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Epistle diplomacy: new era for Greece, Turkey February 2, 2010

Posted by Yilan in Turkey, Yunanistan.
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A letter by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan receives a warm response from his Greek counterpart, opening the possibility for better relations between the two nations.

photo“We sincerely seek to develop our relations,” Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.

Turkey and Greece are signaling a new era of improved relations following last October’s election of Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou.

After that victory, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote his new peer a four-page letter with suggestions on how the countries might better get along. On Monday (January 25th), Papandreou replied that he welcomed the opportunity.

Erdogan wrote that mutual respect and understanding between Greece and Turkey would improve stability throughout the region. “We sincerely seek to develop our relations.”

Turkey and Greece came to the brink of war in 1996 over the divided island of Cyprus, to which both countries lay claim. However, successive earthquakes that hit both nations in 1999 gave rise to “earthquake diplomacy” and led to the removal of a Greek veto over Turkey’s bid for full EU membership.

Erdogan proposed a bi-lateral working group at the ministerial level to better tackle key issues.

First, Erdogan suggests that Papandreou push Greek and Turkish Cypriots for a breakthrough in the ongoing talks to unite the island, split since 1974. “Although this problem does not directly refer to our peoples, we should give a hand to them,” he said.

Erdogan is also steadfast on improving the treatment of Turkish and Greek minorities in both countries. “Our minorities have needs to be responded to. In this new era, we should fulfill their expectations,” he said. Nearly 130,000 Turks live in Greece, while Turkey is home to thousands of Greeks.

Third, regarding borders along the Aegean Sea — a problem caused by disagreements over the definition of territorial waters — Erdogan suggests “new confidence-building measures and accelerating the ongoing technical talks on this issue”.

Lastly, Erdogan said the countries must deal with human trafficking. Turkey and Greece have been used as corridors for migrants often smuggled from the Middle East to the Balkans. From there, they move towards EU member nations.

Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s chief EU negotiator, told reporters after a meeting with Papandreou earlier this month in Athens that the Greek leader is “fully of the same opinion with our prime minister”.

Bagis noted Papandreou’s previous dealings with the Turkish government. “He is well-known for his efforts to upgrade bilateral ties with our late foreign minister Ismail Cem.”

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Apart from the four noted problems, other issues are also troublesome. It remains uncertain whether the Turkish government will re-open the Halki Seminary, the Eastern Orthodox Church’s main theological school.

The seminary’s board of trustees closed the school after a Turkish constitutional court ruling that called for all private institutions of higher learning either join the state university system or shut down.

Though Bagis said the seminary “is not an issue between Turkey and Greece”, he noted that “some improvements in the conditions of the Turkish minority in Western Thrace would bring about a better environment [to consider reopening the seminary].”

Turkey has criticised Greece for restricting the rights of around 150,000 people of Turkish origin in Greece’s Western Thrace region.

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