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GREECE: Turks Bearing Gifts

Analysis by Apostolis Fotiadis

ATHENS, May 15 2010 (IPS) - The first visit in six years of a Turkish prime minister to Greece has been widely hailed as a historical rapprochement after a long period of mutual bitterness.

The two countries were on the brink of war in 1996 and relations came under strain again in 2006 when a Greek pilot lost his life in a collision with a Turkish plane during a mock dogfight.

In contrast, Prime Minister Tagip Erdogan’s Friday-Saturday visit, leading a group of 10 ministers and about a 100 businessmen, produced a slew of cooperation agreements and accords around energy, environment, diplomatic missions, finance and commerce.

Topping the list was an agreement on irregular migration which provides for the reactivation of a return protocol. A port on the outskirts of Izmir will, in the next three months, be designated as a return zone through which at least 1,000 irregulars will be returned every year.

Erdogan invited Greek investors to get involved in Turkey’s economy and move trade between the two countries beyond the 2.4 billion euro (three billion US dollars) annually that it is now worth.

But Erdogan’s visit also had to do with Turkey’s ambitions in the geopolitical arena. In an interview with the Greek national daily ‘TA NEA’ Erdogan stated openly that he wished to ‘’see Turkey amongst the ten biggest economic powers in the next 10 to 15 years’’. He added that this should not be misunderstood by neighbours as belligerence.

Ioannis Grigoriadis, professor at the Bilkent University in Turkey and an associate of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy Studies (ELIAMEP), circulated an analytical report days before Erdogan’s visit arguing that Turkey’s return as a strategic regional force would have enormous impact on the geopolitical balance.

Grigoriadis is one of many analysts who see Turkey’s return as a regional power rooted in Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s strategic doctrine that envisages the country as a core economic regional power and a transit point between East and West in future. It is a sophisticated foreign policy strategy that promotes the country’s economic interests while also attempting to heal Turkey’s old wounds.

“Davutoglu’s doctrine talks about “zero problems with neighbours. It remains to be seen whether any substance will be put to this in the following months’’, Grigoriadis told IPS.

“More attention has been given to Turkish relations with Armenia, Syria, and Iraq rather than with Greece. Joint Greek-Turkish initiatives in the Balkans could not be precluded, yet where work is mostly needed is in the Aegean question, as well as Cyprus,” he said.

Offering to mediate between the West and Iran over its nuclear ambitions, and taking on Israel for its aggression against Lebanon and Palestine, have also been spectacular foreign policy decisions that attracted attention internationally.

But Turkey’s silent return in the Balkans has been equally effective. During the last decade it has established itself, politically and economically, as a key factor in Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania, successfully playing on cultural proximity.

Turkey’s new philosophy has led it to improve relations and acquire strategic assets beyond traditional boundaries. Two weeks ago Turkish investors declared interest in purchasing the Serbian national carrier JAT.

Emrullah Uslu, a Turkish terrorism expert and currently an associate at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Utah said: “Davutoglu and the governmental Justice and Development Party (AKP) leadership consider Turkey’s economic infrastructure to be the strongest in the region. Therefore, peace within the region would benefit the Turkish economy”.

Turkey’s growth rate from 2002 to 2007 averaged 7.4 percent making it one of the fastest expanding economies in the world. It slowed down to 4.5 percent in 2008, and in early 2009 the Turkish economy was affected by the financial crisis with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasting an overall downturn of 5.1 percent for the year. Nevertheless Turkish economy is still regarded as amongst those with the best growth potential.

Indeed Turkey’s demographic potential and expanding domestic free market is the best growth cocktail in the region. The driving force behind Turkey’s attempt to grasp this momentum is its growing, educated middle class that supports Erdogan against the once powerful militaristic, Kemalist establishment.

At a time when traditionally strong economic competitors like Greece are spinning into long-term recession Turkey sees an opportunity to rise as a regional force. And Erdogan’s assertiveness in Athens is the best proof.

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