Is Greek-Turkish rapprochement sustainable?

Is Greek-Turkish rapprochement sustainable?

On March 4, the 2nd High Level Cooperation Council between Greece and Turkey will be held in Istanbul in the presence of the prime ministers of both countries and a large number of their ministers.
In marked contrast to the first such meeting held in Athens in May 2010, this encounter will be held under a discernibly different setting and context.

I expect the Council and the ensuing business forum to be deemed a success by whitewashing over the real bilateral challenges that have been poisoning relations for decades now. Yet something is fundamentally amiss. As on past occasions, the signature of “low politics” agreements and Confidence Building Measures will be hailed as a sign of further rapprochement. But is this really the case? Why are accords that are the normal course of business in any sort of bilateral intergovernmental relationship so ballyhooed in this case? Why are the CBMs of two NATO member states portrayed as a sign of maturity, 61 years after both countries joined the Alliance?

I am a product of the process of convergence between Greece and Turkey since it began in the late 1990s. Had this process not evolved, it would have been unlikely for me and other co-nationals to be working in Turkish universities and other institutions. The kindred spirits of İsmail Cem and George Papandreou that led to this growing understanding of the other involved civil society as well. As a result, numerous bilateral civil society meetings of all types took place over the years. The question does arise, though, whether this aspect of the process is being nurtured to this day. In fact, when Papandreou visited Istanbul as Greek Prime Minister in October 2009 - and on subsequent meetings with his Turkish counterpart - the civil society aspect was downsized in favor of touting the economic benefits of conciliation, as depicted in the growing bilateral trade. The people-to-people dimension is iterated only in the context of the mounting bilateral tourist trade, and the growing number of Greeks seeking work in Turkey. The concerted effort at maintaining the dialogue between the two peoples is not evident anymore. Simply asked: who is the worthy successor of a Mehmet Ali Birand (the late prominent Turkish journalist) in the rapprochement process? The answer is not evident.

Thus, the fundamental question has to do with the objective of the rapprochement process. What is its purpose? Unfortunately, both sides seemed mired in tactical rather than strategic thinking. As the key differences between Greece and Turkey remain unresolved and new concerns such as over flights over Greek islands have become part of the public and official lore, while the prospects of hydrocarbon resources in the Aegean seabed raise blood pressures in Athens and Ankara, we are observers of sober doubts as to whether “normalcy” is possible and actually an objective on either side. For example, the faith-based discourse of the current Turkish government makes an issue such as the construction of a mosque in Athens a focal point. Is this a serious concern, or is the Erdoğan administration actually addressing its domestic constituency and attempting to improve its leadership credentials in the Islamic world?

In Greece, the economic crisis and the conservatism of the current prime minister and a significant segment of the political class also do not help. In fact, there is a growing divide in the discussion regarding Turkey’s EU accession process. While Greece has been a steadfast promoter of accession for over a decade now with the reasoning that if Turkey adopts many of the values and norms that Greece holds, the peace dividend will take effect; the supporters of Turkey’s future membership are rapidly shrinking. In other words, the crisis has made many Greeks defensive, wary and inward-looking.

The problem is that the moderates in this environment find themselves sidelined and unable to sustain their message of cooperation, never mind the growing economic interaction. Ultimately, both our countries are retrograde in many respects, particularly within the confines of the Western world they profess to belong to. Imagine the day when issues such as gays in the military or the recognition of gay marriages become mainstream in both countries – then again maybe I am asking for too much.

The tactical use of rapprochement rather than its strategic imperatives implies that, ultimately, those committed to it and Turkey’s EU membership on either side of the Aegean will be the losers. This is because beneath the public veneer of conciliation, the divide between the two sides will grow. As a result, the very intention of a further paradigm shift in relations will become a farcical tragicomedy of unfulfilled intentions, lost opportunities, and increased tensions. As a true believer in rapprochement, I refuse to raise the white flag - its sustainability is very much in play.

Dimitrios Triantaphyllou is Director of the Center for International and European Studies (CIES) at Kadir Has University