Aegean: Renewed Turkish – Greek Dialogue Seyfi Taşhan – 13 March 2002

Aegean: Renewed Turkish – Greek Dialogue

Seyfi Taşhan – 13 March 2002

After many years of refusal to talk with Turkey on the Aegean issues, the first encounter on these issues took place yesterday between Turkish and Greek diplomats in Ankara and will continue next month in Athens . Certainly this development is an achievement of the foreign ministers of the two countries whose policy of rapprochement brought the Greek diplomats who refused to talk nothing about the Aegean except taking the issue of the delimitation of the continental shelf in the Aegean to International Court of Justice. Until 1997 Turkey categorically rejected going to international arbitration on the continental shelf unless there were negotiations on all the contentious issues in the Aegean Sea. Basically, these issues were Greek initiatives taken over many decades upsetting the balance established between the two countries with the peace treaty of Lausanne signed in 1923.

It is true that in 1960s and 1970s these problems were discussed between the two sides under the shadow of the major Cyprus dispute that concerned not only the Turkish and Greek Communities in the island but also the two mainland. After 1980s with advent to power in Greece of the father Papandreu, all dialogue between the two countries were terminated, and people of Greece were led to believe that there was a Turkish military threat against Greece. Two points of view were advanced in the Greek public opinion. One the view argued that  Cyprus formed the crux of the dispute between the two countries and before its shadow was removed Greece could not discuss anything in the Aegean. The second was even more chauvinistic and defiant in simply refusing to discuss anything on Aegean which they considered was Greek.

The dialogue and contacts that began between the two countries several years ago and the initiation of direct talks between the two communities in Cyprus may have created the necessary atmosphere for renewed dialogue on the Aegean. Yet, it might be too soon to expect speedy solutions to all the problems on which the two countries and public opinions have hardened views and attitudes.

Let us take the continental shelf which the Greeks still consider as the only contentious issue that could be solved through resort to the International Court of Justice. Had the only problem in the Aegean been only the continental shelf delimitation it could have been possible to accept immediate joint recourse to international arbitration. However from the Turkish point of view other issues of dispute are directly or indirectly related and inter-linked with the continental shelf issue. Take for example, the question of territorial waters in the Aegean, a semi-closed sea dotted with many islands. Currently, territorial waters are limited to six miles.
This breadth of sovereign area leaves a substantial part of the Aegean as international waters (see map). Under the Law of the Seas Convention of which Turkey is not a signatory , the territorial waters of the islands may be extended up to 12 miles.
If Greece decides to use this right generally applicable in open seas it will take most of the Aegean under its sovereignty and Turkish and other flag ships will have to pass through Greek waters to cross the Aegean. In case of Turkey passage from one Turkish port to the other will also have to pass also through Greek waters. Greece currently reserves the right to extend their territorial waters to twelve miles. If she chooses to do so before or after arbitration on the continental shelf there will be no case to go bring to arbitration because there will be no international continental shelf to be divided. It is for this reason that Turkey declared the possible extension of the territorial waters in the Aegean  a “causus belli” in order to assert the vital importance of this issue and to demonstrate that he such a move could prejudice other issues of contention in the Aegean. Among other issues such as the current air space of 10 miles is an odd Greek practice recognized by no one. The fate of the rocks and uninhabited islets in the international waters is also an issue linked with the delimitation of the continental shelf and of the territorial waters. The sheer violations by Greece of the Lausanne Treaty that demilitarized the Greek islands in the proximity of the Turkish coast and of the Italian Peace Treaty that transferred the Dodacanese islands Greece but kept them disarmed are also very important security concerns for both Turkey’s coastal regions and also for the safety of the sea traffic and cannot be ignored on the basis of the Greek claim that this is a matter that concerns only the Greek sovereignty.

Since the dialogue has begun several years ago between the two governments and the civil sectors of both countries,  many  statesmen  as well as significant portions of public opinion in Greece have come to the conclusion that Turkey can no longer be considered a threat to Greece, and that the two countries have significant interest in bilateral cooperation not mention their common interests in the Balkans, the Black Sea region and in the Mediterranean.

If we recall that in 1930 the treaty of alliance and friendship between the two countries gave the right to each party in international conferences to represent the other if he could not attend that meeting, it would not be terribly difficult both for the Turks and the Greeks to adopt the liberal European integrative approach in their bilateral relation.

