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Grass Roots Earthquake Diplomacy

A moment of silence in memory of the victims of the recent earthquake in Turkey was held last week before the start of a game between Panathinaikos and NFC Volos for the top tier Greek soccer league. The teams lined up standing at the center of the field facing each other. One of the Volos players knelt and spread his arms in a gesture of prayer. The normally noisy crowd went quiet and at the end of the minute burst into prolonged applause. The loudspeakers announced that Panathinaikos was collecting donations of canned foods, medicine, and other supplies that would be sent to Turkey.

Greece is expressing sympathy and solidarity with the victims of the earthquake in Southern Turkey on a government and a grassroots level. Prime minister Mitsotakis called President Erdogan and pledged Greece’s commitment to sending rescue crews and aid. Greek minister of foreign affairs Nikos Dendias traveled for the same purpose to Turkey and was met on the airport tarmac by his counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglou. The two men spontaneously embraced.

A window has opened for improving Greco-Turkish relations following the aid Greece is offering its neighbor. The window is not of the same magnitude as the one that opened in 1999 and created the so-called earthquake diplomacy. It may be smaller, but given the current tense relations between the two countries it is worth exploiting.

The present circumstances may not allow for the same type of earthquake diplomacy on a government level, but there be an opportunity for improving relations on a grassroots level. Many in Greece have understood this. The Greek- American leadership should also take notice.

What happened in 1999 was a warming in the relations between the two countries following successive and serious earthquakes on both sides of the Aegean. First there was an earthquake in northwestern Turkey, in the town of Izmit which was known as Nicomedia in Byzantine times. There was a significant Greek Orthodox presence in the town until 1922. The earthquake that struck in 1999 and which had Izmit as its epicenter caused over 17,000 deaths and left about half a million persons homeless. Greece responded by being the first country to offer aid and support and rescue teams and fully equipped medical teams arrived there very quickly.

Less than a month later Turkey was able to repay the favor after an earthquake struck Athens. It caused fewer deaths and less devastation, but foreign aid was crucial in its aftermath. A day after the quake a Turkish rescue crew pulled a child out of the rubble in an Athens suburb. The dramatic event was captured live on television and watched in real time in both Greece and Turkey.

Greco-Turkish relations had been improving very slowly at the time, but the aftermath of the earthquakes suddenly accelerated the process. Nicholas Burns, who was serving as U.S. ambassador to Greece, was quoted saying “I think we’re in the middle of a new phenomenon that you could call seismic diplomacy or earthquake diplomacy. Images that people saw on TV had tremendous political symbolism, and there’s an opportunity for both sides to build on that.” The signs of a Greco-Turkish thaw included a revival in the cooperation of business leaders and Turkey holding muted celebrations on the anniversary of its military victory over Greece in 1922. Days later, Greece announced it would no longer block Turkey’s application for membership in the European Union. That paved the way for the European Council to grant Turkey its wish to become a candidate country for European Union membership.

Well, that was then, but things have changed a great deal. The European Union has stated Turkey has been moving further away the prospect of accession and President Erdogan appears disinterred in pursuing negotiations. This means that Greece can no longer leverage Turkey’s desire to join the European Union. And current relations are much more tense than they were before the 1999 earthquakes. Turkey has been making military threats against Greece and has alluded to the need to rethink the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 which has determined the borders between the two countries in the Aegean.

All that suggests – on a government level at least – the thaw in relations may be short-lived. Nonetheless, a great deal of good has been done by the Greek response and this has been recognized. The Hurriyet, the highest circulation newspaper in Turkey recently came out with a banner headline that read ‘Efharisto Poli File’ (Thank you very much friend), recognizing the work of the Greek rescue teams. There have been many other expressions of gratitude from ordinary Turkish citizens. If the Greek response can be somehow stretched beyond the initial offer of aid and extend to the longer term rebuilding of the affected areas, then the warming of relations at least on a grassroots level might be preserved.

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This article is part of a continuing series dealing with reports of Greek POWs in Asia Minor in the Thessaloniki newspaper, Makedonia in July 1936.

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