Defying Conventional Wisdom on Greek-Turkish Affairs

By
Alkis Courcoulas

October 25, 2002 -- "Papandreou is boosting Turkey's morale," a statement that would normally blare on the front page of an Athens tabloid denouncing Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou's "soft policy" on Turkey, was instead the main headline in the respected Turkish daily Milliyet on October 10.

That day, spirits in Ankara hit an all time low. The European Commission had made the details of its progress report on Turkey's preparation for EU membership public. The Commission had decided not to offer Ankara a date for the start of accession talks, recognizing Turkey's progress in many areas but citing insufficient steps chiefly in human rights and democratization reform.

Turks had many reasons to be demoralized. Nothing seems to have worked for the country lately. The economy has stabilized on a razor's edge, but it is now seriously threatened by the prospect of war in Iraq, and persistent political instability was made evident again by the tumultuous parliamentary election process underway. The November 3 elections, which seemed to provide hope for change a few months ago, are now causing additional concerns.

As things stand, former economy minister Kemal Dervis, the only person trusted to keep the economy afloat, might not be in a position of authority after the elections. If he is, he will certainly face an uphill battle trying to convince his new political partners that certain steps toward fiscal discipline need to be taken.

In addition, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist, is poised to claim an overwhelming victory in the elections, despite a ban on Erdogan's own candidacy. Turkey's Kemalist elite despise Erdogan as an outsider whom they view as being hostile to Turkey's pronounced secularism.

The popularity of all three parties of the current governing coalition, the Democratic Left Party (DSP) of Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) of Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli, and the Motherland Party (ANAP) of Deputy Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz, is also in free fall, dropping far below the 10 percent threshold required for representation in parliament. The elimination of all three parties from the next parliament is considered certain.

The only positive development under these adverse circumstances has been the progress the Turkish government has made in moving the country toward eligibility for European Union membership. The legislative reform package that was approved by parliament last summer was a Herculean achievement. The European Commission's failure to give the reform package more weight in its progress report was considered unjust by both the Turkish government and the Turkish public.

The progress report provoked anger on the part of Turkish Foreign Minister Sukru Sina Gurel. Gunter Verheugen, the European Union's Commissioner for Enlargement, did not respond to Gurel's telephone calls. Eyewitnesses had described the atmosphere of the last meeting between the two men in early October as "glacial."

So George Papandreou reached out to Gurel and offered advice that the Turkish minister has apparently heeded. Papandreou told Gurel to pay less attention to the progress report and to keep fighting to promote a "political decision" at the December EU Copenhagen summit to set a date for launching Turkey's accession talks. Papandreou promised to keep up the fight himself to see that a date is set at the summit.

Papandreou's spectacular gesture, reflecting Greece's strong support for Turkey's EU accession, spoke more to Greek policy toward Turkey than any diatribe about jurisdictional disputes between the two countries in the Aegean. It revealed even more than the Greek side's calculated decision last summer not to raise the issue of the Turkish government's interference in the buying and selling of property belonging to foundations of the Greek minority in Istanbul. There is no doubt that, under different circumstances, Athens would have insisted on more respect from an EU candidate country concerning the foundation property issue.

The Milliyet headline has prepared the region for more surprises that will defy the conventional wisdom on Greece's policy toward Turkey. Indeed, the Papandreou-Gurel conversation, extraordinary as it was, was not the only manifestation of the strong relations between the two countries that have been steadily developing over the past three years.

In the last six months alone, despite the acute political crisis in Turkey, Ankara has hosted half of the Greek cabinet. Development Minister Akis Tsohatzopoulos, Finance Minister Nikos Christodoulakis, Culture Minister Evangelos Venizelos, and Defense Minister Yannos Papantoniou had long, cordial meetings with their Turkish counterparts and pushed through a number of bilateral projects, including the extension of a natural gas pipeline from central Turkey to Greece.

By the time Papantoniou, the last visitor, was boarding his air force jet to return to Athens, it was clear that what started in 1999 as a new policy toward Turkey is now the unopposed policy of the government of Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis. It is not only the personal achievement of George Papandreou. It is a policy that has developed roots both in the political class and in Greek society.

Prior to the Papandreou-Gurel conversation about the EU, Venizelos, a distinguished professor of constitutional law, explained on Turkish television why the accession of Cyprus to the EU will automatically provide a framework for tackling all Turkish concerns in Cyprus, including the need for the protection of personal and community rights. His arguments were published in a column in the respected Turkish newspaper Radikal.

The Turkish elite are well aware of the positive steps being taken by the Greek government. Nevertheless, a large number of Turkish officials, politicians, and journalists, and even a large section of the Turkish public, finds it easier to suspect and fear the motives of the Greeks. This view spares the need to scratch below the surface for more comprehensive explanations of the new patterns that have recently characterized Greek-Turkish relations. It also perpetuates the stereotypes concerning these relations that have existed for decades.

The expected invitation to Cyprus to accede to the European Union is not a small achievement. It settles an issue that has haunted political life in Greece since the collapse of the junta in 1974. For the Greek government, Cyprus is not simply an international relations exercise. It is a challenge that is possibly greater than Greece's entry into the euro-zone and the dismantling of the November 17 terrorist group.

The Simitis government claims credit for having contributed to efforts to solve the Cyprus problem, one of the most persistent national conflicts since the Second World War, by opening the way for Cyprus's EU accession. "Enosis," the union of Cyprus with Greece, once the inspiration for extremist Greek Cypriot violence against the small Turkish Cypriot community, now exists as a straw man for Turkish nationalists desperate to resist the reunification of Cyprus.

Cyprus's accession to the EU, which is also supported by the vast majority of the Turkish Cypriot community against the will of the Turkish Cypriot leadership, is a definite victory over nationalism and ethnic conflict. It clearly shows that the way to solve conflicts such as these is not by creating Lilliputian "sovereign" states that end up as fiefs of authoritarian dignitaries. EU accession transcends national and ethnic conflicts through the new European architecture. In this way, the magnitude of Cyprus's accession can be enormous with regard to the positive effect it will have on tackling national and ethnic conflicts that are haunting southeastern Europe.

Having Cyprus in the EU will be a sound development from which Turkish Cypriots and Turkey will definitely benefit. In fact, the Turkish side could be benefiting right now from the EU accession process, rather than unreasonably and unrealistically promoting to the international community the rights of an illegal entity unilaterally created in 1983 by Ankara's military government in power at that time.

Taking this road was perhaps an obvious option within the framework of adversity, animosity, and bitterness that has long prevailed between Greece and Turkey. Once this framework began melting away, and it continues to do so, the arguments put forward by the Turkish side on Cyprus began to become dated and increasingly incomprehensible to most parties, including many Turks. A significant portion of the Turkish elite, well aware of regional and international policy shifts that render old Cyprus positions unworkable, is struggling to change the national mindset on Cyprus. In doing so, Ankara should definitely get whatever help is necessary from Athens, and from the European Union.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant