Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Turkey stretches a hand to Greece

Greece’s unending anger over the economic crisis was visible again in what took place during May 1 demonstrations that turned into destructive urban warfare. It has shown what sort of risks the crisis creates within and how contagious it would be if it were to spill over to the other side of the Mediterranean – to Italy and Spain.

Catastrophes have marked, paradoxically, windows of opportunity for Turkey and Greece. When the entire bay area between İstanbul and İzmit was severely hit by the earthquake in 1999, killing more than 30,000 people, the pain and misery had a wake-up effect in Greece, and the deep empathy of the Greeks led to what was later called “earthquake diplomacy” between Athens and Ankara. It helped ease the enormous tension that had developed because of Greek involvement in helping fugitive Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), months before the natural disaster. The diplomacy was even more successful on the level of track II diplomacy and led to a new spirit in civil society activities.

As Greece falls deeper into the abyss of economic crisis, the rapidly developing sense in Ankara is comparable to the compassion (not pity) of 11 years ago. It can be said that, again paradoxically, the current crisis presents a window of opportunity to deal with the chronic problems between the two countries.

The window of opportunity this time is based on the parameter of “common destiny,” which Turkish diplomatic circles are keen to draw attention to. Therefore, the announced visit to Athens in two weeks by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has raised many expectations and is viewed with a great deal of anticipation. The importance given the visit is visible in its format.

The head of the Turkish government will be accompanied by 10 key ministers (economy, energy, transportation, tourism, interior affairs, education, etc.), and there will be a joint cabinet meeting in the Greek capital. This is extraordinary and may come to point to the beginning of a new era, if managed boldly and intelligently.

The mindset shaping Ankara’s foreign policy is also based on the observation that in today’s world seemingly tiny local conflicts and crises have a tendency to develop first into national, then regional and then global problems. A reminder is how a small conflict in Georgia which began with Ossetia and Abkhazia developed into a conflict between Russia, the US and NATO.

The crisis in Greece could be seen in the same manner, Ankara argues, and therein comes the argument that in such phases, in order to prevent them, a sense of common destiny must be seen as the guiding light.

Certainly the focus will be on economic cooperation to lower the effects of the huge burden on Greece. The composition of the ministers who will be visiting Athens was mainly decided upon the advice of Athens. It all looks fine, except one urgent and important aspect.

One way to rapidly help ease tensions for Greece would be to discuss a sort of lengthy moratorium on the problematic and costly military flights over the Aegean. As much as it would help Athens, it would also help Ankara. “If we did not have the armed conflict in eastern Turkey and had a common consensus in the West with Greece on defense cuts, we would have a brand new military concept in Turkey,” goes the argument in government circles.

In that sense, even a unilateral decision to cease military flights seems to have the chance of finding a positive response from the other. Therefore, it seems more logical that Athens and Ankara will agree to add defense ministers in the context of the visit or that Erdoğan and his counterpart, George Papandreou, will give priority to minimizing rifts linked to military exercises.

Overall, there are grounds for Turkey to assist Greece out of the mess. But it should be done without waking up the old fears and prejudices rooted in the highly problematic, nationalistic and provocative Greek press.

If the Turks are interested in being helpful, it is neither due to pity nor neo-imperial domination, and therefore it should be the duty of Greek journalists to understand and make clear to the Greek public that catastrophes today may bring the societies together and help them realize that peace is possible only when one is able to tear down mental borders. Greece’s burden will not vanish in one day, but it is made much easier through neighborly cooperation.

Continuing to be skeptical to such prospects paves the way to all sorts of radicalization and, in the long run, the threat of political instability for the entire region.

No comments: