Given the attention to their disputes over Cyprus and the Aegean Sea, it may seem paradoxical to speak of opportunities for improvement in the Greek-Turkish relationship.
Frustrated negotiation efforts in Cyprus, Turkish assertions over Greek sovereignty in the Aegean, and armament programs in Greece and Turkey seem to confirm a relationship deadlocked in diplomatic tension and rhetorical antagonism. But opportunities to break the impasse exist, and even partial success in realizing them can have a beneficial impact on the relationship and on the US interest in stability in the eastern Mediterranean and southeastern Europe.
First, opportunities exist in the logical areas for neighboring countries: trade, tourism, and environmental protection.
This is particularly true in trade now that Turkey is a member of the European Union's Customs Union. In Athens, I encouraged Greek and Turkish business leaders to meet and explore opportunities for cooperation. This effort was welcomed by executives in both countries, and that process is now well launched. In 1997, the regular meeting of Greek and Turkish business leaders was broadened to include a session with business people from the two communities in Cyprus, indicating economic cooperation can have unexpected positive consequences.
There are opportunities for Greek and Turkish business cooperation in third markets in southeastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union. The Black Sea Cooperative Organization, with headquarters in Istanbul and its bank in Thessaloniki, could become a vehicle for enhanced Greek-Turkish cooperation. The global trend toward regional commerce and economic development as the driving forces of international relations warrants serious application in a region so vital to the US and its Western partners.
The second area for Greek-Turkish cooperation is tourism. Both countries have an interest in moving away from mass tourism into the higher value-added sectors of the industry, if for no other reason than the burden large numbers of tourists pose for the Aegean environment. Upgrading the tourism infrastructure to accommodate a more demanding category of visitors is something the tourism sectors of the countries could profitably do together.
This cooperation could be at the government level, in the form of joint investments in projects that serve Greece and Turkey, and between private companies offering packages covering both countries.
The natural environment is a common interest upon which the two countries' futures depend. Greece and Turkey need to develop joint programs to protect and enhance their shared environment based on sustaining and protecting their natural resources, while preserving development efforts in industry, tourism, and agriculture.
Working together in this way would demonstrate the benefits of cooperation and create a spirit of cooperation which might be applied to more sensitive areas.
The solution to other problems in the Aegean region also requires Greek-Turkish cooperation. The State Department report on narcotics trafficking highlights the bilateral problems Greece and Turkey face in this dangerous area. The Greek-Turkish border is used in the transit of narcotics produced in the Near East and South Asia and transported to Western Europe. Athens and Ankara should work together to combat organized criminal activity and money laundering that attack the social cohesiveness of our European allies and other partners in the world.
They must also find the means to cooperate in extinguishing the "business" in refugees that has resulted in the arrival of substantial numbers of illegal immigrants in Greece.
COOPERATION between Greece and Turkey in these areas will not produce an abrupt turn for the better in the troubled bilateral relationship. That will require progress on the more difficult political issues - especially the delineation of the Aegean continental shelf and the resolution of the Cyprus question - that divide the countries.
However, these forms of cooperation can bring benefits to both countries, help improve the atmosphere in the bilateral relationship, and contribute to a readiness to deal with more fundamental problems. The US and its other allies in Europe, linked to Greece and Turkey by ties of friendship and alliance, should be alert to ways in which they can encourage that cooperation.
* Thomas Niles, vice president of the National Defense University in Washington, was US ambassador to Greece from 1993 to 1997. This analysis was written for the April/May issue of the Strategic Regional Report, a publication of the Western Policy Center in Washington.