Much Ado in the Eastern Mediterranean
By John Sitilides <email@example.com>,
Executive Director, The Western Policy Center1
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
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
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.
[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