Finding a solution in Cyprus is important for a region suffering from ethnic and religious conflicts, sending a strong message that there is another model where peace can replace conflict, former Greek Prime Minister Yorgo Papandreu has told the Hürriyet Daily News.
As the statesman who initiated reconciliation with Turkey as foreign minister in the 1999 with his Turkish counterpart İsmail Cem, Papandreu’s advice to the leaders in Cyprus was to “remain committed.”
“Perseverance is necessary,” said Papandreu, who was in Turkey to present the inaugural Cem-Papandreu Peace Award.
You have initiated, together with İpek Cem Taha, the daughter of Turkey’s late former foreign minister İsmail Cem, the Cem-Papandreu Peace Award. You both were instrumental in starting Turkish–Greek rapprochement. In view of the fact that fundamental problems remain unsolved between the two countries, do you think successive governments and leaders have done enough to continue your legacy?
This was something we talked with İsmail, how to continue and multiply the effect. We knew what we were building was a foundation, not the full building. I believe the legacy and the foundation is still there. Could successive leaders have done more? I could say yes, we could all have done more. But we need to continue this tradition. What we see in the region are a lot of problems, a lot of tension, and a lot of internal tension in our countries for different reasons.
We need to make sure first of all we continue the spirit of this dialogue, finding peaceful approaches to dealing with whatever differences we have. We need to do more because regional problems – whether it is Syria, the refugee crisis, or issues like climate change – have created more and more tension in the region, which makes our relationship even more important. If we can show that we can hold onto a relationship of dialogue and peace, that will be a major model for other countries.
The economic difficulties faced by Greece must have played a role, as priorities have changed?
Yes and no. For instance, we didn’t have tourists coming in both directions before our rapprochement. Now Greeks are coming to Turkey and Turkish tourists are coming in huge numbers to the islands and that is good for our economy. There are many islands that do not feel the crisis as much due to many tourists coming from Turkey, so our exports have increased. The economic crisis perhaps made us more aware of the fact that we have a lot to benefit from each other when we work together in many areas.
Perhaps in the future we might have an award named after the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders, if they succeed in finding a solution. At some stage Turkey and Greece will have to get involved. Do you think that will contribute or complicate the talks, as Cyprus could become an issue of domestic political debate in both countries?
The fact that we have had a rapprochement between Greece and Turkey over this last 16 or 17 years has led us to discuss these issues very openly. Before that there was secrecy, fear, lack of communication. We were trying to outmaneuver each other. But now the two communities are much more openly discussing these issues themselves. In the end, it is their island.
We can encourage them without getting involved in details. We can let them find a solution that is best for them. I remember when İsmail Cem was alive, there was a young Turkish Cypriot boy suffering from leukemia who could not find the person with the right DNA for a transplant. We worked together and found a Greek Cypriot with the right DNA. Teachers on both sides worked on it. These kind of things may sound romantic, but this is deep down in our soul and we can break away from the harshness of conflict.
What would you recommend to the two leaders?
First of all, let me say that a solution on Cyprus would be very important not only for Turkey and Greece, or for the Cypriots themselves. It would also be very important symbolically for the region, which is going through very deep conflicts where you have ethnic, religious and even intra-religious fighting. In Cyprus you could have another model. It would be a very strong message.
The spirit prevailing with both leaders on the island is positive. But they will find barriers and difficulties. Commitment and perseverance is necessary, and trying to find a creative solution that will be a win-win for both sides, is my basic advice.
Do you see that potential?
Yes I do. I don’t want to live in the clouds. It is a difficult issue. But the stars seems to be aligning. My basic point is that it takes political will, and I see that political will existing.
What made your relationship with Cem so special that it could inspire today’s leaders on Cyprus?
First of all, building trust. You can have differences, but building trust was very important. Building trust is about much more than just making laws or having institutions make big pronouncements. It is about creating a culture; we may have differences, but we can move forward.
Also important is the need to find solutions that are more lasting, and believing in the capacity of your societies. Sometimes we as leaders have preconceptions about our own societies, perhaps believing that they are not ready or not mature enough. With Cem we saw that there was actually huge support from society, which we did not expect.
I remember when I decided as a minister to help the Turks after the earthquake in 1999. I didn’t know what the reaction of the Greek people would be. Many said it would be bad for me politically as Turkey is a threat, etc. But others said it was an opportunity. The latter group was wiser than my advisors. The same was true on the Turkish side. If we do not put them in boxes and if we give them freedom to see, people can find solutions. Leaders should let citizens be more active in building peace processes.
What is your view on the Turkey–EU deal and Turkish–Greek cooperation on the refugee crisis?
If for all these years we hadn’t had so much contact and cooperation, the refugee crisis would have been much more difficult to handle. It is not a perfect deal for anyone; it is a compromise. On the one hand, we have a humanitarian obligation to help the refugees, but on the other hand the size of the problem has made it difficult to deal with. If we share this burden, it will be much less of a problem. We also need to make sure that the deal respects international law and we have to have a spirit of cooperation.
Turkish–EU relations have been revived due to the refugee crisis. Many have criticized this, saying it is just a tactical move on the part of the EU.
The EU is a family of values. Turkey has to do its homework but Europe has its obligations too. You have had leaders from Europe who are negative and this is part of the reality. But we also have the tradition that says if you move forward and show that you are part of this process then at some point you will get there. Whether or not this is a tactical move, I would say it is an opportunity; use it.
One of the reasons behind the criticism is the fact that Europe is accused of turning a blind eye to democratic backpedaling in Turkey.
We want a stable Turkey. A stable Turkey for me is also a democratic Turkey, an open society. Turkey is a diverse country. I would not want a polarized Turkey, I would not want to see Turkey polarized on an ethnic or religious basis. I would like to see a cohesive society. I remember İsmail Cem talking about this; about how the balance between the Kemalist state and religious tradition has to be a positive balance, not a polarized one. There were periods of time when Turkey was moving impressively, not only economically but also in terms of reforms on difficult issues like the Kurdish issue.
İsmail Cem was both an academic and a journalist. But today we see many journalists and academics serving jail time. Do you share the concerns that Turkey is deviating from Europe’s essential values.
On one of my last visits to Turkey we visited daily Cumhuriyet, under the capacity of the head of the Socialist International. We expressed our clear concerns about freedom of the press. Membership, even Greece’s membership, is conditional. Being part of the family means certain conditions are met.