Events

Hope or Fear? Superficial Calm in Greek - Turkish Relations

January 31, 2006 // 9:30am10:30am

Dr. Athanasios Moulakis opened his presentation by referencing the February 1999 capture by Turkish commandos of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan after he was provided haven at Greece's Kenya embassy, an episode which underscored post- World War II Greek-Turkish relations in which the two allies have several times come to the brink of war, then retreated.

The turning point in Greek-Turkish relations was the December 1999 European Union summit in Helsinki, Finland, at which time Greece reversed it historic policy of rejecting Turkey's EU candidacy, and voted in support of Turkey's eventual membership based on promoting Turkish engagement with Europe.

Dr. Moulakis stated that Greece benefits from ending its fixation with the "Turkey problem," and that EU accession seems to have succeeded, to date, as a catalyst for improved bilateral relations. He provided a timeline of historically relevant events leading up to the current Greek-Turkish diplomatic normalization, beginning with their simultaneous membership in the NATO alliance in 1952 based on shared perception of security threats from the Soviet Union. For Turkey, this meant a shift from Kemalist orthodoxy that of cautious avoidance of entanglements and the consolidation of territory, to dependence on the western alliance, especially the United States. For Greece, this represented significant changes in the Greek political frame of mind, moving away from British protection to that of the United States. As a result, Dr. Moulakis posited, Greece and Turkey embarked on a contentious competition for favors from Washington which moved attention away from developing a healthier bilateral relationship, including mechanisms for resolving differences.

The "earthquake diplomacy" that began in mid-1999 included a high-level effort to normalize bilateral relations based on a new framework of friendship and exchange devised by foreign ministers George Papandreou and Ismael Cem, of Greece and Turkey, respectively. The ministers claimed they had public support – when they did not – in order to build actual public support for policies running counter to the true instincts of the respective societies. After the earthquakes that struck Turkey in August 1999 and Athens one month later, broad majorities in Greece and Turkey called for a new era of bilateral relations. For the first time in many decades, noted Dr. Moulakis, the human face of the other side of the Aegean Sea had become accessible. Today, this is manifested in the formation of numerous bilateral NGOs and the establishment of joint academic, business, school and social activities that cross the cultural divide.

Dr. Moulakis sees this new climate of opinion as having created a true moment of good feeling and great hope in the region, despite the setback of the April 2004 UN referenda in Cyprus. Should Greek and Turkish statesmen succeed at conjugating their policies and their powers of persuasion with the process of modernization, the logic of each country, if it is allowed to runs its course, should come to dictate the transformation of political, economic, and social structures through the revision of strategic thinking and structures of consciousness in the region. The degree of stabilization that would result would provide incredible benefits of security, economic prosperity, and trade for both countries, possibly even going as far as envisioning the unthinkable goal of true peaceful relations.

This scenario is attainable only once the conditions of trust have been firmly established. However, one of the most important things to understand about Greek-Turkish relations, according to Dr. Moulakis, is that the matter causing the greatest contention is contentiousness itself. Obviously substantive issues count, but they are all evidence that fundamentally the problems between these two nations are ones of trust, or more precisely, distrust.

Dr. Moulakis highlighted the importance of recognizing how the process of modernization that Greece and Turkey are experiencing is inscribed within the process of globalization. In this process, one sees the capacity of each country, through different measures and different modes, pulling from the underdeveloped periphery towards the developed center. There are two dimensions under which to consider this. These dimensions are the pull of Europe and then the new structure of power in the post-Cold war era. It will require a great amount of prudence, moderation and luck. For the stability of relations to succeed, the process must continue to progress or the process will succumb to its volatility and fall apart. This process requires a true transformation of people's perspectives and institutions.

Within this framework, three sets of considerations must be accounted for. The first is the matter of bilateral issues. These refer to the substantive differences, such as legal, political, and strategic problems hampering Greek-Turkish relations. Problems with minority populations and conflicting claims in the Aegean Sea would fall under this category. The second set of considerations revolves around domestic issues, which include the emergence of new actors, the development of economies, and civil society. These matters are linked with the symbolic issues of perspectives, attitudes and historical personalities of the people. Consideration for this relationship within the greater context of the pull of Europe and the realities of the integration of the world economy is the third matter upon which to base assessment and discussion of Greek-Turkish relations.

Cyprus, said Dr. Moulakis, should be dealt with as a separate factor on its own. All of the issues of concern between Greece and Turkey are negotiable if there were greater trust between the two governments. But the importance of the issues remains in the suspicion by the other of being a revisionist of the status quo, set by the numerous international treaties. In a sense, both countries have emerged in terms of the struggle with each other. One must stop looking at the idea of borders as separating lines. Instead, greater flexibility facilitates separate political and commercial agreements, and other mutually beneficial exchanges.

The crux is going to be the transformative power of European integration. The EU has been able to act as a means of transition for countries, such as formerly backward and undemocratic Portugal, Spain, and Greece, to modern values, stability, and prosperity. There is a similar hope that this will be the case for Turkey. It will be a tall task, but it is possible. Genuine statesmanship on the part of Europeans will have to be exercised to see if a country of 70 million people with complex and extensive diversity can be integrated.

The role of Cyprus in all of this, Dr. Moulakis stresses, can either be a catalyst for friendship – or for enmity – between the two.

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
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant

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