- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 18, 2005

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Greece hopes to cement its improved relations with the United States tomorrow when Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis goes to the White House for talks with President Bush.

It will be the culmination of diplomatic efforts over the past weeks during which Greece has been described by senior Washington officials as “our best friend in the Balkans” and a “strategic partner” in promoting democracy in the Middle East and southeastern Europe.

The agenda for the talks includes the fight against international terrorism, the blocked developments in efforts to unite Cyprus and what diplomats describe as “Turkey’s European perspective.”

The Washington visit by the 47-year-old Greek prime minister — the country’s youngest since World War II — coincides with a delicate period in U.S. relations with Turkey, Greece’s traditional rival. Recently, Turkey has attenuated some of its criticism of U.S. policies and appears to be perturbed by Greece’s apparent emergence as the linchpin of Washington’s strategy in the region.

Although Greece and Turkey have been struggling to reduce their longstanding animosity pending Turkey’s negotiations to enter the European Union, last week Mr. Karamanlis warned Turkey that its saber-rattling over the Aegean Sea with frequent overflights by military aircraft could damage its EU prospects.

The path to the Washington talks by Mr. Karamanlis, who arrives today, was paved during an April visit by Foreign Minister Petros Molyviatis. Mr. Molyviatis opened what Athens officials described as a “new chapter” in the relations between the two countries.

It was then that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described Greece as America’s “best friend in the Balkans,” and Mr. Molyviatis said the conservative government in Athens would adjust “as far as possible” to U.S. foreign-policy guidelines in the area.

According to the Greek media, Mr. Molyviatis’ visit also led to a “warm personal relationship” between Miss Rice and the Greek foreign minister, who will accompany Mr. Karamanlis during his talks this week.

The mood of growing confidence between Greece and the United States was also underlined during the April visit to Athens by Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick.

It was accompanied by a statement on the “excellent state of our bilateral relations” and a still vague Greek offer to host an international conference on the Middle East.

Greece, which harbors a major U.S. air and naval base on the island of Crete, promised to help train Iraqi security personnel and has been active in Afghanistan, where it is due to take control of Kabul airport in December.

Although the problem of a divided Cyprus is on the agenda of Mr. Karamanlis’ Washington talks, diplomats expect little headway.

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