- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Greece and Turkey have embarked on what diplomats describe as a period of “optimism and hope” with the ultimate goal of ending their centuries-old feud.

A meeting in Athens last week between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Greek counterpart, Costas Karamanlis, sparked diplomatic dispatches and newspaper editorials forecasting an unprecedented era of cooperation.

Above all, the prime ministers pledged not to let their long-standing dispute over Cyprus stand in the path of a rapprochement.

“The European Union has accepted the whole of Cyprus — with a special dispensation for its northern sector,” Mr. Karamanlis said. “For us, the issue has been solved and has been dealt with.”

He also stressed Greek backing of Turkish efforts to join the European Union and for planned Turkish political and economic reforms.

Mr. Erdogan said, “Greek-Turkish relations must not be affected by the Cyprus issue. … The improvement of bilateral relations between Greece and Turkey will be to the benefit not only of the two countries but to stability, peace and cooperation in the whole region.”

The statements caused considerable concern in Greek-Cypriot political circles, where it was understood that the new chapter in Greek-Turkish relations was facilitated by the Greek-Cypriot rejection of a U.N. plan to unite the island — and a Turkish-Cypriot vote of acceptance.

International sponsors of the plan quickly moved to reward the hitherto ostracized and boycotted Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, putting the legal Greek-Cypriot government on the defensive.

The fear now is of a loss of international interest in the island’s future.

Since the Ottoman massacre of Armenians and the post-Ottoman wars of the 1920s, Greece and Turkey have rarely seen eye to eye. Although both are partners in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, their military preparations have been mostly aimed at each other.

Greece and Turkey nearly went to war three times in recent years — in 1974 because of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in retaliation for a Greek coup, in 1987 when Turkey sent an oil drilling ship into the disputed areas of the Aegean Sea, and in 1996 over a disputed uninhabited Aegean islet.

The Erdogan-Karamanlis meeting follows a steady search for better relations, marked by 25 bilateral agreements in the past five years.

The conservative Athens daily Kathimerini, however, added a note of caution:

“Both men seek to hammer out relations based on sincerity and trust which will allow them to resolve nagging hitches. But the EU will never begin accession negotiations with a state in which political life is under the shadow of the military.”

Turkish officials and diplomats insist that Turkey has made strides toward major changes in its political outlook.

Hakan Altinay, of the Open Society Institute in Turkey, said, “A transformation wrought by the soft power of the European Union has gone unnoticed by Europe. … The death penalty was repealed, draconian laws that restricted speech and the press for decades were abolished.

“The state of emergency that curtailed basic liberties in southeast Turkey was lifted after 25 years. The extraordinary powers of the National Security Council which subordinated civilian rule to military authority were eliminated.”

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