Turkey and Greece: Transcending the Past and Embracing the Future, Bilgi University,İstanbul,6 July 2004


Bilgi University, Istanbul, 6 July 2004

Mr. Chairman,

Mrs. Bakoyanis,

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

       It is a great pleasure and a pleasant duty for me to address such a distinguished audience and youth from Turkey and Greece.

            I understand that the initiative to hold such meetings was started last year and, building on the success of the first experience, it was decided to hold it again this year and probably it will continue to be held in the coming years as well.

            I would like to congratulate the organizers of the meeting for this timely initiative, because relations between Turkey and Greece have in fact matured enough to “transcend the past and embrace the future”.

            The present project is an initiative that translates into action a dream that I cherished for decades. During my thirty-nine years of diplomatic service, I always wondered why we, Turks and Greeks, were so obsessed by a mutual suspicion. On the personal level, Greek diplomats or Greeks in general have always been among my best friends in the countries where I served.

This is not my experience only. Many Turks and Greeks speak in general positively about their experience of friendship with each other. In most cases, they are full of good will on Turkish-Greek relations. You may have noticed two days ego how Turkish youth was celebrating the championship of the Greek football team. This spontaneous expression of joy cannot be explained with anything else but genuineness of their feelings. This joy becomes al the more meaningful when we keep in mind that the other side of the football game, namely Portugal, is a country with which Turkey has no problem at all. It is country with which Turkey has always enjoyed excellent relations.

Because of such expression of friendliness, I always longed for political leaders, opinion leaders and civil society institutions who would utilize these reciprocal good feelings for the benefit of the two peoples and transform it into a political action for the further promotion of Turkish-Greek relations.

            I now see with great satisfaction that this dream is becoming true slowly.

            My first public statement to the Greek media when I was serving as Foreign Minister of Turkey was that I would remain committed to maintain the initiatives launched by my distinguished colleagues Ismail Cem and Yorgo Papandreu. They had launched an initiative to discuss all contentious issues between the two countries, starting with the easier ones. Then, with the momentum to be gained after the solution of easier problems, it will be possible to turn to more thorny issues. This is what is being done at present.

Turkish-Greek relations constitute a fertile ground that will not betray those who bet on it.

Geography intertwines their interests. When the participants of this Summer Program will move, two weeks later, to the campus of the Aegean University in the Lesvos Island, they will see for themselves how geography made these two peoples dependent on each other. They will also be able to see the advantages denied to both peoples by the borders and customs between the Island and Anatolian mainland.

I wish that, once in Lesvos, each participant were given a map that shows the geographical location of the Lesvos island, its distance to the mainland Turkey and to the mainland Greece. Or that the young people were allowed to sit in Lesvos on top of a hill overlooking the Anatolian mainland and debate the consequences of this dividedness.

The Greek island of Lesvos is 5 miles off the Turkish shores while it is 100 miles away from the mainland Greece. There are other islands, such as Greek island Samos or Chios that lie only a few miles off the Turkish shores and more than 150 miles to the Greek mainland.  The numbers of such islands are counted by dozens in the Aegean Sea. The inhabitants of these islands bring almost all their consumer goods, sometimes including drinking water, all the way from the mainland Greece, while a very profitable trade, profitable for both sides, could develop between the islanders and mainlanders if the imaginary wall of customs and borders had not existed.

I remember several stories of friendliness of the peoples of the two sides of the water. Despite formal bans, many islanders crossed the sea by boat to Turkey, sometimes to meet their urgent basic needs, sometimes for pleasure such as attending wedding parties of their friends in Turkey. And they went back to the islands, by night, after the wedding party was over. Benefiting from the tolerance (or complicity) of the local police officers, they have done it without passport, without visa. This unlawful practice did not entirely stop even when Turkish-Greek relations were strained.

It is true that the Turkish-Greek relations suffered a major hardship at the beginning of the last century and alienated the Turks and the Greeks from each other for decades.

However, in other places of the world, nations that had gone through similar hardship were able to put aside their past hostilities and to look to the future.

France and Germany are the classical examples of it. These two nations fought innumerable wars throughout their history. However they managed to become now closest partners in shaping new Europe.

NATO is establishing partnership with eastern European countries that it considered as the enemy camp until very recently.

Such developments looked inconceivable until very recently.

Since this was possible between other nations, I don’t see why it could not be possible between Turkey and Greece. Actually there are additional reasons why it should be all the more possible between Turkey and Greece: Look at our common history. Our ancestors lived together in peace for centuries in the geographical area that is now Turkey and Greece. Many of the houses constructed and inhabited by your ancestors are still in place both in Greece and Turkey. They are the best witnesses of this togetherness.

We may even go one step back in the history. Try to imagine how the demography of Anatolia evolved since olden ages. The autochthonous population of Anatolia are the Hattis or proto-Hittites. Their civilisation spread in central Anatolia as from 23rd century BC. 15 centuries later, that is towards 8th or 7th centuries BC, Ionians came from the mainland Greece or from the Aegean islands and established colonies in the coastal belt of Anatolia. But they neither expulse nor exterminate the autochthonous peoples of Anatolia. Proto-Hittites, Hittites and Ionians mixed with each other to form the pre-Turkish population of Anatolia.

A similar development occurred with the arrival of Turks in Anatolia in the second half of the 11th century AD. Turks did not expulse the peoples that inhabited Anatolia before them. So their descendents are still there. Turks mixed with them.

