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Thursday, 20 January, 2000, 14:54 GMT
Hope for Greek-Turkish ties

Close yet so far: George Papandreou and Bulent Ecevit meet in Ankara Historic meeting in Ankara: Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou and Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit

Chris Morris on the improved relations which have led to the one of the highest-level meetings in nearly 40 years.

What a difference a year makes! It was not so long ago that a former Greek foreign minister was referring to his neighbours and Nato partners, the Turks, as "bandits, murderers and rapists".

His Turkish counterpart responded by describing the minister as a "psychopath".

Insults were flying faster than the state-of-the-art aircraft which the two countries were using to engage in dangerous mock-combat over the Aegean Sea.

Ocalan affair

A bad situation threatened to turn really nasty last February when the Greeks were caught red-handed meddling in Turkey's most sensitive affairs.

The Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, Turkey's most wanted man, was captured after his hiding place in the Greek embassy in Kenya was discovered by American intelligence.

The Turkish president was not amused. Greece, he thundered, had just one more chance.

The Greeks were certainly embarrassed, but they were not surprised at the tone of Turkey's threatening response.

Athens said it sympathised with the Kurds as a fellow minority, oppressed by the Turks. It has viewed Turkey as the regional bully since the days of the Ottoman Empire.

A short but vicious war in the 1920s, in which Ankara emerged victorious, has soured relations ever since. Large scale population exchanges, or ethnic cleansing as we call them today, soon followed.

Part of the problem is that since the creation of the modern Greek and Turkish states, nationalists on both sides have regularly upped the ante.

Between a rock and a hard place

Hotheads have often ruled the roost as was the case in 1996, when the two countries came alarmingly close to another real war.

The two got embroiled in an absurd argument over a tiny bit of rock jutting out of the blue waters of the Aegean. The Turks call it Kardak; to the Greeks it is known as Imia.

In the first instance, one side planted its flag. Then the other did likewise. Pretty soon it was gunboats at 50 paces.

The United States had to step in rather quickly to knock a few Balkan heads together and to tell everyone to stop being so silly.

The mix has always been explosive. Some Greek parents might choose to persuade their children to behave by muttering threats about the marauding Turkish bogeyman.

On the other hand, some Turks like to accuse the Greeks of leading and encouraging a wicked European conspiracy to split their country apart.

But wait. That was then, and this is now. Now seems to be different.

No one is pretending that everything is suddenly rosy in this old rivalry. However, the outlook is more optimistic than it has been for years.

Ancient foes united by tragedy

How did it happen? Patient diplomacy has played its part, but natural disaster was a more sudden and more sobering catalyst.

When the first terrible earthquake ripped through north-western Turkey last year, Greek rescue teams were among the first on the scene.

Similarly, when Athens was hit by an earthquake of its own a few weeks later, Turkish experts were quick to repay the compliment.

The earthquakes seemed to give the silent majority on both sides the signal they had been looking for. Turks and Greeks eat the same food, like the same music, and share the same beautiful neighbourhood.

Faced with tragedy, they helped each other without a second thought. Surely, the argument ran, it should not be too difficult to get along when life returned to normal?

Cool heads prevail

Last year, for the first time in 76 years, the anniversary of the "liberation" of the city of Izmir from Greek control was a muted affair.

There was no re-enactment of Turkish troops literally throwing the Greeks into the sea, no ceremonial lowering of the hated Greek flag.

Likewise, when a leading Greek basketball team came to play in Ankara, they trotted out to the usual cacophony of boos and curses. This time, though, the Greek players had a new trick up their sleeves.

They produced flowers which they threw into the audience, and the boos were transformed into a sudden roar of applause.

There is still an awful lot to be done, and there will be bitter quarrels in the future.

Even now Turkish school books tell eager students that Greece is determined to keep Turkey out of the European Union, and that the Greeks are breaking international law in the Aegean.

The Turkey's education ministry has promised that they are being rewritten.

That does not mean, of course, that history itself will be forgotten. There are plenty of people who will be suspicious about too much friendship too quickly.

Still, at the beginning of this new century, two old rivals on the edge of Europe seem to have decided that they can at least try to improve on the knee-jerk hostility of the past which caused so much misery.

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See also:
12 Sep 99 |  Europe
Analysis: Shifting attitudes towards Turkey
10 Dec 99 |  Europe
Analysis: Greek stumbling block
13 Dec 99 |  Europe
EU optimistic after Helsinki
12 Dec 99 |  Europe
'New era' for Greece and Turkey
11 Dec 99 |  Europe
Greece welcomes Turkish invitation
03 Dec 99 |  Europe
New hope for Cyprus

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