x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Turkey and Greece look to strengthen ties

Neighbours' embattled leaders are to meet in Athens to boost relations - including rewriting school textbooks to cut contentious passages.

ISTANBUL // Long-standing rivals Turkey and Greece may be about to take a historic step to end their enmity - by no longer teaching children in both countries to hate their neighbour.

A reform of history sections in primary and middle school textbooks in both countries will be on the agenda during a ground-breaking visit of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, to Athens, Turkish diplomats said. Mr Erdogan will meet his Greek counterpart, George Papandreou, tomorrow and will take almost a dozen of his ministers to Greece for the first Greek-Turkish meeting of its kind. Meetings of the two cabinets are planned yearly from now on, with individual ministers getting together twice a year. Mr Erdogan's visit could usher in a new era in bilateral relations, Turkish press reports said.

Both prime ministers face difficult times at home and could use a foreign-policy success. Mr Papandreou, in the midst of a severe financial crisis that threatens to bankrupt Greece and undermine the euro, is about to put tough austerity measures into action amid widespread unrest that killed three people in Athens last week. Mr Erdogan is facing resistance against plans to reform the Turkish constitution, a row that could trigger a new effort to ban his ruling party. The fact that neither Mr Papandreou nor Mr Erdogan has been willing to postpone their meeting despite their difficulties shows how important an improvement in bilateral ties has become in both countries.

Turkey and Greece are traditional rivals in the eastern Mediterranean and in the Cyprus conflict. Both countries regularly accuse each other of ignoring the needs of their respective ethnic minorities - Christian Greeks in Turkey and Muslim Turks in Greece. In 1996, the two Nato countries came close to war in a dispute over an uninhabited islet in the Aegean. Since then, relations have improved greatly, even though the main problems between the two countries, the Cyprus dispute and conflicting territorial claims in the Aegean, remain unsolved.

There have been new hopes for a breakthrough since Mr Papandreou, an architect of the first Turkish-Greek rapprochement during his time as foreign minister in the late 1990s, came to power as prime minister in Athens last year. He met Mr Erdogan during a short trip to Istanbul shortly after his election victory. Now Mr Erdogan is travelling to Athens. Ten ministers, from the foreign minister to the transportation minister, are accompanying the Turkish prime minister, media reports say.

According to the reports, Mr Erdogan is also considering taking Bartholomew I, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, with him to Athens as a gesture of reconciliation. Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians around the world, resides in Istanbul. There has been no official word on whether the patriarch will be on the prime minister's plane. Education is another sensitive issue. According to Turkish diplomats, the education ministers of both sides are to sign an agreement to strengthen "mutual understanding" and Turkish-Greek friendship in textbooks for primary and middle schools.

The Turkish side is promising to change passages in textbooks that describe Greece as a threat in the Cyprus conflict, the Aksam newspaper reported. Another textbook that the Turkish side wants to change says that Greece is still harbouring dreams to one day take possession of Turkish territory. Other books portray Greeks both in Greece and Turkey, as well as the Greek Orthodox Church, as threats to Turkey. A high-ranking Turkish diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the newspaper report.

Given the financial turmoil in Greece, economic issues will also figure prominently during the talks. Turkey, which went through a severe banking crisis in 2001 and had to adopt a tough reform programme designed by the International Monetary Fund to avoid bankruptcy, has offered its crisis management expertise to its neighbour. "We are ready to help in any capacity, whether technical expertise or any other way but it will be up to the Greek authorities to ask for it," a Turkish diplomat said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

"We do not want a weak neighbour as it might affect us in the long run as well." Turkish officials have also said that both countries should stop the expensive build-up of armed forces in the Mediterranean. "The crisis is an opportunity," Turkish media quoted Egemen Bagis, Ankara's minister for EU affairs, as saying this week. Both countries keep strong naval and air force units in the Aegean, where the exact delineation of the common border is disputed. Greek and Turkish fighter jets have been engaged in dogfights over the disputed territory. Mr Bagis said that the arms race in the Aegean had been one of the reasons behind Greece's financial woes.

Outside government offices, there is a distinct sense of pride and schadenfreude in Turkish reactions to the Greek crisis. Turkey used to be seen as hopelessly backward but has managed to become a member of the G20 group of the 20 biggest economies in the world with an expected growth rate of more than five per cent this year. When a German newspaper published a cartoon depicting a takeover of Greece by Turkey, including a Turkish flag flying over the Acropolis, the picture was reprinted in every major Turkish newspaper.

"Our flag looks good there," a reader wrote to the website of the CNN-Turk news channel. @Email:tseibert@thenational.ae