Greek warplanes 311.
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
ATHENS, Greece — Turkish fighter jets streak past remote Greek islands, shattering the calm of sleepy villages and alarming residents and beach-going visitors alike. Greek warplanes are scrambled to intercept them, fighting mock air battles over the Aegean Sea.
The violation of Greek airspace by Turkish warplanes is the most tangible — and frequent — indication of the long-standing tensions between neighbors Greece and Turkey. Although it has waned recently, it is this tension, which brought the two NATO allies to the brink of war three times since 1974, that Athens cites as the reason behind its massive military spending.
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But under its current financial crisis, there are increasing calls for
this spending to be slashed. Ironically, some of the countries which
have provided rescue loans to prevent Athens from being unable to pay
back its debts — and who have been pushing for Greece to implement harsh
austerity measures — also want the country to buy their expensive
warplanes and ships.
Athens came within a hair's breadth of defaulting this month, thanks to a
last minute injection of cash in the form of rescue loans extended by
the International Monetary Fund and other EU countries that use the euro
as their currency.
But the rescue wasn't for free. It came at high interest rates of about 5
percent and only after the government pushed through harsh austerity
measures that slash salaries and pensions, hike taxes and curb public
With the crisis hitting pensioners and workers across the board, the
country's spending on its military often rankles.
Greece funnels billions of euros (dollars) into its military, spending
more of its gross domestic product — 2.8 percent in 2008 — on it than
any other European Union country, and second only in NATO to the United
States. Turkey, by comparison according to the most recent NATO figures
available, spent 1.8 percent of its GDP on military expenditure in 2008.
French European parliament member Daniel Cohn-Bendit has accused leaders
of France and Germany of obliging Greece to maintain arms sales
negotiations with their countries before agreeing to financial aid.
"For the past three months, there were several billions in arms
contracts that we forced Greece to confirm: French frigates ...
helicopters, airplanes, German submarines. It's hypocrisy," Cohn-Bendit
said at a news conference in Paris earlier this month.
"We want to make money ... on the backs of the Greeks," he said.
Both the French and German governments flatly denied the allegations.
Greek Defense Minister Evangelos Venizelos has said Greece aims to slash
military operating costs by up to 25 percent in 2010 from the previous
year, although that would not affect arms procurement programs.
The Turkish prime minister himself made overtures about whittling down
the amount the two countries spend on the military.
"Both countries have very large defense budgets. ... We must reduce
these expenditures and use the money for other purposes," Erdogan told
Greek state television ahead of his visit.
But despite the warm words, no progress was made on issues of defense
spending, a subject which wasn't even on the agenda during Erdogan's
trip to Athens.
Periklis Zorzovilis, president of the Institute of Security and Defense
Analysis in Athens, said that without a substantial change in stance
from Turkey on its relations with Greece, including on flight violations
in the Aegean, Greece can't very well overhaul its own policy regarding
What Athens must do, however, is be more efficient in its arms programs,
Greece has said it needs 40 fighter jets, and both Germany and France
are vying for the contract: Germany wants Greece to buy Eurofighter
planes — made by a consortium of German, Italian, Spanish and British
companies — while France is eager to sell Athens its Rafale fighter
aircraft, produced by Dassault.
Germany is Greece's largest supplier of arms, according to a report
published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in
March, with Athens receiving 35 percent of the weapons it bought last
year from there. Germany sent 13 percent of its arms exports to Greece,
making Greece the second largest recipient behind Turkey, SIPRI said.