Jan./Feb. 2001 - As the two most strategically important Balkan countries, Greece and Turkey have important roles to play in promoting security, reconstruction, and international integration throughout Southeastern Europe. While Athens and Ankara maintain serious, long-term disputes over Cyprus and the Aegean, the "Central Balkan" region provides a valuable opportunity for cooperation and complementarity that can increase the influence and prestige of both states while enhancing their bilateral relations.

In recent years, Greece and Turkey have adopted a constructive approach to the Balkans. Above all, they have avoided being embroiled in Balkan conflicts as protagonists although ethno-nationalists in the region have sought to enlist outside powers to promote inter-ethnic and Christian-Muslim hostilities. Athens and Ankara now have an opportunity for further confidence-building and promoting regional security.

Neither Greece nor Turkey perceives any Balkan neighbor as a threat to its territorial integrity and national security. Nevertheless, both countries see several risks in the region and must look for ways to defuse existing tensions. For instance, with the survival and integrity of the Republic of Macedonia widely accepted as a factor for Balkan stability, Athens is now one of the strongest supporters of Macedonian statehood and territorial unity, regardless of the simmering name dispute.

Greece and Turkey also support the consolidation of democracy in Serbia so that Belgrade can reach an accommodation with Montenegro and Kosovo irrespective of the future of the Yugoslav state. Officials in Athens and Ankara must be realists who understand that one cannot force Albanians back into Serbia after the attempted genocide and expulsion of the Kosovar population in 1999. If Podgorica decides to hold a referendum on independence, all regional players must recognize that Montenegro has as much right to statehood as all the former Yugoslav republics. Greece can indeed play a stabilizing role over the next year in encouraging Belgrade to negotiate an amicable inter-republican "velvet divorce."

Greece and Turkey need to support a long-term NATO, U.N., and EU presence in the region to help provide the foundation for stability and reconstruction. However, these states could take the initiative of proposing, in addition to the disappointing EU "Stability Pact," a Balkan Security Pact with a strong regional, multi-national commitment. This could involve concrete problem-solving objectives with regard to territorial, minority, and resource disputes.

The prerequisite for sustained domestic development and international integration for all Balkan states is the consolidation of pluralistic and democratic political systems. In this context, the development of strong institutions is important for anchoring public participation in the evolving system of political pluralism. Greece and Turkey, working in tandem, can play a positive role in institution-building and political party development in several neighboring countries, especially in multi-ethnic and multi-confessional states such as Bosnia and Macedonia. Indeed, joint democracy-building ventures will set an example of trans-ethnic and supra-historic cooperation.

Both Greece and Turkey also need to work hard to overcome stereotypes and national prejudices in the Central Balkan region. Many states and their political elites harbor an ambivalent attitude toward either Athens or Ankara. On the one hand, they welcome official recognition, diplomatic support, and business investment. On the other hand, they fear Greek economic control through large buyouts and investments as well as potential future political domination. With Turkey, there are lingering fears stemming from five centuries of Ottoman occupation revolving around Islamization and imperial political control. Similar fears have been evident in other parts of Eastern Europe, for example in Poland and the Czech Republic vis-?-vis Germany, but they have been tempered through exchange programs and Berlin's support for Central European integration into NATO and the EU. Greece and Turkey can benefit from the German example.

Any suspicious attitudes, however misplaced, must be understood and handled by the two governments. Greece and Turkey can work together in the fields of education and mass media to improve their images as progressive regional players. In an area where misperception, rumor, and paranoia run high, both Athens and Ankara must be careful not to alienate their neighbors, and a joint approach could prove most fruitful.

To help secure and stabilize the region, economic investment and reconstruction are necessary. Greece is well positioned to play a leading role in this process. Greek businesspeople are the largest investors in Bulgaria and Macedonia, and they are looking for fresh opportunities in Albania, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, and elsewhere. The economic development of neighboring Balkan states will clearly diminish prospects for further outflows of refugees that can undermine stability inside Greece.

Although Turkey has less economic and investment potential in the Balkans than Greece, it is in Greek interests to encourage the participation of Turkish companies and business leaders in Balkan reconstruction. A more prominent Turkish economic role in the region could help to stimulate confidence among Muslim populations fearful of takeovers by neighboring Christian nations.

In the longer term, there needs to be a more effective blending of domestic investment with an encompassing regional reconstruction approach as envisaged in the Stability Pact. Athens and Ankara can think of novel ways to stimulate trade, investment, and development through joint ventures, reconstruction projects, and small business investment. For example, both countries could give a major boost to the construction of the Via Ignatia highway and its subsidiary highways, linking the Adriatic with the Aegean and Black seas.

An enhanced Turkish role in the security, democratic development, and economic progress of the Balkan neighborhood will reverberate positively on Ankara's efforts to be accepted as a genuine contender for future EU membership. A more pronounced Greek role in the stabilization and reconstruction of Southeastern Europe will not only raise the country's international prestige, but it will also provide Athens with a more important voice in all forums and initiatives focusing on the post-communist Balkans.

Both states can publicize Balkan progress in economic, political, and security arenas, for example, on a regular basis and can highlight where advances still need to be made. This may help shift perceptions and dispel the lingering "powder keg" stereotype, especially among EU and American policy-makers, legislators, and businesspeople. This does not mean a "propaganda of success" but a focus on the positive underscoring that there is the possibility of a major breakthrough toward sustained development, long-term security, and European integration in Southeastern Europe.

The U.S. can also play a constructive part in strengthening the Greek-Turkish-Balkan triangle by acting as a facilitator and confidence-builder in the region. Indeed, all sides should favor such a role as it could help dispel latent misunderstandings and fears. For example, business meetings could be arranged with Greek, Turkish, and Central Balkan participants; joint ventures with U.S. partners could be encouraged; joint media activities could be promoted; and joint Greek-Turkish reconstruction projects could be assisted. Ultimately, the Bush administration would feel more confident that local actors were taking greater responsibility for their own security and development, and it would thereby seek to bolster this important process.

Janusz Bugajski is Director of East European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and is a frequent visitor to the Balkans.