MEDITERRANEAN EUROPE, a borderland between Christendom and Islam since the eighth century, has been the scene of bloody clashes in recent weeks. The March 11 massacre in Madrid, apparently perpetrated by Moroccan Islamic extremists, had no sooner receded from the front pages than riots convulsed Kosovo, pitting the majority-Muslim Albanians against Christian Orthodox Serbs. Farther east, however, where Orthodox Greece and Muslim Turkey long existed in bitter tension, developments are more encouraging. The March 7 election in Greece that ended nearly a quarter-century of Socialist rule has strengthened a growing Greek-Turkish amity, which could eventually ease the way for the admission of Turkey to the European Union.
The victors in the Greek election--Kostas Karamanlis and his conservative New Democracy party--won on a classic free market platform. They preached lower taxes for citizens and corporations, leaner government, deregulation, privatization and denationalization of major industries, and reform of social security, health care, and education.
Their opponents, the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK), in power for 20 of the last 23 years, had long been known for virulent anti-American and anti-NATO rhetoric, and such provocative policies in foreign affairs as allowing Arab and other extremists free access to their country so long as they refrained from harming local interests. As a result, Greece had long been treated with near-universal disdain in European capitals, as well as in Washington.
At the same time, PASOK, for all its coziness with Arab militants, indulged in furious demagogy against Muslim Turkey. There was no contradiction in this--Arabs don't like Turkey, which has close links to Israel. But above all, Greeks still smart over their long humiliation at the hands of the Turks, symbolized by the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The Turks ruled all or part of Greece until 1912.
In 1999, Greece's international standing hit bottom when it was revealed that Greek diplomats had sheltered Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the main anti-Turkish, Kurdish terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK), in the Greek embassy in Kenya. Ocalan was eventually handed over to Turkey for trial, and is now serving a life sentence.
With nowhere to go but up, Greek foreign policy took a dramatic turn. In 1999, Greece reestablished political, business, and cultural links with Turkey. The same year, a new NATO Joint Command Headquarters was set up in Larissa, Greece--notwithstanding the fierce opposition of most Greeks to the NATO operation then underway to rescue the Kosovar Albanians. This mending of fences helped pave the way for NATO to provide security assistance to the Athens Olympics this August.
The rise of George Papandreou--son and grandson of Greek prime ministers--within PASOK was partly responsible for this new direction. Unlike his father, Andreas, a socialist more in the spirit of Fidel Castro than of Tony Blair, George favored reaching out to the Turks. He championed a full and normal partnership between neighbors, even though the Cyprus and Aegean issues remained unresolved. To the surprise of foreign observers as well as domestic Turk-baiters, Greece even began energetically to support Turkish entry into the European Union, a position unthinkable only years before.
This was an interesting reversal, casting the Greeks as more enlightened than the bigger EU members, who fret over Islamic expansion within their borders. As a participant in European institutions, Turkey could help diminish Arab influence over Muslims on European soil. Turkish Muslims are overwhelmingly private and tolerant in their religious views, and even with a moderate religious party, the AK, in power, their government enforces a secularism far more rigid than that imposed in, for example, France. (Indeed, when the French recently barred Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in state schools, the policy was a controversial innovation affecting an aggrieved minority. Turkey, with its Muslim millions, has maintained the same ban for decades. Late last year, Turks were stunned when their nonpartisan president refused to invite the wives of public officials, including the wife of the prime minister, to celebrations of the Turkish National Day because the women, like some 60 percent of the female population, cover their heads.)
Thanks to European Turkophobia, Ankara may be kept out of the EU until at least 2020. Recent progress on the long-vexed question of Cyprus, however, holds promise. On May 1, Cyprus--the touchstone of emotion and anxiety among the Greeks when they consider their Turkish neighbors--is due to join the EU.
Cyprus, home to both Greeks and Turks for centuries, has a large Greek majority. In 1974, a dictatorship of the military right--the infamous "Greek colonels"--overthrew the democratic government of Cyprus, and attempted to annex the island. This foolhardy gambit provided Turkey with a pretext to invade Cyprus and create a "Turkish Republic" in the northern half; it also brought about the downfall of the Greek monarchy, the collapse of the military junta, and the establishment of a parliamentary democracy in Athens.
To protest Turkey's action in Cyprus, Greece withdrew from NATO's integrated military structure for Southern Europe. The PASOK government seemed bent on keeping the wound unhealed, and the two countries came close to war in 1987 and 1996 over sovereignty issues in the Aegean Sea. These were the years when the Greek left loved to blame the United States for the country's problems, and played on sentimentality among the Greeks toward Orthodox Russia, even while the atheist Communists still ruled in Moscow. The Turks, by contrast, considered Russia their hereditary enemy. Indeed, Turkey's long border with the Soviet Union made it an attractive military partner for the United States during the Cold War, a geopolitical advantage the Greeks resented. Then in the 1990s, Turkey served as the main operational base for the U.S.-led air patrols maintaining the "no fly" zone over Iraqi Kurdistan.
But all that is in the past. Now the Socialists--with George Papandreou as their leader--are in opposition, and Kostas Karamanlis, is prime minister of Greece, like his father before him. His government has approved a framework for direct Greek-Turkish negotiations regarding Cyprus. And on April 20, the Cypriots are scheduled to vote in a UN-sponsored referendum. Greek and Turkish Cypriots will be asked to approve a fairly predictable UN-style system for settlement of refugee claims, along with provisions for power-sharing between the two communities.
While UN-sponsored "conflict resolution" has failed in Bosnia and Kosovo, the Greeks and Turks, fortified by their thriving capitalist economies, seem bent on avoiding the path taken in the upper Balkans. For this, Athens and Ankara deserve congratulation and support. In the age of terrorism, a rapprochement between Greece, the cradle of democracy, and Turkey, the pioneer of Muslim secularism, is welcome news for the civilized world. It is of course anathema to al-Qaeda.