Turkey's 1999 earthquake shook up the European landscape. Thawing relations with Greece and a ceasefire with the Kurds have finally opened the way to Turkish entry into the EU. The geopolitical implications are enormous.by Martin Walker / February 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Earthquakes are usually unrelieved calamities. But the deaths of some 18,000 Turks on 17th August 1999, may be remembered as a calamity which inspired a kind of miracle. The quake devastated the grim but bustling industrial city of Izmit and the tenements around the naval base of Golcuk. The miracle occurred when Turkey’s tragedy inspired an outpouring of sympathy and official aid from its neighbour and long-time nemesis, Greece. This was swiftly reciprocated by Turkey when Greece lost 120 lives in its own earthquake three weeks later. The aid also shifted something fundamental in the power politics of Europe. “All ideological arguments were flattened by the earthquake,” said Turkey’s young minister of tourism, Erkan Mumcu. “Lying under the rubble is the Turkish political and administrative system.”
Only two years earlier, Greece and Turkey had been on the brink of war over the ownership of some uninhabited rocks in the Aegean sea. Now the mayors of Greek islands whose prosperity rests on military bases which guard against the Turkish threat were taking up collections to help their neighbours. When Turkey’s health minister, Osman Durmus, declared that his country had no need of foreign help, least of all from Greece, he was widely denounced as an ignorant buffoon. “Thank You, Friends,” ran the headline, printed in the Greek alphabet, in Turkey’s biggest newspaper, Huriyet. Within the year, Greece and Turkey had signed numerous agreements to co-operate on tourism and protect the environment, to safeguard investments and fight organised crime. The foreign ministers of the two countries exchanged friendly visits, and bilateral talks began on military co-operation. Above all, after long blocking Turkey’s hopes of eventual EU membership, George Papandreou, the Greek foreign minister, declared that it was time for his country to bury the hatchet and help Turkey into Europe.
The thaw with Greece was not the only miracle of that Turkish summer of 1999. The long cold war against Greece to the west had been matched by a 15-year anti-insurgency campaign against Kurdish separatists in the east. Indeed, the two struggles had recently seemed to come together. In February 1999, Turkish agents had seized Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK (the Kurdish Workers Party), the most militant and effective of the Kurdish guerrilla groups, at his hideout in Kenya-a hideout, it…