The international conditions are quite suitable for the success of this newly begun dialogue on the Aegean and we have practically no reason to be pessimist for the eventual outcome.

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Seyfi Taşhan – In recent weeks there has been certain developments in Turkish –Greek relations. This development began with the election of Young Papandreou as the Prime Minister of Greece. He was known to be in favor of good relations with Turkey. He had made friendship with the late Foreign Minister Ismail Cem. In fact  what he did was coming to Istanbul after elections where he paid a visit to his tomb. These gestures of friendship on the part of Greece did not fail to create a positive reaction in Turkey. The positive reaction was that the Prime Minister of Turkey wrote a letter to Mr. Papandreou and made a number of suggestions, the contents of which have not yet been disclosed. But it seems that these suggestions were concrete and to the point and that  the initial Greek reaction was a positive one. Apparently it offered a new method of dialog between Greece and Turkey, to solve the problems joint efforts were needed and it suggested that Turkey would provide every support for a solution. This was followed by a visit to Athens by the Turkish State Minister in charge EU affairs and Chief Negotiator Mr.Egemen Bağış. He also made very friendly statements while in Athens and  everyone hoped that these relations will show a change. But when and how and what changes are to be made remain as a question.

Reşat Arım –  Turkey is trying to have good relations with the all its neighbors. Therefore, it is normal that this opportunity was not lost on Turkey, that is to say, election of a new Prime Minister Mr. Papandreou. Of course, we remember that in 1999 when  Turkey’s candidate status was accepted at the Helsinki summit of the European Union, Mr. Papandreou, who was the Foreign Minister at the time, came to Ankara and made good speeches saying that he would be willing to support  Turkey’s membership in EU. Now, this time, of course we have the Aegean problems and of course the Cyprus issue. These two problems will have to be taken up when the climate will be alright for the two parties.

Oktay Aksoy – It is true that we have declared  our intention to have  zero problem with all our neighbors, as you have mentioned. It is no surprise that we had also a positive approach to the new Greek government. The earlier Mr. Mitsotakis government was a bit hesitant  to further relations with Turkey and they were satisfied with positive developments only in the economic field. But, the issues related with the Aegean and Cyprus remained and we are now approaching the EU summit, where Turkey-Cyprus relations will be considered. Papandreou’s  coming to power  has given us an opportunity to try to improve relations as he is known in Turkey as someone who would be helping Turkey’s EU bid. But of course, when Turkey’s candidate status was approved in Helsinki in 1999 the governments in power in the EU countries were more social democrat than at present. We have Great Britain and Greece now who can collaborate. And although not a social democrat, the government in Sweden is also supporting Turkey’s accession process and as the term President may be helpful. But we will see how things will develop.

Seyfi Taşhan – Of course, the EU aspect  is an important part of the Turkish- Greek relations because if we recall the history, Greece entered into EU to the detriment  of  Turkey’s relations with EU. And it has blocked  Turkey’s relations with EU from 1981 to 1992, really, when EU decided to establish custom’s union with Turkey. However, if we look at the content of the problem, the Aegean, it is simple to say  that the Aegean is the problem, as EU did, it is simple to resolve the territorial  disputes. It is easy to say that the Cyprus problem can be resolved. For an  outsider these are simple issues but for the insiders each of these issues has many dimensions. I believe to isolate Cyprus issue from Turkish- Greek relations is not possible. Because the birth of the Cyprus issue finds itself in Greek nationalism and Turkish reaction to it. So the basic problem to my mind is to prepare the psychological terrain and the mutual confidence. But before the Cyprus question is resolved, do you think it is possible to create this psychological atmosphere for furthering these relations. We remember well that Papandreou and İsmail Cem tried to revive the peace process or  understanding or agreement between Greece and Turkey but they failed miserably because of the public opinion resistance to any sacrifice on the part of the Aegean. Actually Aegean requires mutual sacrifice for a solution. Now if we look at the specific problems in the Aegean, they are not easy to resolve. Also the Cyprus question is being negotiated for a long time and still there is no solution. Now how can we create this psychological atmosphere?

