`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.
Athens — 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.''
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.
The accord, hammered out with France and Britain, was designed to put the last nail in the coffin of the megali idea, which lay behind the 1921 Greek attack against the forces of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey. Ataturk's resounding defeat of overextended Greek forces deep inside Anatolia in 1922 culminated in the sacking of the Greek city of Smyrna (now Izmir) and the flight of some 1.3 million Greeks from Asia Minor.
If there was any hostility among the relocated populations 65 years ago, little evidence of it exists today, at least in those affected regions. In the Turkish city of Ayvalik, many of the older generation were among the thousands of Muslims moved from Crete. On the Greek island of L'esvos 15 miles away, many of the older generation were born in Ayvalik. An Athenian taxi driver whose parents are among them says they still maintain contact with Turkish friends in Ayvalik. Similar stories can be heard on the islands of Kh'ios, Samos, and Kos and in Istanbul, Ayvalik, and ,Ce,sme.
A reason for the seeming absence of mistrust and hostility in these border areas is their relative prosperity. The Greek Aegean islands and the Turkish coastal cities are thriving tourist centers visited annually by thousands of Europeans. The 'Evros/Meri,c river, besides serving as the countries' northern border, is also the main artery of a lush agricultural zone that stretches for miles from both banks into fields of wheat, corn, sunflowers, cotton, and beans.
``We have one of the best agricultural infrastructures in Europe,'' boasts Antonis Kovaios, the prefect of the 'Evros region of Greek Thrace.
Another factor that brings Greeks and Turks together is Turkey's lower prices. Greeks stream into Edirne, sometimes all the way to Istanbul, to take advantage of savings of up to 50 percent on leather goods, clothing, gold, and food. Shopping sprees have become so prevalant that Greek shops in 'Evros are suffering.
But Mr. Kovaios says Greeks cross the river just as much out of sentiment as for economy - sentiment ``for lost homes and a religious feeling for the supreme patriarch'' of the Greek Orthodox Church, still based in Istanbul.
Still, the two governments attempt to strike domestic chords of chauvinism.
Analysts suggest that Ankara is merely trying to extract from Athens a public renunciation of the megali idea and strongilismo. While Greek officials may privately renounce the idea, such a public move, in the face of Greece's oft-heard characterization of Turkey as expansionist, would be widely seen as kowtowing to Ankara. It is the alleged Turkish threat that has also provided Mr. Papandreou, the Socialist Party leader, with the means to reverse himself on an old campaign promise to pull Greece out of the NATO alliance, and still retain the support of his party's far left.
Despite their differences and inflexibilities, Athens and Ankara still have room to reach some sort of rapprochement. If, as some observers say, the presence of charismatic leaders is a prerequisite, Papandreou and Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal qualify.
Papandreou, in particular, could hold the key to d'etente in the Aegean, says a Western diplomat in Athens. The envoy likens the Greek premier's Turkey-bashing credentials to the well-known anticommunist views of former US President Richard Nixon, who ultimately forged d'etente with communist China.
``Who would oppose him? Who is more hardline than Papandreou?'' asks the diplomat. ``The [opposition] New Democracy party already favors dialogue, and [so do] the communists. ...''
On the other hand, a Turkish journalist here contends that the Ozal government could pull off a great diplomatic coup by taking the initiative and removing its troops from Cyprus. Such a move would undercut much of the Papandreou government's policies toward Turkey.
``It would take all the cards out of Papandreou's hands,'' the journalist says. Papandreou has long called for this action as prerequisite for talks with Turkey.
The irony of the two governments finally sitting down together to map out a peace policy is that few Greeks and Turks who see each other every day or who gaze across the frontier from their homes would notice the difference.
As a carpet dealer in Ayvalik says, ``We are all Mediterranean people. We have the same music, food, and drink. What is all the fuss about?''