During the first official visit by a Greek foreign minister to Turkey in 38 years, the Greek and Turkish governments signed a series of measures today aimed at building confidence between the traditionally hostile nations.
"There are very difficult problems that have not been solved," Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem said at a news conference with his Greek counterpart, George Papandreou. "But looking back six months ago, if we had said we had achieved what we achieved [today], nobody would have believed us."
Set against their long running dispute over territorial rights in the Aegean Sea, which brought Turkey and Greece to the brink of war in 1996, and differences over the status of the divided Mediterranean island of Cyprus, today's agreements on combating organized crime and promoting tourism are a modest if symbolic step forward.
U.S. and European diplomats here termed an accord to jointly combat terrorism, illegal drugs and migrant trafficking as "welcome and significant." Turkey and Greece have in recent years become one of the major transit routes for Asian heroin and tens of thousands of illegal migrants who make their way to Europe every year.
A separate agreement on tourism cooperation is a further sign of the extent to which relations between the two NATO members have improved. Until recently, Turkey accused Greece of training separatist guerrillas from the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) to sabotage its multibillion dollar tourist industry.
Tensions between Greece and Turkey escalated sharply after Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdish rebel leader, was revealed to have been hiding at the Greek ambassador's residence in Nairobi prior to his capture there last February by Turkish special agents. Ocalan, who was sentenced to death on treason charges by a Turkish court last June, told the presiding judge at his trial that "there is one [PKK] training camp in Greece."
But relations began to thaw after Papandreou took over as foreign minister from Theodoros Pangalos, who was fired over his alleged complicity in the Ocalan affair. And a devastating earthquake that struck Turkey on Aug. 17, killing at least 18,000 people, triggered an outpouring of Greek sympathy that was reciprocated by Turks when a temblor hit Athens soon afterward.
The warm personal ties between Cem and Papandreou, combined with pressure from the Clinton administration, contributed to a major breakthrough in December, when Greece dropped its objections to Turkey becoming a candidate for European Union membership. "It was the single most positive, concrete development that we've seen so far," a senior U.S. official said.
Among the EU's conditions for Turkey's accession are ending its disputes with Greece over the Aegean and Cyprus.
Both foreign ministers expressed hopes that indirect talks between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders, which are scheduled to resume in Geneva this month, will lead to an agreement. "Cyprus can become a model of cooperation," Papandreou said.
Papandreou reacted cautiously, however, to Cem's proposals for reducing the number of military exercises in the Aegean Sea and disarming military aircraft flying over the region, saying he needed to discuss the matter with Greek military officials.
"We all want to move forward as quickly as possible to solve all the issues that divide us," Papandreou said. "But we must proceed with the same caution, the same seriousness and the same sensitivity as we have done over the past few months. This is the only way to ensure that this process can continue."