Lifting of air ban raises hope of better Greek-Turk relations
Istanbul — A significant shift in Turkey's policy toward neighboring Greece is seen here in the recent government decision to lift restrictions on civilian air traffic in the sensitive Aegean Sea area. (Greece promptly terminated its own parallel restrictions.)
Diplomatic experts believe the Turkish move in late February may have a wider meaning than simply ending a ban that has prevented direct commercial flights over the Aegean for the past five years.
It may also indicate the start of a more realistic and flexible Turkish attitude on other differences that have strained relations between Greece and Turkey.
The Turkish government unilaterally ended the ban it had imposed on civilian air traffic along Turkey's Aegean coast after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. At that time, Greece had reciprocated by closing the rest of the Aegean airspace and declaring the area unsafe.
This sent Greek-Turkish relations to a new low, led to discontinuation of direct flights between Istanbul and Athens, and forced foreign airlines to take costly roundabout routes, mainly over Bulgaria.
The conservative government of Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel decided to lift the restrictions after the Turkish National Security Council, comprised of the nation's top commanders, ruled that the security concerns that led to the 1974 move were no longer pertinent.
Western diplomats feel that this judgment of the military leaders, which is shared by the Demirel administration, is an important step to breaking the circle of mutual distrust that has made it difficult to resolve the remaining differences between the two countries.
What is particularly welcomed here is the possibility of a real breakthrough in the efforts to reach a settlement. When asked in a television interview whether the government's decision meant a change in the previous strategy of tackling all the differences between Greece and Turkey "in a package," Foreign Minister Hayrettin said, "The important thing is to obtain results. Even in a package, all the elements are taken one by one."
This is interpreted by Turkish and foreign analysts as a new approach by the present government to take up individually the various topics of discord and move gradually from the easier ones to the more complex issues.
The main problems include the continental shelf in the Aegean Sea and the rights of oil exploration in the seabeds, Greece's plan to extend its territorial waters from 6 miles to 12, Turkey's objections to the militarization of the Greek islands off Turkey's Aegean coast, the question of Greece's return to the military structure of the NATO alliance, and the plight of the Turkish minority in Greece and the Greek minority in Istanbul.
Intermittent negotiations have been conducted since 1978 between Greek and Turkish foreign-ministry officials on these problems. The last meeting took place in Ankara last month, but no significant progress was made. The position of the previous Turkish government of Bulent Ecevit was to seek solutions to the problems in a package deal. Thus, Turkey's decision to lift the Aegean air restrictions and Mr. Erkmen's statement are regarded as a major shift from the Ecevit position.
Mr. Erkmen also said in the interview that Turkey is not opposed to Greece's return to the Western alliance. And although it does not want the reentry to restore the status of the military command in the southeastern flank of NATO as it was before 1974 -- a situation Turkey regarded as more advantageous for Greece -- Ankara does not make the reentry issue subject to the settlement of political problems between the two countries.
The minister also stressed the need for closer cooperation between Greece and Turkey within the Western alliance in view of the delicate situation in the Near East and the Balkans.
NATO's supreme commander, Gen. Bernard Rogers, paid a brief visit to Ankara last week and held discussions with Turkish military leaders on Greek reentry into NATO. These talks were held in strict secrecy.
The new improvement of the atmosphere between Greece and Turkey may also help , in the long run, the deadlocked negotiations over Cyprus. But it is too early to say if the Turks are prepared to show more flexibility on that subject. For the time being, the Turkish position remains unchanged.