So what if Greeks and Turks are talking to each other?
The visit of Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras to Turkey with several Cabinet members and businessmen for the second High-Level Cooperation Council meeting between Turkey and Greece this week provided an opportunity to assess the success of “rapprochement” between the two countries.
The signing of 25 agreements in a wide range of areas from tourism to health, illegal immigration and so on gave a rosy air to the visit. But the fact that nothing about the visit caught the attention of Turkish journalists sufficiently to focus on more than a couple of hours paints a gloomy picture. Admittedly, Turkey is a country where the public agenda changes every couple of hours, and the attention span of both the people and journalists are short. Nonetheless, the signing of so many agreements with a neighboring country does not excite Turks anymore. Blame the government; it has been doing this for over a decade now, so it has lost its novelty. Also, after more than 11 years of “exploratory talks” between the two countries, people have come to expect something more: Some sort of a compromise on the age-old Aegean disputes; a positive announcement on Cyprus; unequivocal support for Turkey’s EU bid from the Greek premier; a clear statement on the Heybeliada Seminary from the Turkish prime minister, etc.
We owe the current positive atmosphere in bilateral relations to foreign ministers İsmail Cem and George Papandreou, who played a crucial role in jump-starting much-needed dialogue between the two countries in the late 1990s. Earthquakes in both countries and the capture of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), after leaving Greek Embassy in Kenya, marked a turning point in relations. Along the way, one of the important stumbling blocks, the Cyprus issue, was transferred to the Turkey-EU problems list after the Cypriot Republic became a member of the EU in 2004. Thus, what is left to discuss in the “exploratory talks,” started in 2002, are the disputes over territorial waters, airspace and the continental shelf in the Aegean, the rights of minorities on both sides, and other bits and pieces. As the two sides have met 52 times so far, one would have expected that an overall settlement would have been found by now.
Although they seem rather keen on improving relations, especially in terms of low-level politics – 47 agreements were signed in just two premiers’ respective visits – “there are still issues,” as Samaras pointed out, that the two countries “do not agree on and [they] may be significant.”
He also mentioned that they “are trying to create relations of mutual respect,” whatever that means. Neither side admits it openly, but Turkey’s EU membership prospect has clearly had an enormous influence on the pace of the bilateral relations. Once it was halted, the exploratory talks also lost their momentum. The pace of the negotiations also slowed down because of the economic crisis in Greece and Turkey’s divided attention in foreign policy, which is increasingly focusing on the Middle East amid the Arab Spring.
Although Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan mentioned solving the Cyprus problem and “burying it in history” during the press conference, it is clear that neither country is ready yet to start give-and-take negotiations on high-level political issues, though they seem content at keeping up appearances in exploratory talks and signing several agreements on low-level political topics. In the meantime, Turks and Greeks have been busy creating joint businesses and civil society initiatives. They are just waiting to see when the politicians on both sides could see that. There is still hope so long as the people on both sides are ahead of their political leaders; but time is important as they might get bored of decades of talks and move on. After all, how long are they expected to continue to “explore” each other – and to what end?