When a Turkish delegation toured a Greek museum's display of the painter El Greco's religious masterpieces here a few weeks ago, the museum director suddenly addressed Faruk Logoglu, the Turkish deputy undersecretary of foreign affairs, with a message from "a common person," as she described herself.
"We feel friendly with the Turkish people, as brothers," Marina Lambraki-Plaka told Logoglu. "I hope this feeling will impose its will on the politicians, to give people the possibility of living in brotherhood and friendship in a good neighborhood. . . . We don't share all the problems" of Greek and Turkish politicians.
Her remarks reflected a recent shift in public opinion here about relations with Turkey, which have been soured for centuries by strategic rivalry, conflict and political opportunism. The Turkish earthquake in August, followed the next month by one in Athens, kindled an outpouring of pent-up goodwill from Greek and Turkish civilians.
The United States and other Western powers have cheered this new comity, saying it creates an opportunity to tamp down tensions between the two NATO allies and help stabilize southeastern Europe.
But U.S. and allied officials point out that reconciliation will be difficult. U.S. efforts to break a logjam on the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus have met firm resistance by the Turkish government, whose Turkish Cypriot allies have held northern Cyprus since a 1974 war. Greek and Turkish officials acknowledge that little of substance has emerged from stepped-up talks between their foreign ministers.
Opposition politicians are again pressuring the governing Panhellenic Socialist Movement in Athens to block Turkey's bid for membership in the European Union at a December EU summit.
"This is the best moment in the past 25 years" to improve Greek-Turkish relations, due partly to the citizen diplomacy of humanitarian aid after the earthquakes, said George Papandreou, the U.S.-educated Greek foreign minister. "But is it enough? . . . There has been movement, a dialogue, a sense of something new happening." Regarding concrete achievements, however, he said, "We'll see."
Hopes for warmer relations were first raised by Turkey's mild public reaction last February when it was revealed that Greece was sheltering Kurdish guerrilla leader Abdullah Ocalan, the most wanted man in Turkey, at its embassy in Nairobi. Deeply embarrassed, Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis ordered Ocalan expelled from the embassy, a decision that led to his capture and arrest. Papandreou said the lesson for Athens was "that we must avoid these type of crises."
In June, the Turkish government dropped its long-standing demand for a pact on combating terrorism as a condition for expanded dialogue. Papandreou and Ismail Cem, his Turkish counterpart, quietly began the first high-level meetings between senior officials from the two countries in five years.
Diplomats say that accords spelling out how contacts will proceed on tourism, trade, environmental, cultural, regional and terrorism issues are likely to be signed by Simitis and Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit when they meet in Istanbul on Nov. 18 or 19.
But on a range of issues, such as the future of Cyprus and competing territorial claims in the Aegean Sea, diplomats say no progress has occurred or is expected. Turkey, in particular, is uninterested in making concessions, according to officials in both countries.
"So far, I don't see any rapprochement between the two sides. Their bilateral talks have been stuck for the past 18 years," said a European ambassador in Athens.
"The Turks don't understand the give and take of negotiations," said another Western diplomat. Still, he added, "the scene is being set for things to happen. There is a change in tone."
Cyprus, a divided island for the past 25 years with U.N. peacekeepers sandwiched between hostile Greek and Turkish zones, is the diplomatic plum that Washington most wants to snatch. "We're working very hard in trying to move the Cyprus issue forward," said a senior U.S. official in Ankara, the Turkish capital. "Our objective is to get negotiations going this year."
But a series of high-level U.S. discussions with officials from both countries have failed to produce even a plan for direct talks.
Although Greece agreed, Turkey continues to insist it will sit down only when Athens accepts that Northern Cyprus, an entity populated by Turks that is recognized only by Turkey and North Korea, is an independent republic. "The south [populated by Greeks] must admit it has no authority in the north," Sukru Gurel, Turkey's minister for Cypriot issues, said in an interview.
Greece rejects the condition because it would effectively lock in place the territorial separation imposed by Turkish troops in 1974.
Officials here and in Turkey say the principal reason Ankara is content to avoid a permanent solution is that any deal would almost certainly lead to a reduction in Turkey's force of 30,000 troops on Cyprus. The Turkish military, which is highly influential, finds this prospect unappealing.
Turkish officials are also doubtless aware that, even without a Turkish concession on Cyprus, Greece is likely to withdraw its opposition to Turkey's nomination to the EU. Otherwise, Western officials say, it faces isolation amid a strong European consensus that Turkey should be declared a candidate for membership.
Greek officials are looking to France and the Netherlands to withdraw their demand that the future governance of Cyprus be resolved before Cyprus can be admitted to the EU, which would confer substantial trade benefits to the island's majority Greek population.
Logoglu said that Turkey is prepared to make several small gestures in the coming weeks, such as agreeing to reduce the frequency of all military exercises in the Aegean. It will also likely permit the reopening of a Greek Orthodox seminary near Istanbul that the Turkish government closed in 1971.
"Something is new in the air in terms of public psychology," Logoglu said. Soccer teams, mayors, businessmen and tourism officials are establishing ties that will foster long-term understanding, he said. "We should see more and more in the months to come."
For example, Logoglu said, the sports minister recently telephoned to say that Athens had invited a Turkish basketball team to visit. "He said, 'Can we go?' We said, 'Go. Just don't get beaten.' "