The result could be a much more peaceful and safer region – with implications for a handful of other local disputes.

The most recent round of rapprochement started when Greek Foreign Minister Yorgo Papandreou proposed last month that the two countries discuss reductions in their defence expenditure.

He also told the minority Turkish community living in Greece, “You are a part of Greece’s culture. It’s our duty to end unfairness. The tragic mistakes made in Cyprus against the Cypriot Turks won’t happen here in western Thrace.”

This stunned many observers, as many in Greece still deny there are any ethnic Turkish citizens of Greece – instead, there are just "Muslim Greeks".

'Muslim Greeks'

“Some Greek nationalists reacted to this saying that there were no Turks but only 'Muslim Greeks',” said Greek commentator and columnist Evangelos Arteos.

“But it didn’t become any kind of issue in the election campaign.”

“You (Turks living in Greece) are a part of Greece’s culture. It’s our duty to end unfairness. The tragic mistakes made in Cyprus against the Cypriot Turks won’t happen here in western Thrace

Yorgo Papandreou,
Greek foreign minister

Greek voters are due to go to the polls next month, with Papandreou the candidate for the ruling social democratic PASOK party.

“He obviously felt there was little political risk in making such a statement, which says something about how things have changed,” added Arteos.

“Greek voters are much more concerned with issues such as corruption and wages than with Turkey these days.”

Defence budgets

Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Abd Allah Gul said Ankara supported the Greek proposal on cutting defence budgets.

“This means that trust is continuing to develop between the two countries,” Gul said.

“I am not saying that we will immediately sign such an agreement, but I am talking about an intention.”

Gul added the proposed cuts would allow both countries to direct funding towards projects to increase the well being of their peoples.

“We must develop confidence building measures to this end,” he said.

“Progress on Turkey’s EU membership bid, Turkey’s starting full membership negotiations with the EU, its becoming a member of the EU in the future will further decrease the defence expenses.

Gul says trust is building between
Greece and Turkey

War tensions 

"In fact, no country wants to keep its defence expenses high, it is done because of obligations.”

The proposal is just the latest in a series of steps to reduce tension between the two neighbours, who came close to war in 1996 over a dispute concerning ownership of the unpopulated Kardak islands just outside Turkey’s three mile territorial waters.

Following the sparring over the rocky outcrops both sides decided to back off, agreeing their warplanes patrolling the Aegean would not carry live ammunition.

According to retired Turkish Admiral Mustafa Ozbey, who has long been closely involved in developments between the two Aegean neighbours, this rapprochement began with the twin tragedies of the earthquakes in Athens and Western Turkey in 1999.

“The dialogue between Turkey and Greece that began with the earthquakes has continued and has expanded and deepened,” he said.

Goodwill

“The possibility of using tension, force and conflict in the approach of the problems of the two countries decreased.”

As another gesture of goodwill, as well as recognition of Turkey’s changing defence priorities, the Turkish military has redeployed many of its units stationed near the Greek border away from the region, abandoning some bases occupied since Ottoman times. 

Last September, the two countries agreed to clear the minefields along their shared borders. 

“The dialogue between Turkey and Greece that began with the earthquakes (in 1999)has continued and has expanded and deepened. The possibility of using tension, force and conflict in the approach of the problems of the two countries (has) decreased

Mustafa Ozbey,
Retired Turkish admiral

The two are also now key players in pushing for a settlement of the Cyprus problem.

The UN plan currently being negotiated sees both countries joining the talks next month to try and iron out any remaining differences between Turkish and Greek Cypriot leaders.

EU membership

“Both are likely to want to sort things out then,” said leading columnist and commentator Cengiz Candar, “as the alternative is that the UN will come in and decide for them”.

This creates another area of common interest in what has long been a thorn in both countries’ chances of reconciliation.

It will also open the road to Turkey joining the European Union – or so Ankara and Athens hope.

“If the doors of the European Union were opened to Turkey,” added Ozbey, “it is possible to solve the problems with Greece in a matter of a week.”

If so, it would take just seven days to solve what has remained a constant source of regional tension for nearly 70 years.