At the time these lines are being written, a very important basketball event is taking place in Turkey: the 2010 World Championship held by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). As a basketball fan, I will risk making a prediction: this year there will be two winners, Greece and Turkey.
Don’t rush to correct me. I know on the court there can be only one winner, but off the court there can be more. This event could be the opportunity Greece and Turkey need to get closer to each other, not in terms of high-level politics, but in terms of initiatives coming from below, from the grassroots.
One example of this is a banner created by a dedicated group of Greek basketball fans who call themselves Pelargoi, or storks, named after the mascot for the 1987 European Basketball Championship that Greece won in Athens. The banner, which is displayed alongside the basketball courts of Turkey, reads in Turkish, Greek and English: “We are neighbours not enemies”.
Recently Turkey announced its intention to remove Greece from the top of its National Security Policy Document (MGSB), indicating that it no longer considers Greece its top threat. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu also announced that Greece and Turkey are now in dialogue to put an end to the “dogfights” (short-range aerial combats) that have been ongoing over territories in the Aegean Sea, often at the cost of the pilots’ lives. Furthermore, the Orthodox Christian Sumela Monastery reopened for worship for the first time in 88 years this August after the government lifted a ban on holding religious services at the site. This is another sign of goodwill on behalf of Turkey.
Of course, these developments cannot be separated from the activities of the newly established Strategic Cooperation Council which was formed this year to accelerate the bilateral cooperation between the two countries. The council is comprised of ten Turkish and seven Greek Cabinet Ministers and held its first meeting in Athens in May 2010. There, the ministers signed 22 agreements and cooperation protocols on issues of environmental protection, including protection of biodiversity, exchange of good practices and know-how; education, involving change in enmity-breeding history textbooks; and tourism, with the promotion of joint travel packages and cooperation on cultural tourism.
On the other side of the Aegean, Greece – perhaps surprisingly – has become one of the most devoted supporters of Turkey’s EU bid. And it is has been working on a rapprochement between the two formerly hostile nations since the late Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem and Greek Prime Minister Georgios A. Papandreou led the 1999 “earthquake diplomacy” talks after two disastrous earthquakes hit Greece and Turkey that year and both countries rushed to assist one another by sending emergency aid groups. These talks resulted in a series of confidence-building measures, easing tensions between the two countries.
However far-reaching though, any Greek-Turkish rapprochement efforts have been orchestrated “from above” by the political elites of the two countries – and not by the people themselves.
While the Greek political elites view the Turkish EU-bid as an opportunity for reconciliation of the historical issues and the bilateral disputes, the Greek public doesn’t share this view. Greece was under Ottoman occupation for 400 years, and both countries have engaged in wars many times since, including the Balkan Wars, in WWI and over Cyprus in 1974. Unfortunately, the average Greek is still hostile toward Turkish people and the same holds for the average Turk towards Greeks.
This hostility is also a by-product of a historical enmity which has been cultivated by state-propaganda as it is expressed through the school history textbooks of both countries. Unless this mentality changes at the level of Greeks and Turks themselves, the Greek-Turkish rapprochement can be neither successful nor real.
That’s why we need more initiatives coming “from below”, along the lines of the Pelargoi Greek basketball fans, together with the political initiatives promoted by the Greek and Turkish governments. A change in the enmity-breeding school history textbooks is necessary, as well as a massive reduction in military spending on both sides, which happen to be some of the highest in NATO.
And all of us – analysts, researchers, activists and journalists – must promote any and all such constructive initiatives when they appear. After all, “we are neighbours not enemies” and we should remember that more often.
* Leonidas Oikonomakis is a research associate at the University of Crete as well as at the Middle East Technical University. He currently works for the Programme for the Sustainable Development in the Aegean. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews)