Economic problems can have positive effects. They are providing the governments in Greece and Turkey with good reasons to follow up their political rapprochement with concrete security measures. Or, as in this case, to abstain from making arms purchases that would ratchet up tensions in the region.

Turkey recently announced that it was postponing 32 arms deals worth $19.5 billion because of the country’s financial crisis. That announcement matched the earlier Greek decision to put off its planned purchase of 60 fighter jets; the government in Athens wants to devote the funds to preparations for the Olympics, which it is scheduled to host in 2004, and poverty assistance.

Both governments acknowledged the bilateral dimension of their decisions. Given the pride each nation has, and the intense rivalry they share, conceding the obvious is no small accomplishment. Greek Foreign Minister Georges Papandreou declared that Ankara’s move “contributes significantly to creating a more relaxed atmosphere in the region” and “could be a prelude to a mutual reduction of arms for the benefit of both of our peoples.”

It will be some time before mutually beneficial unilateral acts give way to a healthy bilateral relationship. The two countries began the process of reconciliation in 1998, and shared tragedy — devastating earthquakes in 1999 — provided the basis for further progress. They have signed nine accords on a variety of issues. Most recently, the governments agreed to cooperate on removing land mines from their shared border.

Progress will be slow. Suspicions run deep, and nationalists will always have a ready scapegoat for problems. Recent events suggest there will be a permanent menu of items to pick from. Turkey’s frustrations over its bid for membership in the European Union and the sheer weight of history are sure to generate more tensions. With political will in both capitals, they can be overcome, however. Creative politicians should be able to create virtue out of necessity.

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