Friday, January 25, 2008

In a 49-Year First, Greek Leader Visits Turkey

Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Prime Ministers Kostas Karamanlis, left, of Greece and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey met Wednesday in Ankara, Turkey.

Published: January 24, 2008

ISTANBUL — In an effort to overcome decades of mutual distrust, Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis of Greece arrived in Turkey on Wednesday for the first official visit by a Greek leader in almost half a century.

The three-day stay is significant more for the fact that it is happening than for any agreements it is expected to produce. The visit, which began in Ankara, the capital, had been rescheduled three times since 2004.
The last Greek prime minister to visit Turkey was Mr. Karamanlis’s uncle, Konstantine Karamanlis, in May 1959.

But the longstanding strains in relations between the countries, which have fought four wars since Greece won independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s and still debate the status of the island of Cyprus, were nowhere to be seen in Ankara on Wednesday.
Instead, Mr. Karamanlis walked on a red carpet with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, a marching band played the Greek and Turkish national anthems, and the leaders struck cordial tones at a news conference after meeting for more than two hours.

“I believe 2008 will offer new opportunities for our countries to improve bilateral relations,” Mr. Erdogan said. “I’d like to see the period ahead of us as a window of opportunity.”
Mr. Karamanlis said: “Greek people have very good feelings toward Turkish people. I believe they are looking for a new page in relations.” He added, “From my response it’s obvious there wouldn’t be a need to wait for 49 years for the next prime minister.”

Mr. Erdogan said Turkey hoped to hold negotiations on the status of Cyprus after elections there in February. The issue is one of the main obstacles to Turkey’s membership in the European Union.
Cyprus has been divided since Turkey invaded in 1974 to foil an Athens-backed Greek Cypriot coup seeking to unite the island with Greece. The Greek-allied government in the south, which joined the European Union in 2004, is internationally recognized, while Turkey is the sole nation to recognize the Turkish-oriented northern government.

Mr. Karamanlis said Greece’s goal was “to reach a fair and permanent resolution that would allow the unification of Cyprus.”
Relations between Greece and Turkey have greatly improved since the late 1990s, when earthquakes in each country drew them together.

Now, diplomatic and military experts from both sides of the Aegean hold regular talks. A hot line between their air forces and armies has been set up, trade has boomed, and in November the two nations opened a gas pipeline linking the Caspian Sea to Greece.
Greece backs Turkey’s entry to the European Union, a position Mr. Karamanlis reiterated Wednesday.

But besides Cyprus, sticking points remain. Turkey, predominantly Muslim and less determinedly secular than in the past, will not recognize the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church as a religious leader of global standing. It contends that doing so would encourage separatism among religious minorities in Turkey. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I is the spiritual leader of the world’s nearly 200 million Eastern Orthodox Christians and presides over 14 autonomous Orthodox churches in Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and Russia.
Mr. Erdogan brushed off the issue of Turkey’s recognition of the church’s international standing but hinted that progress was possible toward reopening the last Eastern Orthodox seminary in Turkey, on the island of Heybeliada, which was closed by Turkish courts in 1972.

“We are evaluating the issue, and as we examine it we’re going to make our decision,” he said.
Mr. Karamanlis portrayed the church’s presence in Turkey as valuable to its international standing.

“It is an important criteria for Turkey that the center of the patriarchate is here,” Mr. Karamanlis said. “I would even call it a European passport.”

Sabrina Tavernise reported from Istanbul, and Anthee Carassava from Athens. Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Istanbul.

Sabrina Tavernise reported from Istanbul, and Anthee Carassava from Athens. Sebnem Arsu contributed reporting from Istanbul.

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