Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Fallout from "Earthquake Diplomacy" Leads to Unprecedented Thaw in Greek-Turkish Relations

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Fallout from "Earthquake Diplomacy" Leads to Unprecedented Thaw in Greek-Turkish Relations

Article excerpt

Fallout From "Earthquake Diplomacy" Leads to Unprecedented Thaw in Greek-Turkish Relations

Two massive earthquakes, more open dialogue, and the forward-looking perspectives of two foreign ministers of a new generation have combined to produce perhaps the most significant easing of tensions between Turkey and Greece since the 1950s.

Last August, the first of the two killer quakes rumbled through cities in northwestern Turkey, killing thousands and forcing thousands more from their homes. Among the first rescuers to arrive on the scene was a team from Greece. That search-and-rescue group pulled a nine-year-old Turkish boy alive from the rubble of an apartment building after digging with their hands around the clock.

R. Jeffrey Smith of The Washington Post reported the next day that leading Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, in an unprecedented gesture, printed a grateful message in Greek: "Thank you very much, my friend." Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou said "through this tragedy, we have become spiritually much closer." Turkish residents on the streets applauded the Greek rescuers during their drive to the airport to return home. Correspondent Smith reported that Greek citizens then donated blood for 33,000 Turks injured in the earthquake and offered the use of their vacation homes for those left homeless or orphaned.

On Sept. 7, it was Turkey's turn to help Greece, when a major earthquake struck near Athens. Turkish rescue teams rushed to the Greek capital to assist. They immediately delivered relief supplies and reconstruction materials, despite their own considerable domestic housing and winterizing needs.

At the end of last year, Greece for the first time assisted Turkey with an application to join the European Union. The two foreign ministers, Papandreou and his Turkish counterpart Ismail Cem, have been in constant contact since the quakes of 1999 to find ways of mending relations between the two traditional Aegean adversaries.

The rapprochement has rolled on into the new year. In late January, Papandreou visited Ankara. The two foreign ministers signed agreements on investment protection in each other's countries, cooperation in fighting organized crime, in preventing illegal immigration, in promoting tourism, and in protecting the environment. Less than three weeks later, Cem returned the visit by going to Athens. More agreements were signed, enhancing cultural and economic collaboration.

Most significant, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit extended an invitation to Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis to visit Turkey, and Simitis accepted. His visit is to be the first by a Greek prime minister to Turkey in more than 40 years.

Significant differences remain, however, on some key issues -- among them, territorial issues in the Aegean, and minority rights. And both sides agree that the real test of improved relations will be the issue which has been the greatest potential irritant in their relations for two generations: Cyprus.

Intercommunal talks between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots have been going on for more than three decades, with virtually no progress. The latest talks at the U.N. foundered in December. In May or June, Greek Cypriot leader Glafkos Clerides and his Turkish counterpart, Rauf Denktash, are to try again.

Turkish Foreign Minister Cem's visit to Athens in early February coincided with a conference there of Greek and Turkish journalists and mass media executives, the first ever held. …

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