EU eases Balkan tensions: Greeks and Turks are learning at last to live together in harmony, writes Hugh Pope in Komotini

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The Independent Online
CENTURIES of mingling has never quite persuaded Christian Greeks and Muslim Turks to mix. But, with some help from Europe, living side- by-side in the northern Greek provinces of Thrace seems to have become just a little bit easier.

Of course, some things will never change. Greek customs officers greet travellers from Turkey with ostentatious European Union flags and poster-pictures showing Istanbul when it was Constantinople with the Turks outside the walls.

Likewise, Thrace's proud ethnic Turkish descendants of a 700-year Turkish presence and empire can never fully accept the idea of becoming Hellenised Greeks.

'Their goal is to assimilate us,' complained Ahmet Faikoglu, an ethnic Turk ex- parliamentarian deprived of his seat in October's elections by Greek legal juggling. 'But we feel Turkish. And from Salonika to Thrace, just dig and you will find our grandfathers' bones.'

But these Balkan tensions have relaxed, partly because of the development of a more federal Europe. The Union has pumped money into new roads and infrastructure in Thrace, one of the most backward regions, has attracted local Turks to work in Europe instead of Turkey, and offers a prospect of fairer play.

Yesterday, for instance, the Athens government was called before the European Commission of Human Rights to answer a complaint by the main leader of the small Thracian Turkish community, Dr Sadik Ahmet.

'In the past, Turkey was always like a guarantor for us. We have only had Europe since 1980. Let's see what Europe is going to do,' said Dr Ahmet, a qualified surgeon reduced to village consultations and circumcisions after being barred in 1984 from a hospital post in Komotini, the main ethnic Turkish centre.

The fate of the community - now numbering between 50,000 and 100,000 - is still bound up with that of the much-reduced community of 3,000 Greeks left in Istanbul by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which set up modern Turkey. Education is now the most striking victim of the enforced reciprocity, bringing blockades on books and teachers from the mutual 'mother countries.'

So even when the Greek government published a snappy new set of primary school books in Turkish - adorned, of course, with Greek flags to colour in and Aesop's Fables as reading material - the ethnic Turkish community rejected them and kept to their photocopied versions of old-fashioned Turkish grammars.

Simple democratic processes have helped restore confidence after the tensions of the 1980s. Some also credit the former government of Constantine Mitsotakis with a more liberal outlook.

Greater trust between the communities may also be due to Dr Ahmet's calm approach and readiness to give credit where it is due. Dr Ahmet also believes the Greek media's attitude has softened, possibly because of easier travel for Greeks to Turkey.

The return of mutual confidence does not, however, mean the end of divisions between two communities who virtually never intermarry.

The twisting streets and the women in headscarves of the Turkish quarter of Komotini look quite different from the new houses of the Greek suburbs. Turks rarely venture on the touristic main square, where Greek families promenade between open-air cafes and a tea-shop patronised by new ethnic Greek arrivals being encouraged to settle here from the former Soviet Union.

'The Turks don't come to our schools. They go to Turkey and then come back like foreigners. I hate them,' said one Greek student. 'We live in different worlds.'