Greek crisis may be chance to improve relations.
The economic turmoil in neighboring Greece, triggered by an unsustainable budget deficit, can be turned into an opportunity for Turkish-Greek relations, according to Selim Egeli of the Foreign Economic Relations Council, or DE?K.
?Even if Greece conducts 5 percent of its foreign trade with Turkey, bilateral foreign trade volume would reach $10 billion,? Egeli, the president of DE?K"s Turkish-Greek Business Council, told business daily Referans. ?To accomplish this, politicians should come together more often.?
Bilateral economic relations in essence began 17 to 18 years ago, according to Egeli. ?At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland [in January 1988], premiers from both countries, Andreas Papandreou and the late Turgut Özal, came together,? he said.
?They agreed that bilateral relations should be warmed by the initiative of businesspeople,? Egeli added. ?The last article of the protocol they signed was assigning the job to the private sectors of both countries.?
In the aftermath of this breakthrough, businesspeople from both sides started organizing meetings on a biannual or triennial basis, Egeli said: ?We launched platforms in various branches of the economy to facilitate meetings between businesspeople. And we succeeded. Great friendships started this way. The number of companies [involved] sometimes reached 1,000.?
Despite all these efforts, annual bilateral trade could not exceed $300 million to $400 million. ?We saw that only trade was not enough, as both countries had to have a stable political dialogue,? said Egeli. ?In the end, the late Foreign Minister ?smail Cem and today"s Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou lent an ear to us. They convinced their respective governments and in 1999, friendship advanced.?
This era of political friendship has also helped trade; the current volume of bilateral trade stands at more than $3.5 billion per year. ?Today, more than 80 Greek companies, two of which are banks, have direct investments in Turkey,? he said.
Turkish investors have acted more slowly, more ?lazily,? according to Egeli. ?But according to what we"ve heard, stores such as Koton and ?pekyol are entering Athens. There are also restaurants. The Mado group will be investing there. Ziraat Bank has opened branches,? he said. ?I predict that as we exit the crisis, more Turkish investors will enter Greece.?
The current crisis in Greece might be an opportunity in relations, Egeli added. ?Greece is a society used to quality goods, the best goods. And Turkey has proven itself in quality, from automobiles to textiles. We are the biggest producers of white goods and TVs in Europe. These are high-tech products,? he said. ?Thus, we can increase bilateral trade. Even if Greece shifts 5 percent of its trade with the European Union to Turkey, importing white goods, construction material, auto parts, iron, steel and chemicals from Turkey, we may reach $10 billion in trade volume.?
According to Egeli, the current crisis might provide the momentum for a new cooperation. ?Greece and Turkey are two ideal partners that complement each other,? he said, adding that the prime ministers of both sides are warm toward better relations.
The sale of Finansbank and Tekfenbank to Greek bankers ?helped a lot,? Egeli said. ?It is important that the biggest private bank of Greece is active in Turkey. Greek businesspeople now have the opportunity to receive information about Turkish industrialists,? he added. ?They will finance their Turkish investments more easily.?
The times are also good for partnerships, Egeli said, noting that more than 80 Greek investors are currently active in Turkey. ?An olive-oil producer on Lesbos island could partner with a producer in Ayval?k, creating a great synergy,? he said. ?The same thing applies for tourism, too.?
Still, the reciprocity accord between the two sides has left both countries way behind, he said. ?The Muslim minority [there] cannot choose its own mufti, while the Orthodox community here cannot open its schools,? Egeli said. ?Instead of fighting over who will search for oil in the Aegean Sea, we may create a partnership, involve third parties and search together.?
?If the Lausanne Treaty has to be changed to do this, let it be. If problems in politics endure, trade also stops,? he added. ?But I have to say that Greece is the only country that sincerely wants Turkey to enter the European Union.?
In tourism, the two countries should not compete with each other, he said: ?We have to promote facilities in Turkey and Greece in the same catalogs. If we can do this, the Aegean Sea will become a center of attraction.?
This year, DE?K will organize six bilateral meetings, three in each country.