Greek Minister brings mellow winds from Athens
Professor Ahmet Davuto?lu was in great spirits last Wednesday. His permanent grin had been extended to a wide smile with occasional bursts of near laughter, which found a welcoming response from his official guest, the Greek Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Dimitris Droutsas standing next to him. They had just finished their meeting in Ankara, which had obviously gone well - some said better than expected - as became obvious by their willingness to throw a few jokes to the Greek translator or make a few puns about the economic crisis in Greece.
Unlike the tension and cautiousness that used to surround the few visits by Greek ministers to Ankara during Costas Karamanlis" era, this time Mr. Droutsas brought with him an air of willingness from Athens to ?do business with an open mind,? which of course suited the diplomatic philosophy of Prof. Davuto?lu of ?zero problems? with Turkey"s neighbors - although the eventual hiccups in relations with Yerevan have raised a few doubts as to whether Davuto?lu"s doctrine is as easily applicable as he claims.
But maybe relations with Greece could prove less of a thorny issue than Armenia. Or perhaps the time is riper now. At least the economic crisis in Greece has renewed the discussion over the significant developmental potential between these two countries.
To what extent the current leadership in Greece and Turkey is willing to make real advances towards releasing the potential of both sides is not yet clear. However, the list of agreed upon issues announced by the two ministers last week was impressive. To start with, they declared that the visit of the Turkish prime minister to Greece was going to take place earlier than initially planned. Mr. Erdogan will now visit Athens in mid May instead of early June. This by itself sent a message of willingness for discussion.
The two ministers also declared the setting up of a High Cooperation Council with the participation of no less than ten ministers from each country ?to continue from the point that the two sides had left in 1999? when Yorgo Papandreou from the position of the Foreign Minister promoted an active diplomatic rapprochement, triggered by earthquake disasters hitting both countries and bringing them together.
Almost eight months in charge, a new government with Papandreou at its helm has been dealing almost exclusively with an unprecedented economic crisis. It is a deeply upsetting crisis that challenges the position of Greece in the eurozone and places Greek society under serious strain. The seriousness of the situation has sapped the energy of the Greek government and has left little room for diplomacy outside the euro-borders.
Yet the visit of Mr. Droutsas seem to indicate that ten years after the successful Papandreou-Cem team, Yorgo Papandreou with a new team is willing to walk along the same principles of seeking of solutions and exploiting opportunities with Turkey. Droutsas"s visit, was meant to demonstrate a different symbolism, and Ankara showed that it is willing to dance along with it.
The comprehensive and ambitious plan announced by the two ministers last week in Ankara had a clear aim to show that both sides want to significantly and urgently upgrade relations between their countries.
It touched upon a wide range of issues to be developed - from diplomacy, military, economy, tourism, culture, science and education. Even ideas of how to drag Chinese tourists to both Turkey and Greece were discussed, as well as ideas of how to allow Turkish tourists to visit Greek islands with daily visas, thus bypassing the costly Schengen procedures.
A revamped initiative like this could not proceed without a new impetus on the mysterious diplomatic procedure launched over ten years ago between the foreign ministries of the two countries under the label ?explorative talks.? This ongoing process, which involves meetings between experts from both sides on outstanding bilateral issues, has remained largely secret. As the two ministers announced last week, the explorative talks will be upgraded and intensified under the leadership of two new diplomats, ambassadors Apostolidis and Sinirlioglu. They are expected to meet again within the next few weeks before Erdo?an visits Athens.
When Droutsas was asked by Sabah newspaper what will happen with these ?marathon-like? talks, he said: ?When we started these exploratory talks, few believed that we could achieve progress. However, we progressed although we have not completed the job. Now we want to pick up from where we left. We will give impetus to this initiative? if we do not manage in a reasonable time, we should go to The Hague. We have to show the world that our countries are capable of solving a legal issue. Our vision is that the Aegean should be a sea of peace. This is what Papandreou meant by referring to a "share of peace" when speaking ten years ago.?
There was an interesting omission, though, in the ministers" statement.
The recent turmoil surrounding the huge Greek public deficit and the agonizing attempt by the Papandreou government to seek external cheap loans while making massive savings at home prompted a comment by the Turkish minister Egemen Ba?is for Greece and Turkey to agree to reduce their military spending. However, contrary to what one would have thought, neither Droutsas nor Davuto?lu included the issue in their initial statements and would not have talked about it if a Greek journalist had not asked them directly - to which Prof. Davuto?lu had to confirm their ?common vision? on the issue of reducing defense spending. ?It is a vision which is not based on mutual threats but on mutual interests,? he said, adding that the budgets of both countries should not be spent on arms but on education.?
There was an element of déjà vu in the visit of Droutsas in Ankara. Even Davuto?lu made the obvious link with the past: ?The economic crisis in Greece resembles an earthquake. And during earthquakes, our two countries know how to cooperate. That is why Turkey is always ready to help Greece.?
However, in spite of the high spirits, the smiles, and the new list of initiatives, one cannot but feel that, unless there are no concrete steps between Greece and Turkey, no lasting impression, however positive it may have been, can cover for a lack of action.