Newsweek, 21 February 2000
INTERVIEW Newsweek International
Resolving Old Enmities
"If we—Greeks and Turks—show that we can cooperate together, I think we [can] give an example to the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots." —GEORGE PAPANDREOU
While the peace process between Israel and Syria appears to be foundering, there's another less publicized but important peace process moving ahead—between two ancient enemies, Greece and Turkey. The man largely responsible for the change in atmosphere is Greece's foreign minister, George Papandreou, 47, who has been in office only since last February. NEWSWEEK's Lally Weymouth recently met with him. Excerpts:
WEYMOUTH: Did the peace process start to move before the recent earthquakes?
PAPANDREOU: Before the Kosovo war, we started cooperating. We worked together on a humanitarian basis. For the first time, Turkish military planes flew over Greece carrying humanitarian aid to Kosovo. We worked with the Turkish military so that they could take Kosovar Albanians through Greece to Turkey. We [Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem and I] decided after the war was over [to] see if we could work together in six areas: [among them] tourism; environment; culture and education. Then the earthquake took place [in Turkey in August]. I called Cem and said, "What can we do?" He said, "We need rescue workers." We sent rescue teams, our fire fighters and even some [of our] military. I said in Greece, "We have problems with Turkey, but this is a humanitarian problem. So we are [going to] help." There was such a response. No one expected it. People started calling, [and asking] "Where should I give blood, food and money?" A month later we had earthquakes in Athens. The Turks reciprocated, sending help. We now have business cooperation, local government cooperation and tourist cooperation. Then, of course, we had Helsinki [the December meeting of the European Union where it was decided that Turkey would become a candidate for EU membership].
WEYMOUTH: Will there be a solution to the Cyprus problem?
PAPANDREOU: I hope so, but it's difficult to say. If we—Greeks and Turks—show we can cooperate together, I think we [can] give an example of how the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots don't need this Berlin wall to divide them. If there's a good solution, they [Turkish Cypriots] will be able to have local autonomy within a federation and protection of their human rights.
WEYMOUTH: Do you expect that either Ankara or the U.S. will pressure the Turkish Cypriots to come to a settlement?
PAPANDREOU: I don't want to use the word "pressure." I think that [they need to be convinced that] it is in their interest. And it is in their interest.
WEYMOUTH: Do you think [Turkish Prime Minister Bulent] Ecevit will encourage the Turkish Cypriots to come to a settlement?
PAPANDREOU: As the one who gave the orders to the Turkish Army to invade the island [in 1974], he has the historical legitimacy to say, Now is the time for solutions. Will he do that? It depends on what kind of a solution we're talking about.
WEYMOUTH: People are saying that although you and Minister Cem substantially improved the atmosphere, you have not tackled the hard problems of the Continental Shelf and the Aegean Sea.
PAPANDREOU: That is true. I would disagree that it's only atmospherics. We have signed agreements, after I don't know how many years. I signed five agreements in Ankara. Cem came to Athens and signed another five agreements. We have Helsinki, which is a very specific framework of our relationship. We have now developed ongoing relationships of businessmen, women's groups and local governments. So there is much less tension.
WEYMOUTH: You took risks for peace. Were there moments when you weren't sure of the outcome?
PAPANDREOU: I think there was an underlying desire to see a peaceful relationship with Turkey. But, at the same time, no one really knew that the reaction would be so positive. I felt it was a process where we would learn about each other, and try to get beyond psychological taboos. I think people in Greece feel that Turkey is not as threatening to us as we thought it was. The same thing happened in Turkey. They said maybe the Greeks are not as bad as we thought. I never saw politics as a means in itself, in the sense of becoming a foreign minister, but as a way toward a goal. Either you decide somebody's got to try to do this, or you say, It's nice being a foreign minister and I can just travel around to all these nice places and meet all these nice people and make nice speeches. But I wouldn't enjoy that. From my point of view, either you try to deal with these [hard] issues or it's not worthwhile.
WEYMOUTH: When did you decide, "I'm going to be the person to do this"?
PAPANDREOU: When I took on the ministry 11 months ago... You cannot clearly predict how things are going to turn out. Nobody expected that there would be an earthquake, which was a tragedy, but at the same time a catalyst. I think there was a maturing also in Greece—a new self-pride and self-assurance.
WEYMOUTH: You have elections soon [April 9], don't you?
PAPANDREOU: We have elections. One thing we have to be careful about is not to make Greek-Turkish relations a whipping boy in elections.