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Turks not gloating over Greek difficulties

HDN | 4/29/2010 12:00:00 AM | Semih Idiz

A diplomat's suggestion that Turks must be deriving pleasure from Greece's situation reflects the age-old idea that Turks and Greeks are enemies to the end.

A Western diplomat suggested the other day that Turks must be deriving pleasure from the situation that Greece is in today. This reflects the age-old preconception that Turks and Greeks are enemies to the end.

There is little, in fact, to gloat over for Turks in the problems the Greeks are facing today. Turks have been down that road and understand the situation.

Reports emerging prior to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s upcoming visit to Athens of Turkey’s willingness to help Greece face its economic hardships should not be read as “rubbing salt into Greek wounds” either. Not withstanding the momentous and painful events of history, Greeks and Turks have much more latent empathy for each other in times of adversity than many in Europe would assume.

Many in the West can not understand, for example, why the founder of modern Greece, Eeftherios Venizelos, would nominate Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and his bitter enemy of a just a few years past, for the Nobel Peace Prize – as he did in 1934.

Only five years after that, when the city of Erzincan was devastated by a 1939 earthquake that killed tens of thousands of people, the Greeks were among the first to rush to the aid of the Turks.

Money was collected by municipalities across the country, and collections stands were set up in the center of Athens – of which photographs exist today – with posters in Greek and Turkish reading “Help our Turkish brothers.”

Major adversity struck Greece next, with the Nazi occupation in 1941. One of the things that characterized this period was the horrible starvation that the people of Greece suffered. Photographs of that period are heart-rending.

The Turkish ship Kurtuluş (Liberation) ferried food and medicine from Turkey to the Greeks; it eventually sank in 1942 while carrying out this mission. A documentary has been made about the ship and its crew, and features interviews with Greeks who recall how they used to wait in great anticipation for the ship’s arrival.

Other historical facts include such things as the Turkish communist volunteers’ brigade during the Greek civil war, its most notable member being the legendary Mihri Belli, a devoted Turkish communist to the very end.

Then, during the Greek junta of 1967-1974, democratic Turkey was one of the safe escape routes for many Greek intellectuals, artists, writers and politicians, including the late Melina Mercouri, who told us the story of her escape during her visit to Ankara as minister for culture in May 1988.

The event that soured Turkish-Greek relations overnight was, of course, the operation against Cyprus by Turkey in 1974, following a coup on the island by supporters of union with Greece, who were backed by the junta in Athens. We are still paying the price for that coup today.

Despite the great animosity this created between the two countries over the following two and a half decades, the massive earthquake in Turkey in 1999 proved that the “latent empathy factor” between the two nations had not disappeared. Many recall how it was the Greek people that were once again, as they were in 1939, among the first to extend a helping hand to Turks during that major disaster.

The resulting outpouring of positive emotion on both sides laid the groundwork for the rapprochement achieved by Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, the country’s foreign minister at the time, and the late Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem.

These examples show the limits of the black-and-white interpretation that Europeans have cultivated about Turkish-Greek relations, which do not always fit into preconceived molds. So, to return to today, it is clear that, barring fringe elements, Turks are not deriving any sublimated pleasure from the hardship faced by Greeks.

On the other hand, they are deriving a lot of pleasure from seeing the way the European Union has failed to fulfill some major expectations during this crisis, by not coming in time to help a member state that is suffering from problems other EU members are beset with too.

Turks are also noting the sudden animosity Greeks feel for Germans today, as a result of the belittling manner in which German politicians and the German media are referring to Greeks. For all the positive feelings other Europeans have cultivated toward Greeks, mostly based on notions concerning classical Greece rather than contemporary Greece, this whole episode has shown what the average European really feels about this nation when push comes to shove.

Arnold Toynbee is reputed to have said that Turks are Europeanized Orientals, while Greeks are Orientalized Europeans. This contention is open to debate, of course, but the things being written in the German press today suggest that this perception is not far from the surface, and only requires a serious problem in order to emerge.

All of this aside though, the economic crisis in Greece is not to Turkey’s advantage either, contrary to what some people may think. First, the euro is dropping seriously as a result of this crisis, which is terrible for Turkey at the start of the tourism season and also in terms of its exports.

In addition, the crisis comes at time when economic cooperation between the two countries has been increasing. Turkish businessmen know, therefore, that what is bad for Greece is not necessarily good for Turkey.

At any rate, for all the foot dragging and finger waving by self-righteous Europeans, it is clear that the EU will “save Greece” in the end, and that Germany will play a major role in this, regardless of whether the average German likes it or not. It will not do this not for Greece’s sake, but for its own.

In other words, it will save Greece to ensure the EU’s economic stability and the future of the euro. If it were just a matter of Greece, it seems many would prefer to see the country leave the eurozone, especially after German Chancellor Angela Merkel openly suggested that Greece was admitted prematurely.

There will, of course, be serious strings attached for Greeks in all this, and a consequent social fall-out. Greeks will be getting poorer, not richer, over the next few years.

The Turks can empathize with this also, given how the IMF’s so-called “belt-tightening formulas” in the past ended up doing so little for the average person on the street, except make his or her life much harder. So Turks are not gloating over Greece’s difficulties, because they have been there and they know what it is like.

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