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Opportunities for Improving Greek-Turkish Relations

By Ambassador Thomas Niles1
Vice President, National Defense University

Strategic Regional Report
April/May 1998

Given the continuing attention to their disputes over Cyprus, the Aegean Sea, and other issues, it may seem paradoxical to speak of opportunities for improvement in the bilateral relationship between Greece and Turkey.

After all, recent headlines over frustrated negotiation efforts in Cyprus, new Turkish assertions over Greek sovereignty in the Aegean Sea, and the continuing armament acquisition programs in both Greece and Turkey seem to confirm that the Greek-Turkish relationship is hopelessly deadlocked in diplomatic tension and rhetorical antagonism.

However, on the basis of my four-year experience in Athens, I am convinced that important opportunities to break out of the regional impasse do exist, and that even partial success in realizing them can have a beneficial impact on the overall relationship between Greece and Turkey and on the strong U.S. interest in stability in the eastern Mediterranean and southeastern Europe.

Where are those "opportunities" to be found?

First of all, they exist in the logical areas for two neighboring countries: trade, tourism, and environmental protection.

In the case of trade, this is particularly true now that Turkey is a full member, as of the end of 1995, of the European Unionís Customs Union. While I was in Athens, I sought to encourage Greek and Turkish business leaders to meet and explore opportunities for cooperation. This effort was welcomed by senior executives in both countries, and that process is now well launched.

In 1997, the by-then regular meeting of Greek and Turkish business leaders was broadened to include a separate session involving business people from the two communities in Cyprus, indicating that economic cooperation can have unexpected positive consequences in other areas.

I believe that there are opportunities for Greek and Turkish business cooperation in third markets, such as elsewhere in southeastern Europe and in the countries of the former Soviet Union. The Black Sea Cooperative Organization, which has its headquarters in Istanbul and its special bank in Thessaloniki, could become an important vehicle for enhanced Greek-Turkish cooperation.

Clearly, the global trend toward regional commerce and economic development as the driving forces of international relations warrants serious application in a region so vital to the United States and its Western partners.

The second obvious area for Greek-Turkish cooperation is tourism. Some might say that the two countries are more naturally competitors than partners in this area, but I am convinced that their interests coincide more often than not. What are those interests?

Greece, in particular, and Turkey have an interest in moving away from what has been referred to as mass tourism into the higher value-added sectors of the industry, if for no other reason than the increasingly heavy burden ever larger numbers of tourists pose for the delicate Aegean environment. Upgrading the tourism infrastructure to attract and accommodate a more demanding category of visitors is something the tourism sectors of the two countries could profitably do together.

I would envisage this cooperation at the government level, ultimately even in the form of joint investments in projects that serve both Greece and Turkey, and between private companies that could offer packages covering both countries.

Another important common interest between the two countries is the natural environment they share and upon which their futures depend to a substantial degree.

Whether in the Aegean Sea or in Thrace, Greece and Turkey need to develop joint programs to protect and enhance their shared environment based on sustaining, improving, and protecting their natural resources, while preserving needed development efforts in their respective industrial, tourist, and agricultural sectors. Working together in this way would not only demonstrate the benefits of cooperation, but it could also create a spirit of cooperation which might in time be applied to more sensitive areas.

The solution to other problems in the Aegean region also requires Greek-Turkish cooperation.

The recent State Department report on narcotics trafficking highlighted the bilateral problems Greece and Turkey face in this increasingly dangerous area. The Greek-Turkish border is used in the transit of heroin, hashish, and other narcotics that are produced in the Near East and South Asia and are transported to Western Europe.

Athens and Ankara should work together to combat the regional and international problem of organized criminal activity and massive money laundering that attacks the social cohesiveness of our European allies and other valued partners in the world.

At the same time, they must also find the means to cooperate in extinguishing the "business" in refugees that has resulted in the arrival of substantial numbers of illegal immigrants on Greek territory.

Given the fact that a number of other countries are affected by these phenomena, it could be easier to try to deal with them initially on a multilateral basis.

Practical cooperation between Greece and Turkey in the areas I have listed, and other areas as well, will not, in and of itself, produce an abrupt turn for the better in the troubled bilateral relationship. That will require progress on the more difficult political issues - especially the delineation of the Aegean continental shelf and the resolution of the protracted Cyprus question - that divide the two neighboring countries.

However, these forms of cooperation can bring concrete benefits to both countries, help create a better atmosphere in the bilateral relationship, and contribute to a readiness to deal with more fundamental problems.

The United States and its other allies in Europe, linked to both Greece and Turkey by ties of friendship and alliance, should be alert to ways in which they can encourage that cooperation.

1 Thomas Niles, who was U.S. Ambassador to Greece from October 1993 to October 1997, wrote this analysis for the April/May issue of the Strategic Regional Report, a bi-monthly publication of the Western Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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. The Center analyzes current U.S. foreign policy toward southeastern Europe and develops policy recommendations for the region. It cooperates with other nongovernmental organizations, leading educational and foreign policy institutions, and the media in providing forums for the analysis of issues concerning the region. For more information, please call (202) 530-1425.