The current question is whether the show of friendliness between them can transform into concrete steps to resolve the two issues.
The manner in which both sides handle their relationship is reckoned to have major repercussions within their respective countries and for Europe as a whole.
“There has been some very important progress since 1999,” says Greek ambassador-at-large Alex Rondos, a close adviser to the architect of Athens’ rapprochement with Ankara, Foreign Minister George Papandreou.
Prior to 1999, the two countries had come close to war a number of times – most recently in 1996 over who owned the Aegean islet of Imia, known as Kardak to the Turks.
Both countries cancelled military
“Now there is a willingness to approach things in a friendly way,” says Professor Iltar Turan of Istanbul’s Bilgi University.
“While no one is denying there are differences, neither side has allowed that to make co-operation impossible. It’s created a very friendly environment in which to operate,” he adds.
It is a new friendliness that also shows up in raw statistics.
“Last weekend alone,” says Greek journalist and commentator Evangelos Arteos, “some 250,000 Greek tourists came to Turkey – it’s an unprecedented number. It means they’ve overcome their fear of the Turk, and at least one barrier has come down.”
Another barrier that is coming down is economic.
“Bilateral trade now stands at almost $1 billion,” continues Arteos. “That’s an amazing figure compared to the past. More big Greek companies are investing here now than ever.”
The meeting earlier in October between Papandreou and his Turkish counterpart, Abd Allah Gul, in Athens helped boost this economic rapprochement. The two concluded an agreement to end double taxation.
“This is immensely important,” says Arteos, “particularly for ship owners. Many Greek businesses say double taxation was one of the major disincentives for coming to Turkey. Now that will change.”
Many Turks too have been looking at Greece in a different way, although “Turks have never seen Greece as a real threat,” says Turan.
“In the past, attitudes were harder in Greece, I think, as people here were more worried about Russia or the Middle East. Changing public hostility towards Greece has therefore been easier in Turkey,” he added.
As a result, there has been a string of moves to ease tensions between the two countries, with the recent cancellation of military exercises around Cyprus merely being the latest move to calm the troubled waters.
Tensions between Greece and
Up and down the Aegean coast, there have been dozens of small scale, local initiatives between Greeks and Turks who often live within a few kilometres of each other across the narrow channels of the Aegean.
“There are gestures happening all the time,” says Turan. “From joint meetings of the chambers of commerce between a Turkish port and the Greek port on the island just opposite, to major local festivals, with both communities participating.”
Yet, for all this, the major issues that divide the two are still to be solved.
These include disputes over air and sea space in the Aegean and the continental shelf.
However, “One must distinguish between all these other problems and Cyprus,” Turan says.
Rondos agrees. “First is Cyprus,” he says, as does Professor Mensur Akun of Istanbul Culture University’s political science department.
“Nothing can really happen until Cyprus is sorted out,” he says. “The other issues are largely technical and could be sorted out very rapidly if there was a political will to do so.”
Since the Cyprus conflict last erupted in 1974, the island has been de facto divided into Turkish and Greek Cypriot sections.
Repeated attempts to reunite the two parts have so far failed.
Now the Greek Cypriot south is fast approaching membership of the European Union, with or without a settlement involving the Turkish Cypriot north.
“It would be nice to see Turkish Cypriots become citizens of the EU too,” says Rondos, “and I think Turkey would find it difficult to become a member of the EU itself if it continued to have a troublesome frontier on Cyprus with an EU member.”
“Changing public hostility towards Greece has been easier in Turkey”
Prof Iltar Turan
Bilgi University, Istanbul
“The Turkish public wants a settlement on Cyprus,” says Akun. “They are fed up with the Cyprus problem and want it settled, with or without the EU.”
This has created a strong pressure on Turkey’s government to help reach an agreement on the island’s future, although there are some sections of the Turkish public opinion that see any Cyprus settlement as too much of a sacrifice.
Traditionally, the cause of a separate Turkish Cyprus has been strongly pushed by Turkey’s powerful military and its nationalist parties.
Still, with the liberal pro-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in power in Ankara, hopes are high that this may change.
The AKP has so far shown willingness to settle the Cyprus issue – and to exert its authority over the country’s foreign and security policy.
“How Turkey handles these issues will be very important,” says Rondos. “The question for us is whether Turkey is willing to take the steps soon to allow us to believe that the recourse to violence is excluded. I believe we’re close to that, and so does the public.”
Success or failure at this juncture may have other effects on the two societies.
“Greece is basically a very conservative place,” says Arteos.
“But what the rapprochement has done is to open up the possibility of debate about other entrenched concepts.
“Resolving the Cyprus issue would be the cherry on the cake in efforts to modernise Greek policy. It would be understood that we have to leave certain things behind in order to go forward,” he continues.
“It will take a while,” adds Turan, “but we are getting there. Success here will be an enormous achievement for both sides – but there’s still some way to go.”