Greek-Turkish Relations

By Kotzias, Konstantinos | Contemporary Review, April 2000 | Go to article overview

Greek-Turkish Relations


Kotzias, Konstantinos, Contemporary Review


THE last year has been particularly tricky for the Greek policy makers who had to respond to one crisis after the other. First, the abduction of the Kurdish rebel leader, Abdullah Ocalan, on 16 February 1999, initially shook the Greek government and partially uplifted Turkey's. Among the Greek public, however, who perceived the Ocalan crisis as close to a national defeat and a betrayal of noble-fighting Kurds, some argued that this was a deceptive defeat and an indication that Greek foreign policy had shifted significantly over the last years. The crisis in Kosovo put further pressure on the Greek government, as it had to face a mainly anti-NATO, pro-Serbian, fellow orthodox Greek public.

The Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis had to perform an acrobatic balancing act, in order to save his government and Greece's reputation in the West. It seems that he did just enough and, moreover, miraculously the relations with Turkey improved following a huge change in public sentiment, after deadly earthquakes in both countries. This 'earthquake diplomacy' provided a unique opportunity for people who sincerely want rapprochement. The Ocalan crisis and NATO's new-found 'humanitarian' orientation, however, seem to have contributed substantially to the developments in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Ocalan crisis began when Turkey escalated diplomatic pressure on Syria, in which its most wanted man was hiding. After a brief odyssey in Europe, Ocalan was abducted in Kenya, where he was staying under the protection of the Greek Embassy, and transported to a top security Turkish prison. Stories of the Greek involvement in the capture reached the media and the crisis erupted. The whole affair had a significant impact on both Greek and Turkish domestic and foreign policies. The Greek government, in particular, suffered politically after the opposition's claims of amateurism, incompetence, and weakness in dealing with Turkish aggressive policies. The government just survived the turmoil.

Turkish officials eagerly celebrated and exploited Ocalan's capture publicly, as a major victory against Kurdish terrorism, and rushed to sentence him to death in a controversial trial in June, during the crisis in Kosovo. They seemed, however, rather unwilling to carry out the sentence -- at least soon -- although the sentence was confirmed on 25 November 1999 by Turkey's court of appeals. Turkey finds it difficult to persuade other nations that the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fight is unjustified terrorism. The 15 or so million Turkish Kurds officially have the same rights as any Turkish citizen, although in reality they are still treated as second class citizens and there are many allegations of human rights violations. Last year's developments are particularly significant as first they suggest a definite shift in Greek foreign policy, and second -- more importantly -- they indicate a picture of the EU's and NATO's 'new order' in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East after the 'stabilisation' of the Balkans.

The Kurdish Tragedy and Ocalan's Capture

The Kurdish fight for independence is a goal that nobody else wants them to reach. The 25 million or so Kurds are perhaps the world's largest state-less nation. They find themselves scattered across four countries (Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria) none of which is recognised for acceptable human rights records or fair treatment of minorities. Kurdish history is full of tales of persecution, betrayal and desperate fight. Turkey's main advantage is that the United States cherish the country as a vital ally in their campaign to suppress Saddam Hussein's Iraq and to deter other 'uncooperative' Arab states. Turkey has often used the threat of a possible blockage of the rivers that run into Syria to put pressure on the neighbouring country. The 'special' relationship that connects Turkey and Israel increased its hold over Syria even more, forcing Ocalan to seek exile elsewhere on 19 October 1998. …

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