Economically embattled Greece and Turkey have decided to postpone big military spending sprees in one of the clearest signs yet that the longtime rivals are improving relations.
On Wednesday, April 11, Turkey's powerful military, the second biggest in NATO, announced it was putting off plans for $19.5 billion worth of arms deals because of a severe financial crunch.
The crisis, sparked by Ankara's flotation of the Turkish lira, pushed the currency to dramatic lows and unleashed widespread social unrest.
Two weeks before, Greece put aside plans for the purchase of 60 fighter jets from the Eurofighter consortium, deciding instead to spend the money on creating jobs, fighting poverty and preparing for the 2004 Olympics.
In an interview published on Thursday, Greek Foreign Minister Georges Papandreou said Turkey's decision to cut back on arms purchases would improve the political climate. "The decision... contributes significantly to creating a more relaxed atmosphere in the region," the minister said. "This could be a prelude to a mutual reduction of arms for the benefit of both of our peoples," he told the Greek daily newspaper Ta Nea .
Relations between the Greece and Turkey have long been strained over the divided island of Cyprus and territorial problems in the Aegean Sea. Papandreou and his Turkish counterpart Ismail Cem are credited with bridging the gap between the two countries.
Papandreou said he believed Turkey's decision had been made easier by Athens' move to put off a number of arms purchases, in particular the new air force planes, believed to cost some $4.5 billion.
On Wednesday, the Greek minister called for a strong European Union response to Turkey's current economic crisis. Turkey's undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, Faruk Logoglu, said that while the military cutbacks were economic, they would benefit bilateral relations.
"This decision has been taken on the basis of the economic conditions," he told AFP, adding: "Turkey's defense needs ... cannot been viewed as a gesture of one country towards the other. But the reflection on the Greek-Turkish relations is positive," Logoglu said.
Ankara also hopes to send a clear message at home that it is willing to tighten spending, even on the army — which the public holds in high esteem. On Friday, a newspaper reported that a controversial tank project, which has caused friction between Turkey and Germany, is on the list of shelved arm purchases.
The project for the joint production of 1,000 combat tanks is estimated to be worth as much as seven billion dollars, Turkey's Cumhuriyet newspaper reported. Turkey's financial crisis has recently spilled over into violent street protests quashed by police, and calls for the government to resign.
Turkey and Greece recently agreed to cooperate in clearing their common border of landmines in another step to bolster the recent rapprochement. Turkey and Greece began a tentative dialogue in 1998, which further blossomed after the two nations helped each other in the wake of deadly earthquakes in 1999. Since then, the two countries have signed nine cooperation accords on secondary issues. — (AFP, Ankara)
by Florence Biedermann
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)