George A. Papandreou - President of Socialist International - Former Prime Minister
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The New York Times-A Natural Disaster Helps Draw Two Enemies Closer

The New York Times, 22 August 1999

By STEPHEN KINZER

ISTANBUL -- Soon after last week's devastating earthquake in Turkey, telephones at the Turkish Embassy in Athens began ringing.

Lines were jammed as ordinary Greeks, many of them upset and overwrought, called to express sympathy for quake victims and to ask what they could do to help.

Many lined up to donate blood. Others contributed to a fund drive organized by the Greek Red Cross or dropped donations at depots set up by the Mayor of Athens.

Greek aid did not come only from individuals and private groups. Within 12 hours of the quake, the Government sent three planeloads of relief supplies to Turkey, and it continued to send rescue workers, doctors, field kitchens, medical supplies and firefighting aircraft.

"We would like to warmly thank those who shared our deep sorrow and offered to provide assistance," the Turkish Embassy responded in a statement. In both tone and substance, the statement marked an extraordinary departure from the strident rhetoric that Greece and Turkey often use when addressing each other in public.

Greece is often described as Turkey's principal rival, and it has spent much of the last quarter century blocking Turkish initiatives and ambitions. But last week's remarkable outpouring, not just of aid but also of sentiment, shows that a deeply felt sense of shared history and shared fate still binds many Greeks and Turks.

"The catastrophe from the earthquake drained us emotionally," a Greek Government spokesman, Dimitris Reppas, told reporters in Athens. "In these situations there is no room for any ulterior motives. You try to help someone in need, someone who is facing a difficult situation."

Greece might have been expected to respond to the earthquake as did Armenia, another country traditionally unfriendly to Turkey. There was no special sympathy there, and while President Robert Kocharian said he was ready to dispatch a planeload of supplies, he said he would do so only if Turkey asked for Armenian help.

While relations between Turkey and Armenia are all but frozen, however, a palpable thaw is bringing Greeks and Turks closer together. Tuesday's earthquake came at a very interesting moment in Greek-Turkish relations. The heartfelt reaction of many Greeks reflected a growing desire in both countries to end the bitterness and hostility that divides two neighbors who have much to gain from cooperation.

"We have been taught to hate the Turks for years," the columnist Anna Stergiou wrote in one Athens newspaper. "But their unbelievable pain gives us no joy. We were moved, we cried as if the age-old hatred disappeared at the sight of dead babies."

This was the second catastrophe that added momentum to efforts to bring Greece and Turkey together. The war in Kosovo was the first. As it raged, Greek and Turkish diplomats worked together on refugee problems and other matters, and seemed to emerge with a renewed sense that if they join hands, they can have a decisive effect in shaping events in this region.

"Naturally there is a simple emotional reason for helping earthquake victims, but what has happened in the last few days also has a political importance," said Alexis Alexandris, a Greek diplomat who has written extensively on Greek-Turkish relations. "In our ministry, and also among our Turkish counterparts, there is a growing desire to break out of this vicious circle.

"There is an optimism, no doubt," Mr. Alexandris continued. "It's still very guarded and limited, but it's better than confrontation.

What we've seen this week is symptomatic of a more general trend."

Greece and Turkey remain highly suspicious of each other. Turkey was outraged by Greek support for the fugitive Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan, who was captured in February while under the protection of Greek diplomats in Kenya (he has since been tried in a Turkish court and sentenced to death). Greece worries that Turkey plots to grab some of its Aegean islands. But at least for the moment, those disputes have faded into the background.

Part of the reason may be the character of the countries' Foreign Ministers. Ismail Cem of Turkey is a thoughtful former journalist who disdains rabble-rousing statements. George Papandreou of Greece, equally earnest and soft-spoken, could hardly be more different from his predecessor, Theodore Pangalos, who publicly described Turks as thieves and rapists and who was forced to resign following the controversy over Mr. Ocalan.

Today the two ministers meet almost routinely whenever they find themselves at the same summits or conferences, a quiet but remarkable change in relations.

Greeks and Turks lived closely together for centuries during the Ottoman period. Many Greeks have roots in Turkey, and many Turks trace their ancestry to Greece and the Balkans. The two peoples are also emotionally and psychologically similar, a fact that may have set off last week's outpouring of Greek sympathy and aid for Turkish earthquake victims.

It would be foolish to understate the obstacles that still divide Greece and Turkey, including their long bitter conflict over the island of Cyprus. Nor is it reasonable to expect a sudden breakthrough in relations between the two countries, which were at the brink of war over a barren rock in the Aegean as recently as 1996.

But the style of their discourse has changed, and last week's surge of Greek aid for Turkish earthquake victims suggests that their peoples as well as their leaders may finally be ready for serious efforts to overcome the destructive hostility that has divided them for decades.

Stephen Kinzer

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