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Ismail Cem and the breakthrough in 1999

Ismail Cem

Ismail Cem served as Turkey's foreign minister in two different governments between 1997 and 2002.

Cem was at the centre of a foreign policy transformation that saw Turkey move from a country snubbed at the 1997 EU summit in Luxembourg (when it was denied EU candidate status) to an EU candidate state in Helsinki two years later.

It was a profound transformation. As late as September 1998, the impression of increasing cooperation between Armenia, Greece and Iran had caused such irritation in Turkey that Ismail Cem himself went to Tehran and accused Greece of attempting to "recruit Muslim soldiers to take part in new Crusades." Little suggested at the time that Turkey was about to be embraced by the EU, and by Greece above all, as a prospective EU member state.

In Türkiye, Avrupa, Avrasya, a posthumously published book, Cem recalls his years at the Ministry – which, as the books makes clear, helped articulate the vision of a "zero problems with neighbours" policy.

"When I came to the Ministry I realized that our relations with many of our neighbours were not good, and I thought at least some of the blame must lay with us. We adopted a principle where, for every positive step towards Turkey, we would respond with two positive steps."

Türkiye, Avrupa, Avrasya – Turkey in the New Century

Inspired by his conviction that "we need a Turkey that has friendly relations with the regions with which it shares history and culture," Cem's "positive steps" diplomacy was to mark a profound change in Turkey's engagement with its neighbours. It was also a change that some in Ankara regarded with suspicion.

1999 saw three events that were to leave a lasting imprint on Turkish foreign policy: the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan; a diplomatic opening with Greece, following two devastating earthquakes that shook both sides of the Aegean; and the decision, made by the European Council in December 1999, to approve Turkey's candidacy for accession to the European Union.

It was in bringing about a revolutionary transformation in Turkey's relations with Greece that Cem was to leave his most important mark. Relations with Greece had gone from bad (fight over the Imia rocks in the Aegean in 1996) to worse. In 1999, after PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured after hiding in the Greek embassy in Kenya, they had reached a nadir. On 14 February 1999, US president Bill Clinton went as far as to warn that violence in Kosovo could draw Greece and Turkey – two NATO allies – into war.

A sequence of events that began within days of Clinton's remarks was to prove that the tide in Turkey and Greece was changing. On 18 February 1999, Greece's foreign minister, Theodoros Pangalos, was forced to resign in response to his role in the Ocalan affair. He was succeeded by Giorgios Papandreou, a longtime supporter of Greek-Turkish rapprochement. In July 1999, Papandreou made a symbolic move – in the face of strong opposition by Greek nationalists – by issuing a statement on the legal status of the Turkish minority in Greece, suggesting that Muslims who felt themselves to be Turks should be allowed to call themselves Turks.

In August 1999, a huge earthquake hit the Marmara region in Turkey. In September, a smaller one struck Athens. The earthquakes produced an unprecedented show of sympathy and solidarity by ordinary Turks and Greeks, challenging entrenched notions of "the other" and producing a visible change in attitude in the Turkish and Greek media. As Larrabee and Lesser point out, the response to the earthquakes was to provide "domestic cover" for a series of diplomatic initiatives – started by Cem and Papandreou – and "insulate them from strong domestic criticism." The new spirit of détente was to bear fruit: in December 1999, Greece formally withdrew its long-standing opposition to Turkey's accession to the European Union.

Türkiye, Avrupa, Avrasya was published in 2009, two years after Cem's death. Though it contains few clues as to when the different chapters were actually written, it offers good insight into the way Cem thought about the evolution of Turkey's foreign policy in recent years:

"In recent years Turkey is seriously questioning its role and function in international relations, both seeking and creating answers. […] When I first took this seat and said 'We are also European and Asian,' there were strong reactions. But then the importance of this was understood and it was supported."

"The development of Turkey's strategic position and the new awareness of this in Turkey have played a role in the progress we've made towards the EU."

"After 1997, Turkey has made leeway in the Middle East to the extent that it has become prominent in the West."

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