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`Theater' and tanks: view from the Greek-Turkish border. Volatile exchanges between Athens and Ankara are a regular feature of Aegean summers. Much of the quarreling stems from a 13-year dispute over Cyprus. But, while the rhetoric flies and troops line the border, the Greeks and Turks who live along the frontiers see things differently. They are skeptical of official diatribes and find much in common with their `brothers' across the border.

By John ShuttSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 1987


Bouncing along a dirt road parallel to the river that separates Greece and Turkey, the Greek taxi driver jerks his head to indicate the Turkish bank 200 yards away. ``The Turkish tanks were over there, and ours were here,'' he remembers back to March. ``But it was just good bouzouki,'' he says, referring to a popular style of Greek music. ``It was good theater.''

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Across the river, in Edirne, the teen-age Turkish waiter recalls it this way: ``It made no difference here. We have no problem with the Greeks. We are the same. We are like brothers.''

Both Greek and Turk were recalling this spring's so-called Aegean crisis, when their two governments mobilized troops and came to the brink of war. Their sentiments can be heard all along the 120-mile stretch of the 'Evros River (Meri,c in Turkish) as well as along Turkey's Aegean coast and on the Greek islands just opposite.

In both regions, where major concentrations of troops are stationed and which would be the initial flash point of any conflict between the two countries, the civilian populations sound weary and skeptical of the political diatribes that have characterized official Greek-Turkish relations for the past 13 years.

During the summer, the volatile exchange between Athens and Ankara generally reaches a crescendo, with a number of anniversaries upon which much Greek-Turkish animosity hinges. July 15 marks the day in 1974 when the Greek junta then in power engineered a coup to overthrow the government of Cyprus and unite the island with Greece. Five days later, Turkey, concerned about the fate of the 20 percent of the island's population who are of Turkish descent, invaded and cordoned off the northern third of the island. Aug. 14 heralds the date of a second Turkish invasion that made the partition between the Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot sectors a fait accompli. The northern area became a self-proclaimed independent state in 1983.

From the Cyprus dispute stems the quarrels in the Aegean Sea, which almost culminated in open conflict in March over a dispute on oil-exploration rights. Until 1974, Greece and Turkey had smoothed over their Aegean differences - defining their respective continental shelves, territorial waters, and airspaces through international fora and treaties. But since then, the Cyprus dispute has precluded further progress on these issues.

Greece has ruled out dialogue until Turkey removes its 20,000 to 30,000 troops from Cyprus. Relations have consisted of running monologues: rigid, provocative, and apparently not designed to promote compromise.

Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou regularly invokes the ``Turkish threat.'' And official Turkish publications warn of the megali idea (big idea, the old Greek nationalist vision of a revived Byzantine empire) and strongilismo (``completing the circle'' of Greek settlement on all shores of the Aegean).

How can this disparity between government actions and public perceptions exist? How do the governments adopt a siege mentality while their constituents along the border refer to each other as ``brothers''

``Political games.'' That's the almost unanimous explanation given by those in border regions on both sides. Though neither Greeks nor Turks living in the flash point areas appear to expect an attack, this view is by no means universal. As one Western diplomat says, ``There seems to be a direct relationship between involvement in politics in the capital and the perception of a military threat from Turkey.''

Many Turks in the border regions are confident that Greece would not attack their country, which has the second largest armed force in NATO next to the United States. For their part, many Greeks express skepticism of their own government, saying that Prime Minister Papandreou invokes the ``Turkish threat'' to divert public attention away from economic problems.

Such criticism may have some validity. But perhaps it comes too easily - either for opposition parties' political purposes or because of disinterest in the intricacies of the issues. Disputes between Athens and Ankara are more complex and cannot be dismissed so readily.

In the 50 years prior to the attempted Greek-backed coup and Turkish invasion of Cyprus, intransigence and brinksmanship were the exception in Greek-Turkish relations. The basis for this relative stability was laid in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne which fixed Greece's current land frontiers, recognized all of Anatolia (Asia Minor) as Turkish, and acknowledged five large eastern Aegean islands as Greek. It mandated an exchange of populations, transferring the Greek Orthodox people of Asia Minor to Greece, and the Muslims of Greece to Turkey.