by side in Athens, the Greek prime minister George Papandreou welcomed his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayip Erdogan, whose 100-strong entourage of cabinet ministers and businessmen demonstrated the strength of Turkey's engagement. "I believe 2010 will go down in history," said Mr Erdogan. "Our countries showed the political will not only to be neighbours but also partners."

The rapprochement is a stark policy change for the two nations that have co-existed as often uneasy neighbours. A fractious Ottoman legacy, territorial disputes over land and sea, as well as other skirmishes, such as almost going to war over an uninhabited island in 1996, have hindered both sides from fully trusting one another. "Dog-fights should belong to the past," said Mr Papandreou after the weekend meeting. "We, as a country with so many islands, are afraid that Turkey could take from us a Greek island. Don't laugh. There is a fear. Can we push these fears away? Yes we can."

These days, the imminent fear of Greek debt default has trumped the fear of a Turkish threat for most Greeks, paving the way for a friendship that may prove far more amicable than that between any euro zone members. "Perceptions of Turkey will change in Greece after the way Germany treated the country," says Umit Kumcuoglu, the former vice president of JPMorgan Istanbul and private investment director who is an observer of changing European policy. "The rhetoric towards Turkey will soften and there will be a more symmetric relationship."

In the area of finance, this has already proven true. Last month, financial ministers from Ankara travelled to Athens to advise Greek politicians on "how to cut, where to cut and what to cut" to help reduce the country's deficit, said Mr Kumcuoglu. "From providing government capabilities to transparency, there are things to be learned on both sides." And yet, while the financial crisis has hastened co-operation in some areas, Greece and Turkey's detente is just as much the product of recent months as it is of years of laborious diplomacy.

In 1999, Mr Papandreou, then the foreign minister, spearheaded a policy aimed at building collaboration with Turkey after his country delivered Abdullah Ocalan, the long-sought leader of the suspected Kurdish-Turkish terrorist group PKK, into Turkey's hands. A period of what was termed "earthquake diplomacy" followed that summer, when two devastating earthquakes hit both countries' capitals prompting emergency aid and an outpouring of public sympathy from both sides.

Since then, a steady stream of positive signs have followed, both large and small: Greece's support of Turkey's ultimately blocked EU membership bid in 2004; a signed memorandum of understanding to train military personnel together; pledges to build more gas pipelines (there is currently just one); as well as smaller gestures such as Mr Papandreou's recent pledge to build a mosque in Athens to demonstrate his commitment to the country's Muslim minority.

Trade volume has also steadily increased, which both prime ministers hope will surpass the US$5 billion (Dh18.36bn) mark this year. And yet, reconciliation does not come without caveats: one of the deals that could not be made was a cut in defence spending, a continuous bone of contention that led to an unrestrained arms race between both states in the 1990s. Greece's budget has been leached by its military investment: at 2.8 per cent of its small GDP, it is one of the largest EU spenders on defence, well above the 1.7 per cent mark set by NATO. While Turkey maintains a more moderate spending policy, a reduction in weapons would serve to quell disquiet among the Turkish military, which has been unhappy with the country's Islamist-slanted Justice and Development Party since it came to power six years ago. Even as Mr Erdogan was en route to Athens, Turkish military jets flew into Greek airspace, sending a clear warning to both countries' ruling administrations.

Cyprus, home to the main territorial dispute between the two countries, is another potential stumbling block despite recent progress. During the recent conference, both prime ministers sought to distance themselves from the idea that their co-operation would pressure Cypriot leaders into quicker negotiations, and with due cause: a vote in the European parliament next month to allow Turkish Cyprus to trade with the EU could ostensibly unblock Turkey's membership bid, which Greece has strongly supported.

And yet, lingering doubts have been shoved aside for economic expediency. Greece's overwhelming debt needs to find a new home and with its credit rating shot, it needs to peddle its wares to more than just European leaders. Turkey, likewise, realises it remains in its best interest to exercise a "zero-problem" policy with its neighbour, both for economic and political gain. Mr Papandreou remarked that the historic meeting between the two leaders earlier this month was "a sincere desire to move on and leave behind us the myths of the past in Greek-Turkish relations". However, there should be no doubt that the new mythology being created is just as much a creature of realpolitik as it is of goodwill.