Samaras in Istanbul

Samaras in Istanbul

In the few, high-level meetings that have taken place between Turkey and Greece during the last three decades, what was always interesting to observe was the different mixture between the high and low-policy issues that came on the table between the two sides. And if, in 1930, Eleftherios Venizelos had called the Greek-Turkish Pact he agreed to in Ankara with Kemal Ataturk “the greatest political work” of his life and set a precedent for their bilateral diplomatic relations, the “dialogue” between these two neighboring countries went through highs and lows bringing them several times close to war and sometimes to peace. The fate of the Greek-Orthodox and Muslim minorities left behind in Turkey and Greece after the brutal population exchange in 1923, Cyprus, the continental shelf and territorial rights in the Aegean, hampered both countries arrival at a final and permanent solution.

It is the bilateral, multimensional complexity of the problems combined by a lack of enough political will and agreeable international circumstances that have turned this dialogue into more of a mutually beneficial economic opportunity, with political leaders keeping the issues of “high” policy for later.

Perhaps they are right. The “earthquake diplomacy” that sprang out of the ruins of the Istanbul and Athens earthquakes in 1999 was perfect proof for the effectiveness of public diplomacy. Encouraged then by George Papandreou and the late Ismail Cem, the respective foreign ministers, both people saw each other separate from the political smokescreen and rushed to help in a moment of extreme human need. Since then, Greece and Turkey have enjoyed the longest period of peace in their history, having developed multiple channels of communication outside the continuing political dystopia.

Antonis Samaras will be visiting Turkey today for the first time as prime minister and will meet his counterpart Tayyip Erdoğan in Istanbul. Samaras will be heading a large ministerial mission, while Erdoğan will welcome him accompanied by an equal number of his ministers in the offices of Dolmabahçe Palace. Both sides will take part in the Greek-Turkish High Level Cooperation Council, a body set up in 2010 and convening only for a second session after being postponed several times.

With Greece in a deep economic recession but with a stable government after the recent political turbulence and with Turkey in need of new areas of investment and cooperation, with the eye again on a new opening to Europe, this can only be an occasion where economy, commerce, culture and tourism can take a priority. In other words, issues that may unite the two countries will overshadow the ones that separate them. According to Greek media, fifteen bilateral agreements will be signed, covering a wide area of cooperation from health to culture and tourism, illegal immigration and energy. No surprise that around 100 Greek businessmen are accompanying the Greek Prime Minister and will take part in the Greek-Turkish Business Forum that will take place today, too.

Once again, the difficult, high-level policy issues are not expected to prevent an attempt to deepen areas of cooperation. At any rate, both sides had already shown their teeth to each other by exchanging diplmotic notes on the Aegean recently and conditioning the reopening of the Halki Seminary to the building of a mosque in Athens and protesting the Greek authorities appointing Islamic teachers for Muslims in Western Thrace.

So national positions are declared and low-policy agreements can be signed.

One question only. How much longer do we have to wait for Halki?