Turkish PM Visits Troubled Greece, Backs Arms Cuts
May 14, 2010 - 9:06 AMThe prime ministers of Greece and Turkey -- longtime foes that have invested heavily in the military to ward off one another -- held what both described as a historic meeting Friday, hoping to improve ties and economic cooperation.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on his first trip to Greece since 2004, promised to support his indebted neighbor's efforts toward financial recovery. Athens has been promised euro110 billion ($138 billion) in rescue loans from European countries and the International Monetary Fund to stave off bankruptcy.
"This visit for us is historic and has special importance," Erdogan said at a meeting with Greek Parliament Speaker Filipos Petsalnikos.
The two NATO-members came to the brink of war three times between 1974 and 1996 over the ethnically divided island of Cyprus and territorial rights in the Aegean Sea. They are still divided over several issues, including territorial disputes which often lead to mock dogfights by fighter jets above the Aegean Sea that separates them.
Relations had improved markedly after both countries were struck by successive earthquakes in 1999, but ties have since frayed again.
Turkey's 380-strong delegation in Athens on Friday included 10 Cabinet ministers and about 100 businessmen.
Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, who was instrumental in easing Greek-Turkish hostility during his 1999-2004 tenure as foreign minister, will hold their first-ever joint Cabinet meeting. Ministers will sign 21 agreements on issues from energy cooperation and combatting illegal immigration to promoting Greece and Turkey as joint destinations for Chinese tourists.
"What we wish for as two neighboring and friendly countries is to build a future of friendship that is even better," Erdogan said, adding he thought the trip would be "extremely productive." The Turkish premier also met with President Karolos Papoulias.
Greece is the European Union's largest military spender in terms of gross domestic product, due to its often hostile relations with its eastern neighbor.
Erdogan said he would support a mutual reduction in arms spending.
"Both countries have very large defense budgets. ... We must reduce these expenditures and use the money for other purposes," he said.
Greek Defense Minister Evangelos Venizelos has said Greece aims to slash military operating costs by up to 25 percent this year, but the cuts would not affect arms procurement programs.
Venizelos said Greece would spend about euro6 billion -- or 4.8 percent of GDP -- on defense in 2010, with about euro2.3 billion on arms and the rest for operating costs and salaries.
Greece has said tension with Turkey must be resolved before military spending can be reduced.
Before Greece will discuss arms reductions, Deputy Defense Minister Panos Beglitis said Turkey first "must take specific action relating to the respect of international law in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean," where both sides claim frequent military flight violations.
"Otherwise, it would be like placing the cart before the horse. ... It is not usual practice to first discuss armaments reductions and then solve the problems," Beglitis said on state radio Friday.
Still, Erdogan's visit marks a significant step in efforts to improve ties, and the Turkish premier said the business conference also being held would open a new era in trade. The countries in 2007 inaugurated a natural gas pipeline connecting their grids, a year after Greece's largest lender, NBG, acquired Turkey's Finansbank AS.
"Our businessmen will find the opportunity to meet frequently," Erdogan said.
Security in Athens was tight, with at least 1,500 police deployed a day after a bomb exploded and injured one person outside Greece's largest prison on the capital's outskirts.
Associated Press writers Derek Gatopoulos and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens and Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara contributed to this report.
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