Old foes Greece, Turkey attempt to improve ties
Reach deals on energy, tourism
ATHENS — Longtime foes Greece and Turkey held a historic joint Cabinet meeting and signed nearly two dozen agreements in Athens yesterday, in a new top-level effort to overcome old grudges through better neighborly ties and economic cooperation in the midst of Greece’s debt crisis.
“I am optimistic that the groundbreaking and courageous step we are taking today can bring results, exactly because the will exists,’’ Prime Minister George Papandreou of Greece said during a news conference with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who was on his first trip to Greece since 2004.
The NATO allies came to the brink of war three times between 1974 and 1996 over the ethnically divided island of Cyprus and territorial rights in the Aegean Sea, and military tension remains.
Although relations improved markedly after both countries were struck by successive earthquakes in 1999, the momentum wore off. In 2006, a Greek fighter pilot died after colliding with a Turkish jet in one of the frequent mock dogfights between the two air forces over the Aegean.
Papandreou said the tension stemmed from mutual fears of aggression.
“We, with our many islands and the experience of Cyprus, definitely have a fear,’’ he said. “Could Turkey at some point decide to take over a Greek island? Don’t laugh, such a fear exists, unfortunately. But maybe Turkey also is afraid Greece will attack.’’
Papandreou urged Ankara to provide flight plans for its military planes using Aegean airspace, to avoid their being intercepted by armed Greek fighters. “It’s that simple,’’ he said.
Earlier, Erdogan and Papandreou, who was instrumental in easing Greek-Turkish hostility during his 1999-2004 tenure as foreign minister, chaired a first joint Cabinet meeting, dubbed the high-level cooperation council, launching a series of annual meetings that will alternate between the countries.
The ministers signed 21 agreements, on issues from energy cooperation, protecting forests, and combating illegal immigration, to promoting Greece and Turkey as destinations for Chinese tourists and advancing a gas pipeline dubbed ITGI that links Turkey, Greece, and Italy.
“The number and the depth of the agreements that we just signed is an indication, if not proof, of the historic nature of this visit,’’ Papandreou said.
Erdogan said he was optimistic Turkey would reopen a Greek Orthodox seminary, meeting a key demand by the European Union to strengthen Ankara’s bid for membership in the bloc.
The Halki Theological School on Heybeliada Island, near Istanbul, was closed to new students in 1971 under a law that put religious and military training under state control. The school closed its doors in 1985, when the last five students graduated.
But Erdogan also urged Greece to boost freedom for its Muslim minority in Thrace, and restore a crumbling mosque in Athens currently used to store archeological finds.
Turkey’s 380-strong delegation in Athens yesterday included 10 Cabinet ministers and about 100 businessmen.