Division Mars Aegean Paradise; Greece, Turkey Struggle to Keep Peace in Islands

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 18, 2006 | Go to article overview

Division Mars Aegean Paradise; Greece, Turkey Struggle to Keep Peace in Islands


Byline: Andrew Borowiec, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

NICOSIA, Cyprus - Diplomatic broadsides explode regularly over these emerald waters sprinkled with myriad islands. Political initiatives follow periods of tension, only to return to the perpetual stalemate in relations between Greece and Turkey.

The issue is the Aegean Sea, which the poet Homer described as "calm as a slumbering babe" today a magnet for tourism, a series of pastel-colored vistas illustrating perhaps the closest image to paradise.

But for Greece and Turkey, uneasy partners and rivals in the Aegean, paradise is full of traps. The breathtaking views are marred by disputes over the continental shelf, the width of territorial waters, control of the sea and air space in short, possession of more than a thousand islands between the Greek and Turkish mainlands.

Only 130 islands are inhabited. The others are picturesque rocks protruding from the water. Greece claims 34 percent of the sea's area, Turkey, which owns only two of the islands, claims 8.5 percent. The rest is international waters.

For years the conflicting claims in the Aegean have weighed on Athens and Ankara, bringing considerable military deployment along Turkey's Anatolian coast and on the islands, periodic war jitters and a perpetual diplomatic challenge.

Last month, Greek and Turkish F-16 fighter jets collided in the southern Aegean. The Greek pilot, Capt. Costas Iliakis, 35, was killed in the May 23 crash. Unusually cautious diplomacy by Greece and Turkey prevented wider repercussions.

Limiting the dangers

On June 10, when Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis visited Turkey, the two countries agreed to establish a telephone "hot line" between the Greek command center at Larissa and the Turkish air base at Eskisehir to reduce the dangers caused by overflights and close maneuvers. Other confidence-building measures call for extending the summer moratorium on military maneuvers in the Aegean and for joint exercises on how to deal with natural disasters.

Greek press and Athens-based diplomats remain skeptical about the effectiveness of such steps and about Turkey's intentions.

Significantly, before Mrs. Bakoyannis traveled to Ankara and Istanbul, the Greek National Defense General Staff warned against efforts to demilitarize the Aegean, saying it would favor Turkey's military superiority and possible territorial claims.

At the same time, an opinion poll showed that 68 percent of Greeks consider disputes in the Aegean to be the most serious problem in relations between Greece and Turkey both NATO allies while only 10 percent felt the division of Cyprus is the biggest issue.

In another poll, one in four respondents declared it "quite logical" for Greece and Turkey to go to war "in the next few years."

In the view of the conservative Athens daily Kathimerini:

"The public sees that things are not going well with Turkey and that the situation is unlikely to improve. So all we can do is to keep our distance, engage in jousting matches over the Aegean and continue the arms race."

Greek goals limited

According to former Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, the best the Greek government can hope for in the Aegean is "permanent dialogue that might lead to more concrete developments in the future."

The circumstances of the latest midair collision illustrate the danger of such flights. The Greek plane was shadowing a Turkish reconnaissance plane flying within the Athens Flight Information Region without having submitted a flight plan. Apparently, the incident took place at 27,000 feet, threatening civil aviation traffic in the area.

This is the time of year when tourists swarm to admire the white-walled villages perched on the Aegean islands. Ferry boats begin to be crowded, and private yachts compete for berths in the colorful harbors. …

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