Detente in the Aegean

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The signs of a thaw are everywhere: from the crisp new flag flapping over the Turkish Embassy in Athens to recently opened 24-hour border posts on the road to Istanbul. Greek TV news shows that once broadcast file footage of dogfights between Greek and Turkish warplanes now carry bubbly features on Turkish pop culture. There's even a plan for rival football clubs, those bastions of nationalist sentiment, to set aside their blood feuds and serve as joint hosts to the 2008 European Championships.

Southeastern Europe finds itself in the middle of an entirely novel event--an outbreak of peace and goodwill across the Aegean. It is happening so quickly, on so many fronts and across a cultural fault line that once seemed so immutable, that analysts can barely keep up. This week, Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem arrives in Athens for the first visit by a Turkish foreign minister since the two sides were pulling back from the brink of war more than a decade ago. Last month Cem's Greek counterpart, George Papandreou, flew to Ankara for an even rarer visit, the first in almost 40 years. "I'm still rubbing my eyes in disbelief," said a senior Western diplomat in Athens.

The exchange of visits is ceremonial, designed to woo public opinion and "build confidence" in a diplomatic detente that the two men are shepherding. But it caps six months of hectic parleys and follows Greece's breakthrough decision in December not only to drop its objections to Turkey's membership in the European Union but to help its neighbor gain admission.

And there is more. As the new century begins, the two sides are signing deals on transport, tourism, environmental regulation, taxation and, most significantly, anti-terrorism--a pact that has already sent shudders through Athens' Kurdish separatist community. The U.S. and other Western powers are energetically backing this detente, in hopes of ridding NATO of a major source of tension between two member states. The E.U. wants the peacemaking to become contagious and spread stability throughout the Balkans.

But some major obstacles remain, including the 26-year-old question of what to do with the divided island of Cyprus, plus numerous territorial disputes over the Aegean islands which Greece, for now, refuses to address. But Papandreou says he believes there is no turning back. "We are dealing with Turkey not in the old context of Greek-Turkish relations but as a future E.U. member," he said in a Time interview. Whatever Turkey does to win E.U. membership will "rationally guarantee the security of Greece," he added. Cem agrees: "What is unbelievable," he told Time, "is what we have achieved already. It's like All Quiet on the Western Front."

Most of the measures on the table are unglamorous and pose minimal political risk. Among them: rewriting school textbooks to expunge pejorative references to the other country, and a proposal to hold joint naval maneuvers in disputed waters. The

Foreign Ministers are also eager to begin eliminating barriers to investment, notably double taxation. Trade between the two Aegean nations, which now stands at only about half a billion dollars a year, is already showing signs of awakening. Last month a U.S., Italian, Greek and Turkish consortium inked a deal that will see a $500 million natural gas power station built on Greek soil and exporting electricity to Turkey.

By some estimates, overall trade could hit $5 billion in three years. Ersin Arioglu, for one, sees plenty of potential. His Turkish construction company just joined forces with a Greek partner to manufacture water pipes in northern Greece and sell them to the former Yugoslavia. "No one does business for sentimental reasons," he says. "We really are getting to know each other." Others, especially Greek businessmen eyeing the growing and largely untapped Turkish market, believe that the politicians aren't moving fast enough.

The biggest breakthrough is in fighting terrorism. This is a top priority for Ankara in the aftermath of the debacle last February in which the Greek Embassy in Kenya admitted to sheltering Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the P.K.K., the Kurdish rebel movement in Turkey. "We could live with all the other problems," explained one senior Turkish envoy. "But this one had to be solved. It posed a direct threat to Turkey's territorial integrity." Under the accord Greece agrees to fight terrorism, though no group is mentioned by name. For the Turks, however, the meaning is clear: "We know and they know that we mean the P.K.K. and all other terrorist groups that operate against the Turkish state," says a Turkish diplomat. "Put bluntly, we expect Athens to terminate all P.K.K. operations in Greece." Acting under the provisions of the accord, Greece this month "voluntarily deported" 45 of 148 Kurds found on a refugee boat in the Aegean.

How quickly Greece will move against the P.K.K. itself is unclear. Two weeks ago, the organization's political office in Athens abruptly relocated from its upscale midtown address near the U.S. Embassy to an out-of-the-way place downtown. The red and yellow flag that adorned the old premises is no longer on display, and across Greece P.K.K. members moved out of offices and went underground. "We're lying low, waiting to see what will happen," says Rizgar Aydin, the P.K.K.'s political head in Athens.

The question of Cyprus, too, will not be resolved easily. Papandreou said this month he is in favor of "people to people" talks between Turkish and Greek Cypriots, possibly under E.U. sponsorship, and that he believes warmer relations between the two mother countries will help speed a settlement. The U.N., with U.S. backing, has sponsored proximity talks between the two sides that are scheduled to resume in Geneva this week. The aim is to reach an agreement on where and when to hold direct talks as early as June. But Turkey's powerful military will need some convincing, and so will the leadership in the north of the island.

Still, it is remarkable how far the two sides have come since one year ago, when relations hit a nadir over the revelations of Greece's role in harboring Ocalan. The outcry forced the resignation of hardline nationalist Foreign Minister Theodore Pangalos, who was known for referring to Turks as "rapists and thieves." His successor, Papandreou, is a different sort of politician altogether. U.S.-educated, urbane and internationalist in outlook, Papandreou soon launched talks with Cem--an equally moderate politician and former journalist from Turkey's ruling Democratic Left Party. The two wasted no time in finding common ground. For Papandreou, the Kosovo crisis proved a turning point. "It focused our attention," he told Time. "Kosovo changed our image and gave us a new identity." Greece, an aide added, began to act not out of fear, but out of a sense of responsibility.

A massive earthquake that struck Turkey in August and killed over 17,000 people triggered an outpouring of sympathy from Greece and provided some much-needed popular underpinning for the diplomatic initiative. The jolt caused the land to slip, bringing segments of the two nations three meters closer together, and by kindling public sympathy gave Papandreou and Cem political room for maneuver. In one poll last month, two out of three Greeks said they had "friendly and positive sentiments" toward the Turks, while only one in three expressed indifference or dislike.

How long the honeymoon will last is hard to estimate. The Foreign Ministers may be leading the way, but they are driven by national interests. Greece can ill afford the luxury of maintaining old hostilities. To keep pace with Turkey, it spent a higher proportion of its budget on defense in the past decade than any other Western power. The U.S. and most of Europe were eager to embrace a moderate Turkey, moreover, leaving Greece increasingly marginalized. What's more, its own business leaders were clamoring for access to new Turkish markets. For their part, Turks recognized that continued antagonism would slow their entry into the E.U. Governments may fall, of course, bringing in less tolerant players. But in a smaller world, the reasons for friendship may just have become too compelling to ignore.

With reporting by Anthee Carassava/Athens and Andrew Finkel/Ankara