Many labelled the visit of the Turkish President to Greece early on December as historic. It had been more than six decades since a Turkish President stepped his foot in Athens, and during that time the relations between the two neighbors reached the point of arm confrontation many times. This visit was seen by many as an opportunity to lay new ground in the bilateral relations and find common points of contact.
However, no matter the expectations, the visit got off to a rocky start due to remarks from President Recep Tayyip Erdoḡan ahead of his journey. Speaking to a Greek journalist a day before this trip in Athens and west Thrace, Erdoḡan appeared hostile towards his future host.
With revanchist rhetoric, the Turkish President called again for the revision of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, that consists the cornerstone of the foundation of modern Turkey and it is one of the treaties that define the borders between Greece and Turkey.
During the interview, Erdoḡan’s claims did not stop on the revision of the key border treaty. The Turkish President accused the Greek justice system as inadequate, insufficient and unjust because of the Greek Supreme Court turned down Turkey’s extradition requests for alleged coup soldiers. In its decision, the Greek Supreme Court states that Greece will not extradite the soldiers to Turkey because there is no legal guarantee that in their country they will have a fair trial. Moreover, when asked about the daily provocations from the Turkish air force against Greece- that usually end up being “dog fights” over Aegean Sea-, Erdoḡan replied that the Turkish pilots are simply “too young” and “inexperienced”, but “with time they will learn”.
These comments provoked rage in Greece and cultivated a negative climate amongst the people. Many of them kept questioning the motives behind Erdoḡan’s invitation in the country.
When the Turkish President arrived in Greece, he stunned his host since the beginning with his authoritative demands for the amendment of the Lausanne Treaty. In his initial address towards to his Greek counterpart, President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, Erdoḡan once again condemned the Greek justice system and at the same time, he demanded from the Greek government to make improvements regarding the situation of the Muslim minority in the country.
President Pavlopoulos immediately clarified to his counterpart that the Lausanne Treaty does not need revision and that in Greece the justice system is impartial.
Following his meeting with Pavlopoulos, Erdoḡan met the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras. During the common press conference, the Turkish President continued to exchange barbs with his host. Tsipras tried to have a more diplomatic approach towards the Turkish President, but when everything failed he underlined to Erdoḡan that a foreign country should not be meddling in the internal affairs of Greece and that only Athens is responsible for the well-being of its citizens. Simultaneously, he pinpointed to Erdoḡan the Turkish violations of the Lausanne Treaty regarding the Hellenic minority in Istanbul.
At the same time, Tsipras ruled out any amendment of the treaty and after a rocky start, he tried to ameliorate the atmosphere. “Differences have always existed, and they exist today,” said Tsipras. “It is important that we express our disagreements in a constructive way without being provocative”.
On that note, he announced that the two countries had agreed to revive a consultation process for confidence-building measures while enhancing the ties in commerce and manufacture.
How have the relations between the two counties changed?
Since the last time a Turkish President visited Athens, in 1952, tensions have run high many times.
Starting from September 1955 the Turkish government targeted the Greek minority in Istanbul, after false news of a dynamite explosion near the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki.
Thousands of Turks roamed through the city and assaulted the Greek community for nine hours. Over a dozen of people died during or after the attacks due to beating and arsons. After the first military coup intervention in Turkey, it was proven that Adnan Menderes’ government deliberately plotted the explosion in the consulate and had designed the pogrom against the Greek minority in advance.
The bilateral relations between Turkey and Greece took a toll in the summer of 1974, after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Turkey at the time feared that Cyprus could unite with Greece, losing this way any say she had over the Turko-Cypriot community on the island. To the day, Turkey still unlawfully occupies the Northern Part of Cyprus.
In 1995 a committee of the Turkish Parliament issued a casus belli against Greece in case she decides to extend her territorial waters from 6 nautical miles to 12 nautical miles, as it is her right according to international law. In January 1996, both countries reached the breach of war over a pair of uninhabited Aegean Islands, known as Kardak in Turkey and as Imia in Greece. These islands according to the 1947 Paris Treaty belong to Greece, something that Ankara refuses to recognise. The crisis was averted with the mediation of NATO.
