Saturday, May 15, 2010

Leaving the Past Behind: Re-setting Greek-Turkish Relations?

AFP Photo from The Guardian

Before Prime Minister Erdogan's arrival in Greece on Friday, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the prime minister's visit a "revolution" in Turkish-Greek relations. No doubt eager to use the visit as a means to demonstrate its "zero problems with neighbors" foreign policy, the Turkish government hyped the visit for weeks before with talk of disarming the Aegean and ensuring a new era of cooperation in which tension between the two neighbors would become a thing of the past.

Last month, Turkey and Greece signed five "confidence-building measures," including one that assured regular joint parliamentary meetings between them, the first of which resulted in 21 bilateral cooperation agreements signed Friday.

Coupled with Turkey's EU Chief Negotiator Egeman Bagis' call in March for both countries to reduce arms procurements, Erdogan's visit and April's confidence-building measures do indeed signal a will by some politicians in both countries for mutual cooperation between the two countries, but the fundamental problem of territorial disputes and continued aerial confrontations between the two countries' air forces, as well as different approaches to reconciliating Cyprus, will continue. For further explanation of these, see Hurriyet Daily News columnist Mehmet Ali Birand's column in which Birand excerpts snippets from an interview he conducted with Greek Prime Minister Georges Paprendreou.

In Athens, Erdogan reiterated Bagis' earlier call for arms reduction, as well as proposed that both countries file flight plans with NATO and with each other in effort to avoid dogfights over disputed airspace over the Aegean wherein Greek planes continue to fly with full payload, another issue Erdogan broached.

However, such moves seem difficult in Greece, where some Greek nationalist politicians have warned that Greece should not be duped into falling victim to what are sometimes characterized as Turkish tricks just because Greece's economy is in dire straights (in fair part, due to military spending efforts to keep up with Turkey -- see April 27 post).

It is also not clear whether there is such will on the Turkish side. On the morning of Erdogan's visit, the Turkish miitary flew six F-16s into disputed air space, resulting in mock dog fights with the Greek pilots. Bagis had told Greek television before the meeting that the continued dog fights were also a problem for the Turkish government, hinting that the military and the government are not necessarily on the same page.

The cooperation agreements signed pertained to areas ranging from immigration to tourism to technology and trade. One of the more important deals brokered pertains to Turkey's facilitation of the return of illegal immigrants who have re-located from Turkey to Greece, an issue that has long annoyed Greece. All in all, 10 Turkish cabinet ministers travelled with Erdogan to Athens to participate in the joint meeting, haled as a "high-level cooperation council."

Also along for the ride were an approximate 100 Turkish business people, key to Ankara and Athens stated goal of expanding bilateral trade and investment opportunities, likely to be the hardest immediate concrete result of the meeting.

UPDATE I (5/22) -- Greece has rejected Erdogan's proposal that Greek planes fly without payload when on patrol in the Aegean. Greek deputy Foreign Minister Dimitris Droutsas told Greek newspaper Imerissia, "Greek warplanes are armed because they are scrambled to face an unknown threat, because the Turkish side does not file flight plans to enter the Athens Flight Information Region."

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