Greece: Like Any Other European Country?

Greece: Like Any Other European Country?

Mini Teaser: Greece is fundamentally a status quo country in part of the world where the status quo is being challenged from many directions. Its future prosperity and security depend on reforms at home and a more prudent diplomacy.

by Author(s): Loukas Tsoukalis

At the same time, the Greek political class--a few notable exceptions apart-- became obsessed with the name of what is still officially called the Former Yugoslav Republic (FYR) of Macedonia, thus confusing irredentism (a real issue for many members of the political class in Skopje) with the name of the new republic. Opportunities for an honorable compromise on the name were lost in the early years, largely because of Greek obduracy. Greece's sensationalist press, aided by a group of professional patriots, succeeded in convincing public opinion that there was a real risk to Greece's territorial integrity. Pursuing a maximalist policy and employing a rhetoric that sounded very Greek to most foreigners, Greece became completely isolated on the issue.

On the other hand, Greece was not always helped by the attitude adopted by its allies and partners. The intervention of Western powers in the region, and more concretely in the former Yugoslavia, has been strongly influenced by short-term considerations, while also reflecting a remarkable lack of understanding of the history and the political realities in this troubled part of the world. Adding insult to injury, Western allies seemed often to be chastising the Greeks for not behaving like Scandinavians--and in the Balkans at that!

Growing awareness of the deadlock created has led to a considerable shift in Greek official attitudes. Greece has thus begun to act as a stabilizing factor in the region, through its participation in the peacekeeping force in Albania, its constructive role in the collective efforts to prevent the escalation of conflict in the former Yugoslavia, its decision to improve relations and engage in regular dialogue with the still "unnamed republic", and, perhaps most importantly, through trade and investment.

Although relatively poor by EU standards, Greece is an economic giant in the region. In money terms, its GDP is now bigger than that of Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, the FYR of Macedonia and the new Yugoslavia put together, even though its population is only one-fifth as large. At current exchange rates, Greek per capita GDP is also approximately four times that of Turkey. Trade with its northern neighbors has grown, despite the economic difficulties experienced by the countries in the region; and Greek investment has also increased rapidly--arguably the most important contribution that Greece can
make to stabilization in the region. Greece's economic and political weight is further strengthened by its membership of both the EU and NATO, as long as the policies pursued by Athens do not diverge widely from those of its partners and allies. This has become increasingly true in recent times. However, difficulties and tensions still occasionally arise, especially regarding relations with Turkey.

Greece is fundamentally a status quo country in a part of the world where the status quo is being challenged from many directions. Worried about the instability on its northern frontier, it also perceives a direct threat to its territorial integrity emanating from Turkey. While this threat may be sometimes exaggerated by the Greeks, it is nonetheless real. The long list of unresolved bilateral issues between Greece and what is formally its NATO ally on the other side of the Aegean Sea, the continuing problem of Cyprus affecting directly both Greece and Turkey, the military build-up on both sides, and the repeated threats of war from Turkish generals and politicians are not figments of the otherwise fertile imagination of the Greeks. Indeed, living with Turkey as a neighbor is by no means a guarantee of an easy and comfortable life for most of the countries sharing a frontier with it. The relatively recent memory of an empire, the large size and strategic position of the country, the serious instability of its political system, coupled with huge internal disparities and the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, the dominant position of the army in domestic politics, and the institutionalization of state violence--all these combine to make Turkey a very difficult country to deal with.

Nobody could, of course, seriously argue that Greece has no share of responsibility for the poor state of relations with its eastern neighbor, and this is regrettable. For Greece has a vested interest in the economic development and political stability of Turkey. The last thing that Greeks should want is a poor and internally divided Turkey, one more vulnerable to the temptation offered by political Islam and military adventures abroad. In this respect, Greece has a common interest with its European and American allies.

Support for Turkey's association with the EU, leading eventually to full membership of the Union, should be entirely consistent with the above objectives. This should receive the full support of Greece, and that has been forthcoming on occasions, although not consistently. Still, Turkey's rapprochement with European institutions is and should be dependent on the fulfillment of certain criteria, including most notably the proper functioning of democratic institutions, the rule of law, the protection of human rights and the respect of minorities. The EU is not a simple common market, nor is it a military alliance in which the emphasis is placed entirely on the defense of frontiers and not at all on the defense of democratic institutions and the rights of citizens. Turkey's democratic record leaves an enormous amount to be desired, which presents European countries with genuine problems. Searching for an optimum combination in the use of the carrot and the stick, they have also realized that the influence they can exert on internal developments in Turkey is rather limited. On this question, European and American attitudes have often diverged. For Washington, Turkey is basically a strategic ally, while for the Europeans it is also an associate and potential partner in what is considered by many as an emerging federation. This fundamentally different perspective is bound to lead sometimes to diverging policies.

For its part, Greece has tended to overplay and misplay the EU card in relations with Turkey. As long as it does not fulfill the economic and political criteria set by the Union, Turkey will not be considered for membership of the EU, irrespective of whether Greece wants it to be or not. Thus Greece's loud objections, mainly intended for domestic consumption, have sometimes served the purpose of providing a fig leaf for some of its European partners who did not want to incur any political or economic cost in their relations with Ankara.

But Greece has gone further, by establishing a link between Greek-Turkish bilateral issues and the resolution of the Cyprus problem on the one hand, and the strengthening of EU relations on the other. The latter includes the granting of EU financial aid to Turkey. Not always succeeding in persuading its partners about the desirability of a second link, Greek governments have had to resort to the use of veto in order to block particular measures or policy statements concerning relations with Turkey. More often than not, these vetoes have had a symbolic rather than a practical significance.

Greek politicians have thus tended to forget an important principle: namely, that vetoes inside the EU can only be used in exceptional circumstances and for short periods--a general rule that should apply even more to small and medium-sized countries. For Greek politicians, playing to the gallery at home has sometimes proved a strong enough incentive to override the cost of isolation in European councils. This may be a high cost for a country that, largely because of geography, needs to rely more on diplomacy than military strength for the defense of its territory. Even worse, this course of action has hardly produced any tangible benefits in relations with Turkey.

In February of this year the Greek government was caught, very much against its own will, in the last episode of Mr. Ocalan's wandering from country to country in search of political refuge, which ended with the arrest of the outlawed Kurdish leader by the Turkish authorities. The leader of the pkk having entered illegally into the country, the government was faced with an almost impossible situation. It tried to steer a middle course between satisfying popular support for the Kurdish cause, a sentiment widely shared in most European countries, and adding yet another problem to bilateral relations with Turkey. It tried to export the problem, as Italy had done before. But the whole operation was badly handled, and the government of Mr. Simitis came out as a loser on both the domestic and the international front.

With a strong perception of an external threat, Greece has looked to EU membership as a means of strengthening its own security, and in this respect, it has been deeply frustrated. The Union's common foreign and security policy is not common, and it still has little to do with security. Rightly or wrongly, most European countries have until now preferred to leave the responsibility for collective actions in this area to the Atlantic Alliance. Furthermore, the majority of EU members have tried to avoid becoming involved in bilateral disputes between Greece and Turkey. Greek appeals to Community solidarity and the arguments based on law and right have not always proved to be sufficiently persuasive. This has undoubtedly added to Greek frustration.

Essay Types: Essay