New obstacle to Greco-Turkish ties?

New obstacle to Greco-Turkish ties?

Ariana Ferentinou
He was among the throng of Turkish and Greek businessmen at the Çırağan Sarayı last week when I met him again for the first time in eight years. He introduced me to his second son. “This is not the one who speaks Greek, not the one you know,” he said.

He was there to participate in a meeting with his Greek counterparts, the Turkish-Greek Business Forum, on the sidelines of the high-level Samaras-Erdogan meeting in Istanbul last week. A Turkish shipping magnate, who openly admits that he learnt how to make money from the sea not from his small town in the Black Sea but from the Greeks he met in his early life, he was one of the most active Turkish businessmen trying to promote cooperation with the Greeks. I first met him toward the end of the 1990s, when he was active in the early attempts of Turkish and Greek businessmen to find ways to cooperate. He was with top Turkish businessmen like Rahmi Koç and Sarik Tara who came together with their Greek colleagues to form the Turkish-Greek Business Cooperation Council, but it was always difficult to draw big names from the Greek business world - mistrust, caution, old hostilities, foreign policies, all prevented them from bridging their business with their Turkish colleagues. I remember sitting next to a Greek businessman at a dinner hosted by the Turkish-Greek Business Council, when the keynote speaker was Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, one of the loudest voices of encouragement toward economic cooperation. The man next to me had come to Turkey for the first time. When I asked him what his business was and why he had joined the Council, he said: “I am manufacturing swimming pools. There is a great demand in Greece and I want to find a partner-supplier in Turkey. I’ve heard they are advancing fast and they are cheap.”

A long time has passed since then, and swimming pools have become a highly taxable asset in Greece, an asset that many Greeks have regretted having installed in their gardens. And today - last week - the occasion of a meeting of the two prime ministers, Erdoğan and Samaras, (the latter’s first visit to Turkey as prime minister), provided another occasion for a Turkish-Greek business meeting, which my old shipping friend could not miss.

However, things are not as innocent as they were then. Behind the signing of some twenty five bilateral agreements, behind the good “chemistry” between the two prime ministers, one can clearly see a new shadow in the bilateral strategic agenda. And this relates to the issue of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, the borders of which the two countries disagree on. “We have some different views and approaches on how the exclusive economic zone or other sensitive issues are defined,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu told Greek daily Kathimerini in an exclusive interview published yesterday. “The important thing is whether we will let these be an obstacle, like a Berlin Wall, which is not sustainable, neither logically nor ethically.”

“We are operating based on our planning and strategy, within the framework of our sovereign rights as derived from international law,” said his Greek counterpart Dimitris Avramopoulos in the same daily “Nobody should doubt our willingness and determination to defend this. International law is our gospel.”

With Greece in deep economic crisis and seeing its underwater oil and natural gas, (the scientists assure that there is a lot of it in the surrounding sea), as a serious strategic tool to promote itself as Europe’s new energy hub, one cannot but foresee a rough time ahead in the relations of the two countries. This would be to the disappointment of the likes of my elderly shipping friend, whose optimism kept him active up to now.