ATHENS (Reuters)–President Bill Clinton on Saturday backed Greece’s stance in resolving its Aegean disputes with Turkey but told Athens it was in its interest to end a long history of conflict with its neighbor.
He also warned Turkey that it could not join the European family unless it settled its disputes with European Union member Greece and said the future of the two countries depended on a solution to the Cyprus problem.
"Turkey cannot be a member of Europe until it solves its differences with Greece," Clinton told a wildly applauding audience of Greek business leaders and politicians during a 22-hour stopover in Athens–which was marked by violent anti-American demonstrations.
Despite a recent warming of relations–Greece and Turkey remain at odds over the divided island of Cyprus and rights in the Aegean Sea. The two NATO countries almost went to war over a deserted islet in 1996.
Earlier–Clinton openly backed Greece’s proposal to settle the territorial disputes at an international court and said the future of both countries hinged on settling the Cyprus problem.
"I believe that the disputes in the Aegean between Greece and Turkey should be referred to the International Court of Justice in The Hague–or to some other mutually agreed and generally recognized international dispute resolution mechanism," Clinton said.
Greece–confident of its legal case–has long said Turkey should take any challenge on its territory to The Hague. Turkey has refused–calling for a dialogue on the issue – a move Greece says would imply that Turkey had a claim to the islands.
Clinton praised both countries for recent moves toward improving relations and said it was time for the two Mediterranean neighbors to put the past behind them.
"We cannot move towards the future if we are paralyzed by history," Clinton said in a speech strewn with references to ancient Greek philosophers and historians.
He vowed to make every effort to re-unite Cyprus–divided since Turkey invaded in 1974 after a short-lived coup in Nicosia engineered by the military junta then ruling Greece.
"The status quo is unacceptable," Clinton said–adding the United States backed the island’s efforts to join the European Union.
Turkey–whose EU aspirations have stumbled on Greek objections and protests over its human rights record–does not believe a divided Cyprus is a problem and backs an unrecognized breakaway state in the north of the island.
Clinton said it was in the interest of Greece and the world to bring Turkey closer to Europe–which would also promote a Cyprus solution.
UN-sponsored proximity talks between the island’s Greek and Turkish communities are to be held on December 3.
Clinton–credited with convincing the reluctant Turkish Cypriot side to attend the talks–said he hoped they would produce substantial results.
"The more you can resolve these issues–the brighter the future for both countries will be," he said. "I told the Turks…I do not think this bright future is achievable until there is a resolution of the Cyprus issue."