Reşat Arım – Of course, it is difficult  because the main thing is to have a dialog between Turkey and Greece. To obtain the climate of dialog, it seems that Cyprus is the main impediment. Of course, if we look back to the 1950s, Turkey and Greece had very good relations. Then the Cyprus question came to the fore when United Kingdom wanted to relinguish its sovereignty on the Island. Turkey and Greece  had demands on Cyprus and because the climate was  right for mutual compromise, the Prime Ministers of Turkey and Greece came together to find a formula whereby an independent state was created. However, that was during Cold War conditions, there was the Non-Aligned Movement, etc. Cyprus kind of went afar from the domain of Turkey and Greece, of course the Greek side had the advantage because of  the United Nation Security Council resolution, because the Turks were ousted from the Government in Cyprus. But I believe that two governments had a disadvantage in having a decision on Cyprus.

Seyfi Taşhan – I would like just to add one point. You are absolutely right that Cyprus problem is a sine qua non in relations between Turkey and Greece. However up to now it was Greece’s attitude that Cyprus is an independent state and it has no persuasive  power or persuasive role on the Greek Cypriot government for any kind of solution with  the Turkish part of Cyprus. So, will it be possible to solve the Cyprus question without Turkey, Greece and both sides of Cyprus and probably also the other guarantor power, the United Kingdom? If there is no four party dialogue  and  understanding towards a solution, the problem remains. At least these four parties can agree on the fundamentals of a solution, leaving the details between two communities. I do not know if Mr. Papandreou, in spite of his desire to resolve the problems with Turkey, is capable of assuming such a responsibility with Cyprus issue. May I ask you to comment of this?

Oktay Aksoy – What degree of influence he may have on Greek  Cypriots is not clear but one thing is definite, both the Greek Cypriot leader, the Turkish Cypriot leader and  the Greek Prime Minister are left leaning politicians. So they may find a common ground in that respect and may find some support from other EU leaders. But I am not sure if they will use this influence to find a solution. Greece’s interest in having Turkey as a member of the EU rather than drifting away from Europe may also play a role.

Seyfi Taşhan – Well, you brought an interesting subject. Would the foreign relations of a country be affected by the political leaning of  the party in power? S, if we say the Greek Cypriots are socialist, Turkish Cypriots are socialists and the Greeks are socialist, we may be hopeful. But against that, the current Turkish government which seeks most for the solution of the problem is a right wing party. That contradicts, I am sorry to say, your argument to a certain degree. The point is that negotiation stage of Cyprus at the moment seems to be not encouraging so it is also dubious if the two sides can reach an agreement on the substantive issues of sovereignty of  the two communities, although they say two states must be formed, but what sort of two states would be accepted?  What will be the form of the republic? They say that it would be federal republic but what sort of a federation it will be? So, I believe the Cyprus issue is also, even if we  assumed  that  the two leaders of Cyprus have all the desire to reach a solution, the solution is hampered by the double hat of the Greek Cypriots. While on the one hand they are community, on the other, they are the state of Cyprus. So, this is  anomaly certainly affects, it has a great bearing on the outcome of the negotiations. So, that is why I said, will Mr. Papandreou have enough influence on Greek Cypriots? Otherwise, Greek Cypriots may not see an advantage on a solution simply because they are the Republic of Cyprus and that in the eyes of the European Union and in the world, when there is a solution they will be sharing Cyprus with the Turkish Cypriots. So, I do not know what encouragement or what incentive they will have for reaching a solution. That is a realist approach. Certainly they also may have a desire to have a peaceful Cyprus in which both sides will be cooperating toward the welfare of Cyprus,  of all the island. So far I do not see  the demonstration of such a desire on the part of Greek leadership.

Reşat Arım – To get out of this impasse maybe we have to introduce the concept of conjuncture, in the international system as it evolves, we see that countries are more amenable to solving their problems and on the whole it is the soft power that is commending the actions of  the states. Between Turkey and Greece we had many good times for example in the 1930s between Atatürk and Venizelos. To come to a compromise  solution on Cyprus, the two countries can make an effort. Also, they may encourage the two sides in Cyprus to make all the effort possible. There is serious discussion of all aspects of the problem under the Good affices Mission of the UN Secretary General. Certainly, it would be a pity to let this opportunity press.

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