Economic Crisis Brings Greek-Turkish Thaw

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Petros Giannakouris / AP

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, right, and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands in Athens, Friday, May 14, 2010.

Athens experienced a minor Turkish invasion Friday, but this one came with an invitation. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan led a more than 300-strong delegation of Turkish officials and businessmen to Greece, for what leaders of the two nations billed as the beginning of an historic new cooperation.

"Those who write history will write that two ancient civilizations, two important actors are now embarking on a path towards peace and friendship," said Erdogan at a joint press conference with Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, calling Greeks and Turks two peoples who have "eaten bread together."

Times of economic crisis often stir the drumbeat of nationalism, but Papandreou, who has spent most of his short tenure fending off national bankruptcy, took a break from the unrelenting barrage of bad economic news to announce a "rapprochement" with Greece's historic foe.

During a joint cabinet meeting, which included 10 of the Turkish ministers who accompanied Erdogan, 21 bilateral agreements were signed on issues ranging from tourism to illegal immigration to economic cooperation. Papandreou said the summit would "lay the foundations for peace and cooperation despite the problems and difficulties of the past."

That past weighs heavily on the two neighbors. Greeks chaffed under Ottoman rule for 400 years and the two modern nations that emerged from that empire's disintegration have had a fractious 20th century history, marked by war, ethnic cleansing, and mutual distrust.

Today Greece and Turkey are NATO allies, but still frequently engage in aerial skirmishes over the Aegean, where airspace and territorial waters are disputed. Cyprus, whose Turkish and Greek peoples remain divided, also looms over their relationship, and remains a key sticking point in Turkey's bid to enter the European Union.

But Papandreou — who oversaw a previous thaw in relations between the two countries as Greece's foreign minister from 1999 to 2004 — and Erdogan represent a new, more outward looking generation of leaders. Both men also have compelling domestic reasons for wanting to prune back their militaries: Erdogan, and his mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party, are in a domestic battle against Turkey's military and old secular elite; for Greece, it comes down to euros and cents — defending against a Turkish threat is expensive.

A country of just 11 million, Greece spends a higher percentage of its GDP than any other European Union country on its military, according to Eurostat, and is one of the world's biggest buyers of conventional weapons.

Many of those weapons are bought from fellow-EU countries, like Germany and France, the same countries who demanding Greece make deep cuts to state spending as a condition of 110 billion bailout. As part of its austerity program, the country plans to cut its military spending by 25 percent this year, but that savings will come from operating costs not procurement.

"We are afraid that one day Turkey might decide to take away a Greek island," said Papandreou. "Don't laugh," he continued, in response to guffaws from the audience. "This is really what we fear."

In terms of security, the summit Friday was more warm fuzzy feeling than concrete action. But Christos Kollias, a defense expert at the University of Thessaly, says he was impressed by the frankness of the dialogue between the two leaders.

"Both Prime Ministers need our bilateral relations to move forward," he says. "It has the potential to be a very good new beginning." But Kollias added that any savings would come years down the line and that the political progress so far still did not justify drastic cuts to military spending.

Not everyone is applauding the new friendliness between the two countries, and the detente may carry a political price for both leaders. Papandreou's only allies outside his own party in parliament when he pushed through an austerity package on May 6 were members of the far-right Popular Orthodox Rally and Greece's former conservative foreign minister, Dora Bakoyannis. Many on both sides still deplore historic wrongs and the continued repression of their ethnic minorities and ordinary Greeks still regard their larger neighbor warily.

"We have talked to Turkey before," says Christos Nikoliades, a Pontic Greek whose grandparents left Turkey during the population exchanges that took place between the two countries in the 1920s and who joined a small protest against the visit outside the Greek parliament. "Nothing changes. Talking to Turkey just makes them look democratic."