News / Europe

Turkey's PM Heads to Greece for Key Talks

Dorian Jones

Turkey's prime minister is heading to Greece Friday for what is being described as an historic trip. The visit is seen as an important step towards resolving decades-long differences between the two nations.  Both countries will look toward improving ties and economic cooperation as Greece struggles under an acute debt crisis.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be accompanied by 11 cabinet ministers and more than 100 businessmen on his two-day visit to Greece. Featured heavily in the discussions will be trade and investment opportunities.

But the key issue will be discussing territorial and diplomatic differences, which in the past few decades have brought the neighbors to the brink of war on several occasions.

Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Bahcesehir University says the summit presents a unique opportunity.

"It is definitely a perfect win-win situation," noted Aktar.  "I mean, if these two countries can solve their joint problems once and for all,  it will be beneficial for both countries."

Though ties have improved over the past decade, tensions flared in the Aegean Sea - where the countries' fighter jets often stage mock dogfights.   

The two NATO-members 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, the issue of Cyprus will also be key to their meeting.  The island remains divided between Greek and Turkish communities since an invasion by Turkey in 1974 following an Athens-backed coup.  The Greek part of the island is a member of the EU, and has vetoed several of Turkey's EU accession chapters.

The Turkish government has made it a diplomatic priority to revitalize the membership process which has come to a virtual halt.

Suat Kiniklioglu is a spokesman for the Turkish parliament's foreign affairs committee.

"We want a resolution to the Cyprus problem, this needs to get out of our way," said Kiniklioglu.  "We want to integrate further with the European Union and Cyprus is a problem."

UN-sponsored talks on the island hit a snag last month when Turkish Cypriots elected a hard-liner critical of the talks. In a bid to accelerate the talks, Mr. Erdogan is expected to press his Greek counterpart to expand the UN talks to include their respective countries.

Richard Howitt, a member of the European parliament's committee on Turkey, says time maybe running out for unification efforts.  

"I believe those people who say the younger generations on the island do not really cherish and search out unification on the island," said Howitt.  "In the same way as the people who've lived through the war and its aftermath and I do fear if these talks fail now, that we may be looking at a partition on the island of cyprus for another generation or longer."

The resolution of the Cyprus issue is seen by many observers as key to bringing an end to the rivalry between Greece and Turkey.

Greece is the European Union's largest military spender in terms of gross domestic product, due to its often hostile relations with its eastern neighbor. With Athens facing international pressure to slash spending, finding that resolution is powerful incentive for the Greek prime minister, says political scientist Cengiz Aktar.

"The Greek government is in desperate need to find more room to reduce its public deficit and here we have got a golden opportunity with military expenditures," added Aktar.  "If both countries can sign a comprehensive non aggression deal which does not exist between Turkey and Greece I think that might have a tremendous positive effect in terms of peace dividends on the Greek economies present and future problems."

All previous attempts by Greek and Turkish leaders to resolve their differences have ended in failure. But the prize for Turkey of revitalizing its EU bid and for Greece of securing major economic gains means both sides have a lot more riding on a successful outcome this time.

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