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Greece, Turkey: will former foes make friends?

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Yelena Shesternina) - Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis arrived in the Turkish capital Wednesday for what experts had dubbed a landmark visit even before it started, the first visit to Turkey by a Greek premier in five decades.

The last Greek prime minister to pay an official visit to Turkey was also Costas Karamanlis, a namesake and an uncle of the current leader.

The relations between the two nations have gone through a number of crises since then, serious enough to be dubbed a "cold war" and invoke a threat of a real "hot" conflict.

But will Karamanlis' visit remain a landmark only because of the time lapse since the last such contact, or will the two countries' leaders reach some tangible agreements which will literally change the world's map this time?

The tensions between Greece and Turkey have been caused by their territorial disputes for many decades, primarily over Cyprus, which is still divided into two areas, the Greek part populated by Greek Cypriots, and the Turkish part, which is home to Turkish Cypriots and Turkish immigrants.

The Turkish forces invaded the northern part of the island in 1974, and repeated futile attempts to unify it have been made since then. The last one failed because of the Greek Cypriots, who voted down UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's unification plan in a 2004 referendum: they reckoned that too many concessions were required from them for the return of their own lands. Cyprus ended up joining the European Union as a divided nation, although legally the whole island is now a EU member.

The talk of the need to resolve the Cyprus problem as soon as possible reemerged late last year, brought up by all of the conflicting parties simultaneously: Greece and Cyprus on the one hand, and Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, on the other.

Any specific steps, including direct talks on the issue, are likely to be scheduled after the February presidential elections in Cyprus. Prime Minister Karamanlis pledged at his meeting with Turkish officials that the last wall in Europe would come down soon.

Besides Cyprus, Greece and Turkey have a dispute over the continental shelf of the Aegean Sea, as Angara refuses to recognize Greece's right to extend its off-shore territory to 12 miles, and several small islands. These disputes have brought Athens and Ankara to the brink of an open armed conflict on several occasions, last time in January 1996. It was the interference of the United States and other NATO countries that helped prevent a military conflict then. Greece decided it was high time to put an end to this long confrontation and proposed settling the issue in the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

Turkey sounds ready to compromise on many issues, because its EU accession will be impossible without Greece and Cyprus's agreement. Athens' position has become milder lately as well. Greece has agreed to Turkey's EU accession, but put forth certain very specific requirements - that Turkey recognize Cyprus and normalize its relations with Greece first of all.

Incidentally, the two countries are pragmatic enough not to let their territorial disputes and political disagreements get in the way of economic cooperation. Their commodity circulation came close to $3 billion last year, up from a mere $200 million in 1995.

The pipeline which connected Greece and Turkey to ship Azerbaijan's natural gas to Europe, the latest major joint project, was commissioned in November 2007. This project could lay a foundation for normal relations, if not a real friendship, between the former enemies.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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