Although the Greek and Turkish leadership underlined their mutual political will for resolving long-standing bilateral disputes, harsh remarks by the visiting Greek prime minister clearly revealed that the two sides will have to exert further efforts for overcoming these decades-old disputes.
Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou's strongly worded remarks critical of Turkey came on Friday evening as he delivered a speech at a gathering of senior Turkish diplomats in Erzurum. Earlier in the day, Papandreou and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan together opened the facilities of the World Student Games, the Winter Universiade, as they walked to the venue arm-in-arm.
“What is Turkey trying to prove?” Papandreou asked as he was addressing the Turkish ambassadors and complaining about what he said were violations by Turkish jets of Greek airspace earlier last week. “On Wednesday, eight Turkish planes flew over a Greek island,” Papandreou said through an interpreter. “This might be routine for Turkey, but such actions lead Greek people to wonder whether Turkey is seeking a different course,” he said to the audience among which Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu were also present.
“I believe that our destiny is in our hands, and I believe in Mr. Erdoğan. I have an extremely precious counterpart, and I believe that I can build first of all confidence and then a permanent peace between our countries,” Papandreou also said. Turning his face to Erdoğan and directly addressing him, the Greek prime minister said: “Mr. Erdoğan, I know that you are also ready for a new relationship of peace and cooperation. We are talking about a new era between Greece and Turkey; this is our joint goal. Our response to the question, ‘War or peace?’ is peace.”
‘Remove your ties and have fun!'
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and diplomats attending an annual, weeklong brainstorming session were the guests of a dinner hosted by the governor of Erzurum at a local folk music house in the province on Saturday night. "We will relax and listen to good music tonight. Ties are not welcome," Davutoğlu said at the onset of the dinner. Ambassadors responded enthusiastically by removing their ties. Some even danced to traditional "halay" music.
When his turn to give a speech came, Erdoğan preferred to respond to Papandreou in a mild tone, in a bid not to let those harsh words cast a shadow over peaceful messages delivered by both leaders. Instead, Erdoğan vented frustration with the European Union, warning that nobody should test Turkey’s patience. “We have to find a solution to problems in the Aegean based on mutual benefits, and we will,” Erdoğan said. “We have to get into the spirit of consensus; there is no reason why we cannot solve this,” Erdoğan said, referring to Papandreou as a “friend.”
The website of the Turkish military says Turkish F-16s were intercepted twice by Greece’s French-built Mirage 2000 jets on Wednesday southwest of the Greek island of Lesvos and north of the Greek island of Chios. The military said Greek jets intercepted Turkish planes seven times since Jan. 1.
The Aegean neighbors have a shaky relationship and came close to the brink of war three times between 1974 and 1996 over Aegean borders and the divided island country of Cyprus. The rapprochement between the Turkish and Greek peoples after devastating earthquakes each country suffered in 1999 provided another incentive to intensify diplomatic efforts for the improvement of bilateral relations. But occasional accusations of airspace and territorial water violations as well as the Cyprus issue continue to mar relations.
In 2002 Greek and Turkish diplomats began exploratory talks on their disputes. Business deals have steadily increased and include a pipeline link that will be used to carry natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Western Europe. But the Aegean has remained a source of tension.
Greek authorities frequently accuse Turkish fighters of violating Greek airspace. The Turkish military, constantly dismissing Greek charges of airspace violations, asserts that Turkish military planes face charges of airspace violation every time they pass through Flight Information Region (FIR) Athens. All commercial planes must submit flight information before passing through FIR Athens, but international law makes it clear that military and other state aircraft are not required to give the same notification.
Foreign Minister Davutoğlu on Saturday interpreted the exchange of messages between Erdoğan and Papandreou as a mutual declaration of the two sides’ well-known positions. Davutoğlu, speaking to reporters in Erzurum, recalled that the two prime ministers, at a press conference following their speeches, highlighted that there is need for a new political lexicon in bilateral relations. “While improving this new political lexicon, there are situations where positions are mutually expressed more clearly,” Davutoğlu said. “We will march together via exploring this new political lexicon and we will live together in this geography,” he said.
When asked to comment on Papandreou’s remarks describing Turkey as “an occupier force,” in Cyprus, Davutoğlu said Erdoğan had given the necessary response to the visiting Greek leader. Yet, when the issue came to Cyprus and Turkey’s European Union membership process, Davutoğlu was more bold, warning that nobody should push Turkey to make a choice between its EU bid and Cyprus. Turkey is known to be able to make tough calls, he added.
The Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities have been divided since a Turkish military intervention in 1974 triggered by a short-lived Greek-inspired coup. The conflict is affecting Turkey’s ambitions to join the EU, where Greek Cypriots representing the island have veto powers over Ankara’s bid. The Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides started peace talks in September 2008, but progress has been slow.
“Turkey doesn’t take a narrow lane in regards to foreign policy. The limit for our patience is efforts aimed at directing Turkey to this narrow lane,” Davutoğlu said.