The mixing started at the top of the Ottoman State. Murad I, the grand son of the founder of the Ottoman dynasty, that is to say the third person in the genealogy of the dynasty, was already half Turkish half Byzantine; because the son of the founder of the dynasty, was married to a Greek girl, the daughter of the Byzantine governor of Bursa. Three generation later, the mother of Sultan Mehmet, the conqueror of Istanbul, was Greek. He had more than half Greek blood in his veins, because his great grand father, Murad I, was already half Greek. In other words, if such comparisons mean anything, the conqueror of Istanbul was 75 % Greek and only 25 % Turkish.

Among around 40 Grand Viziers, that is to say Prime Ministers of the Ottoman State only two or three are pure blood Turk. The others are Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, Circasian, Arab etc.; briefly from all races that constituted the Ottoman State.

If such a mixture took place at the very top of the State, you may figure out to what extent ordinary people must have mixed with each other throughout several centuries of common history.

The President of the Republic of Turkmenistan, Saparmurad Niazov, noticed this ethnic transformation in the Turkish race and described it in a lyric welcome address to the late President Turgut Ozal, on his arrival at the airport of Ashkabad. He said to President Ozal:

You went away from these places on the back of a horse

 and you came back by plane,

You went away from these places slant eyed,

and you came back with blue eyes.

I don’t remember of any other expression than this one that describes in two sentences the transformation that Anatolian Turks went through.

If a DNA map of the peoples of this region of the world is drawn in the future, I believe that it will reveal a lot of truth that we are not aware of at present. Many Turks living today in Turkey may turn out to have more Greek genes than many Greeks in Greece. Similarly many Greeks in Greece may turn out to have more Turkish genes than many Turks in Turkey. If you look around in this hall, can you easily say who looks more Turkish and who looks more Greek? I believe that one can easily mistake a Turk for a Greek and vice versa.

Therefore, it will be a tremendous achievement if we succeed to overcome this ethnic divide and consider ourselves as co-owners of everything that exists in this geography.

The politicians of both countries have an inescapable responsibility to reduce to a minimum the barriers that divide the two nations. These barriers should be confined to an absolute minimum, required because of being two different States.

Turkey’s accession to the European Union will facilitate this task and may contribute to dispel remaining misgivings in the hearts and minds of certain sceptics.

 We will not be doing justice if we do not pay special tribute to the present and previous governments in Greece. Tribute to the previous government for the bold decision that it took to change the course of events in the Turkish-Greek relations. To the present government, for its consistent policy not to undo what was achieved on this subject by the previous government and for the additional contribution that it is making at present to the promotion of the Turkish-Greek relations.

You may remember that, for decades, Greece was blamed to be the only country that blocks Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Many informed people knew that it was not only Greece that opposed Turkey’s accession. However, other countries kept silent as long as Greece volunteered to be at the frontline and they pushed Greece to the forefront as a scapegoat.

Ultimately Greece became aware of this absurdity and decided to re-assess its policy on Turkey’s accession to the EU. Since the Greek government took a bold decision to change this policy, I presume that the previous Greek government must have been led to the conclusion that Greece has more to gain from Turkey’s accession to the EU than what it has to lose. Therefore it decided to declare that Greece supports Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Then, the public opinion noticed that there were other countries than Greece that opposed Turkey’s accession to the European Union. When Greece announced that it had changed its position, the other countries had to admit that they also opposed Turkey’s accession to the EU.

I presume that it must have been a difficult decision for the Greek government, because there were several prejudices in the Greek public opinion opposing such a bold change in the Greek policy. But, political leaders distinguish themselves by making difficult choices. The fruits that we are reaping at present are the fruits of this difficult decision.

On the Turkish side, when my political party came to power, the Turkish government had already reciprocated by launching the so-called exploratory talks to negotiate all contentious issues between the two countries. When I was part of the cabinet, I was fortunate to make my modest contribution to the promotion of the bilateral relations, by maintaining the initiative already launched.

Furthermore, the present leaders in both countries have established excellent personal friendship. This is an invaluable asset for the future of our relations.

As to the peoples of the two countries, they even do not need any encouragement, because they are already fully aware of the value of better relations.

This is why the initiative of the Bilgi University comes in such a relatively suitable environment.

 I would like to say a few words on “transcending the past”. Past is important, to the extent we learn from it, from the mistakes that we made in the past. Both countries made mistakes in the past. If we embark upon an exercise of drawing up an inventory of which side made more mistakes, we will become again a hostage of the past. One thing is certain that the past policy failed to bring the relations between Turkey and Greece to a satisfactory level. Therefore we have to put aside the past and look forward.

 To transcend the past requires definitely a certain degree of courage. Political leaders deserve better the title of leadership when they prove that they are capable of taking risks. These risks will be taken for the long-term benefits of the county they serve. Therefore, taking risk in such circumstances is not an adventure, it is not testing your luck, it is a foresight.

It is only natural that there will be sceptics on both sides. These sceptics may even have legitimate reasons to oppose the promotion of the relations. They may be putting their emotions in front of their wisdom. You will have to use your skills to convince them their concerns will be better addressed in an environment of mutual trust.

I genuinely believe that the future relations between Turkey and Greece will be better and better. If we do not achieve this, both sides will lose.

   I would like to conclude my words by reconfirming that my generation will do its best in order to hand over to your generation a set of bilateral relations as free of problems as possible. But if it is not entirely free of problems, it will be up to you, to your generation, to demonstrate better leadership than my generation and leave to the generation after yours a better world, a more peaceful world and more hospitable world.

Thank you for your attention.

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