BOTH Turkish President Suleyman Demirel and Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis recently visited Washington, and problems between Greece and Turkey dominated their discussions. Yet tensions between these key American allies remain high.
Earlier this year, Turkey and Greece almost went to war over an uninhabited islet - in effect, a pile of rocks - off the Turkish Aegean coast. Longtime observers of Greek-Turkish relations had a sense of deja vu. They had seen these foes stalk each another before - in 1976 and 1987 - creating the same dynamic: a near-clash in the Aegean, an urgent US diplomatic intervention, and a mutual retreat followed by a few years of contained instability. But this most recent crisis was different. Tension between Greece and Turkey is rising, and the near-miss of January 1996 easily could devolve into open warfare.
The basic problems in the Greek-Turkish equation haven't changed. Greece sees Turkey as expansionist; Turkey fears Greece will expand its territorial seas and turn the crucial Aegean Sea into a "Greek lake." Meanwhile, the seemingly insoluble Cyprus problem casts a menacing pall over all efforts to improve ties. The question arises whether the United States, which so effectively whipped the potential belligerents back into line three times in the past two decades, will be able to sustain that clout. During the cold war, the West's war with communism imposed a certain discipline on NATO members Greece and Turkey. That may now be waning.
Why are Greek-Turkish relations increasingly unstable?
Most important, Turkey sees Greece as impeding its efforts to develop closer ties with the West, particularly the European Union. Greece is a member of the EU, and Turkey is not. Athens underscores that imbalance by using its EU membership to gain leverage over Ankara. Most recently, Athens put a hold on disbursement of EU funds to Turkey pledged under the terms of a 1995 customs-union agreement.
The geographical bounds of Greek-Turkish rivalry are expanding. Already played out in the Aegean and, because of Cyprus, the Mediterranean, the rivalry has come to include the Balkans and possibly the Middle East. With a prominent role in Bosnia, plus close ties to Muslim Albania and beleaguered Macedonia, Ankara has emerged as an important player in Greece's northern back yard.
The Turkish security establishment has grown convinced that Greece itself is actively supporting Kurdish militants in various ways, including helping to assure their passage from Greece to Syria, whence they stage attacks on Turkey.
Moreover, Ankara claims that a reported Greek-Syrian military cooperation agreement is aimed at Turkey (Turkey has signed a military cooperation agreement with Israel, but it can safely be assumed that Israelis will not involve themselves in Greek-Turkish disputes.)
Public opinion in both countries is playing a larger role in foreign policy. It is fanned by the media, particularly television, which played an important role in the recent crisis over the Aegean islet. That issue, in fact, was handled quietly by both sides for nearly a month, until it was leaked to the press. Then war nearly ensued.
Some Greeks are emboldened by Turkey's current military situation, bogged down by civil war with the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and facing increased friction with neighboring states like Syria and Russia. With Turkey weakened, they reason, now might be the perfect time to extend Greece's territorial seas from six to 12 miles, notwithstanding Turkish insistence that such a declaration would lead to war.
The US and the West have too much at stake to let the situation slide toward war. Both countries are linchpins of stability in the eastern Mediterranean.
So what is to be done? It is folly to suggest an overall solution to this complex web of problems, which includes disputes over territorial seas, continental shelf, airspace, and other issues.
No conceivable overall solution is acceptable to both sides for the foreseeable future. Rather, both parties should adopt a set of "first principles" that would anchor their disagreements to a stable framework.
First, both sides should accept the need for dialogue. Greece resists that notion, fearing that willingness to talk will lead to compromise of its rights. But unless the parties talk, they are likely to shoot. Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz's recently stated willingness to consider accepting third-party mediation - as both Athens and Washington have suggested - should encourage Greece to enter into a meaningful dialogue.
Second, while engaging in private talks both sides should exercise restraint in public, cooling any inflammatory rhetoric. Specifically, Turkey should stop saying it will resort to war if Greece extends its territorial seas. Greece, in turn, should cease making that claim, notwithstanding its apparent right to do so under the Law of the Sea Treaty. Neither side need renounce its position, merely cease poisoning the atmosphere by repeatedly stating it. Also, Turkey should take care not to give Greeks the impression it is making new claims to islands in the Aegean.
Third, and most important, both sides should adopt a mutual non-aggression pledge. Such a pledge would have a seeming irony, since both parties are formally NATO allies. Over a decade ago, Greece regularly demanded a pledge of nonbelligerency from Turkey. Ankara regularly refused, claiming it was redundant and undignified for one NATO ally to make such a pledge to another. Turkey's then-Prime Minister Turgut Ozal suggested that both sides pledge nonbelligerence. Now is the time to dust that proposal off, to assure that differences will be addressed peacefully.
Dialogue, moderated rhetoric, and a nonaggression pledge won't achieve either side's aims in the labyrinthine Greek-Turkish dispute. But this limited approach is preferable to warfare. Both sides would suffer greatly in combat. Friends and allies of Greece and Turkey should urge the parties to adopt these "first principles" immediately and defer resolution of their conflicting Aegean aspirations to a later date.