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Much Ado in the Eastern Mediterranean

By John Sitilides <>,
Executive Director, The Western Policy Center1

Washington, D.C.
Wednesday, September 15, 1999

The last few months of 1999 may be remembered years from now as an exceptional period of renewed progress in Greek-Turkish relations and the Cyprus problem.

September will bring continued talks between Greece and Turkey on economic, cultural, and security matters, and the White House meeting between President Clinton and Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit. October or November may bring a new round of U.N.-brokered negotiations on Cyprus, inspired by the G-8 powers, and new life to the peace process. And November will find President Clinton in Greece and Turkey, in conjunction with the annual summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) convening in Istanbul.

On many fronts, this could be the most intense period of diplomatic engagement among Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, and the U.S. - save for irregular crises - in years.

Just weeks earlier, as the tragedy of thousands of Turks killed in the devastating August 17 earthquake unfolded, Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou immediately expressed his country's support for the Turkish people in telephone conversations with his Turkish counterpart Ismail Cem and assured him that the Greek government would provide any assistance requested. Cem acknowledged Greek technical expertise in searching for survivors, given Greece's frequent earthquakes.

Within 48 hours of the quake, Greece delivered to Turkey three C-130 cargo airplanes with humanitarian aid; several tons of medical supplies and two fully-equipped mobile medical emergency units with 11 doctors; two firefighting airplanes and a helicopter to combat oil refinery fires; 25 soldiers of the Emergency Task Force with four vehicles and special equipment; and sniffer dogs specially trained to locate those trapped under the rubble. The mission also included seven Greek seismologists to consult with their Turkish counterparts.

In turn, the Turkish people were the first to respond when a major earthquake struck Athens on September 7, and Turkish authorities have pledged to assist in the Greek relief effort, even in the face of considerable domestic housing and winterizing needs.

Against the backdrop of this impressive mutual humanitarian effort, Papandreou has noted that significant Greek-Turkish problems remain. President Clinton's upcoming visit to the region offers the promise of progress in Greek-Turkish relations, but White House officials are concerned the president's trip will not be considered fully successful if he is unable to announce some positive developments.

As Greek and Turkish diplomats meet for the scheduled second-stage talks, the Clinton administration is looking for signs that bilateral cooperation agreements can be reached in trade, tourism, or environmental protection of the Aegean Sea.

More significant would be an agreement on a security-related matter, such as cooperation against regional terrorism, especially after the diplomatic disaster resulting from the Ocalan affair.

Whether this process eventually leads to high-level agreement on an appropriate mechanism for addressing serious issues, such as delimiting the Aegean Sea continental shelf or confirming the ownership of Imia and other Greek islets before the International Court of Justice, remains to be seen. Overeager American encouragement to ensure such an eventual outcome could unnecessarily agitate the political climate in Greece and Turkey and derail the current bilateral talks.

Washington is maintaining a low profile that frees Papandreou and Cem to jointly build the framework that advances their countries' shared interests. Behind the scenes, the White House is hoping this process will deliver good news that the president, along with his Greek and Turkish counterparts, can announce while in Athens, Ankara, or Istanbul. A similar dynamic is unfolding concerning the Cyprus problem, as Washington energetically encourages the Turkish side to meet with Greek Cypriots for renewed U.N. talks under the G-8 initiative.

As the NATO campaign in Kosovo came to an end, the G-7 industrial powers and Russia urged the U.N. to initiate a negotiation process that would bring about a just, lasting, and comprehensive settlement of the Cyprus question. Ten years of war, ethnic strife, and Western military intervention in the Balkans have driven home the fact that southeastern Europe - comprised of the Balkan peninsula and the eastern Mediterranean - is clearly an area of strategic interest for the U.S. and its European allies.

Solving the decades-old Cyprus problem, a continual flashpoint for NATO allies Greece and Turkey, would help bring about the needed stability of the region at a time when Western diplomatic attention on the area is at its highest since the Second World War.

The Turkish Cypriot community is again insisting on preconditions in the proposed bicommunal talks, including sovereign recognition of its self-styled regime and the cancellation of Cyprus' European Union accession application. Both were rejected by Greek Cypriots and condemned by former Special Presidential Emissary for Cyprus Richard Holbrooke two years ago.

Washington is attempting to persuade Ankara that a Cyprus settlement based on the 1977 and 1979 agreements bearing Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash's signature is very much in Turkey's interest.

The Cyprus issue has been a tremendous financial and diplomatic burden for Turkey, costing billions of dollars in economic subsidies and military reinforcement. The U.N. Security Council has repeatedly condemned Turkey's actions in Cyprus, and no country other than Turkey has recognized the Turkish Cypriot entity.

Turkey is eagerly awaiting the European Union (EU) decision at the Helsinki summit in December that would elevate it from third-tier status as a non-candidate for membership in the bloc to second-tier status that offers a clearer vision of potential accession in the decades ahead. German support for Turkey at the June EU summit signaled to Greece that its objection to Turkey's candidacy would be less welcome at future summits.

Greece has traditionally permitted itself to become the whipping boy in Ankara for obstructing Turkey's EU accession, despite Turkey's inability to fulfill the EU's objective economic criteria, sustained European criticism of Turkey's human rights record, its military campaign against Kurdish PKK separatists, and its continued occupation of Cyprus.

Berlin's reluctance to further obstruct Turkey's candidacy, coupled with a massive EU humanitarian aid package to assist Turkey's earthquake relief effort, may bring Greece along the same path, opening the door for Turkey's first positive EU development since the EU-Turkey customs union was signed four years ago.

Washington is urging Turkey to play a more constructive role in resolving the Cyprus question. A new U.S. ambassador to Cyprus, a new Special Presidential Emissary for Cyprus, and a new State Department Coordinator for Cyprus have been appointed in the past two months. Israel and Greece are dramatically improving relations, opening the door to multilateral cooperation with Turkey in the years ahead. President Clinton's much-anticipated visit to Turkey will generate diplomatic energy and renewed confidence that can be channeled into long-sought solutions to Turkey's regional problems.

Together, these tactical and strategic developments affecting the eastern Mediterranean region may help persuade Ankara that its own interests are advanced by promoting direct talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots and by exploring a just and lasting Cyprus settlement.

The great danger? That the timely and significant opportunities emerging from Greek-Turkish cooperation talks, the G-8 interest in resolving the Cyprus problem, and President Clinton's regional visit will produce little of consequence or merit. If this is the case, the diplomatic effort will enter 2000 frustrated and facing yet another brick wall, behind which lie 2001 and the discontinuity resulting from a new U.S. administration establishing its own foreign policy team.

If Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey want continued U.S. support in achieving their respective objectives - that is, Aegean security, demilitarization and reunification of Cyprus, and closer EU relations - they will have to take important steps in pursuit of their own interests. Washington will look to utilize the exceptional timeframe of the next several months to encourage Greece and Turkey, bilaterally and in Cyprus, to continue moving in the right direction.

1 [The Western Policy Center is a public policy corporation promoting U.S. geostrategic interests and Western institutions in southeastern Europe by strengthening the debate on American foreign policy toward NATO allies Greece and Turkey, and toward Cyprus. Based in California since 1994, the Center opened new offices in Washington, D.C. in February 1998.]