The earthquakes that hit Istanbul and Athens in 1999 prompted a rapprochement between the two counties, and later that year in the Helsinki Summit, Greece supported Turkey’s bid for the European Union. In the aftermath of 1999, diplomatic ties of Athens and Ankara have improved, with ups and downs always present.
Nevertheless, Ankara continues to daily provoke Athens with military overflights of the Greek airspace and challenges the Greek sovereignty over certain islands in Aegean. Simultaneously, Ankara continues the transgressions of traffic regulations of the Athens’ Flight Information Region (F.I.R.), endangering this way the entire aviation security of the region.
A new rift was created between Turkey and Greece after the failed coup attempt in July 2016. Although Greece was one of the first countries to speak against the failed military intervention in Turkey, President Erdoḡan accuses Greece of providing “safe haven” to soldiers that allegedly participated in the coup attempt. The Greek Supreme Court is refusing to extradite to Turkey 10 soldiers on the grounds of possible human rights violations and the right to a fair trial.
How was this visit different from the others?
As said at the beginning, many media in both countries and around the world hailed the visit as historic. The truth, however, is that nothing was different. Both sides have regular meetings since 2010 when Erdogan last visited Athens as Prime Minister. This was the first visit of a Turkish President after the 2017’s referendum when executive powers were transferred from the Prime Minister to the President.
In this visit, we saw both sides remaining on their steadfast positions.
Dimitris Milakas, a diplomatic correspondent for more than 20 years, says that both sides did what they had to do according to the geography of their countries, and therefore according to their national interests.
The only novelty was Erdoḡan’s persistent demands over the Muslim minority in Greece, something that it may be an effort to upgrade the matter in the agenda of the Turkish-Greek bilateral ties. Besides that, Erdoḡan continued his rhetoric regarding the amendment of Lausanne, something that Greece perceives as a threat to her territorial integrity.
So why Erdogan visited Greece?
Even if nothing different came out of this visit, then the question why Erdoḡan went to Greece remains.
We must not forget that Erdoḡan is an international leader in domestic politics. Even if a snap election in Turkey does not happen within the year, the country has presidential and parliamentary elections in November 2019. Erdoḡan has to appeal to his more nationalistic audience. He, also, has to find a way to stop some of the uneasiness that is harboured in Turkey by his authoritarian policies. From Greece, he presented himself to his people as the one who stood up for the rights of their country; the one who “gave a lesson” to the Greeks with whom the historical animosities run high.
Indeed, many pro- Erdoḡan media outlets, hailed his “brave act to call on Greece about the Muslims in Thrace and speak about the revision of Lausanne Treaty”. Moreover, when Erdoḡan visited the Muslim minority in Thrace he demonstrated to his “brothers”- as he called them- that he cares about them and that the movement of Fethullah Gülen in Turkey has vanished. Therefore, they should put their trust solely on him.
His visit to Greece was also a reminder to the West, especially to the USA, that Turkey has borders with Greece.
“The US decision to upgrade their military presence in Thrace in the port of Alexandroupolis and therefore close the south stream of Russian natural gas towards Europe impinges on the Russian and Turkish interests. With his visit Erdoḡan reminded that Turkey is close and has borders with Greece”, explained Milakas.
What should we expect now?
Since the beginning of the visit became apparent, that Turkey had no real intention to co-operate with Greece in sensitive matters like the continental shelf in Aegean or the Cyprus settlement. Mainly because Turkey wants to be a hegemonic power in the region, with the so-called neo-ottoman foreign policy still in action.
Christodoulos Yiallourides, professor of International Politics in Panteion University of Athens, says that Turkey wants to create the circumstances to project herself as a hegemonic power and dominate Greece and the rest of the countries in the region.
Having this in mind, professor Yiallourides believes that the possibility of another crisis or an “accident” between the two sides in the Aegean Sea is not to be excluded.
Regardless, everything and the traps that Erdoḡan tried to set up to his host, analysists in Greece agree that the Greek response to the Turkish provocations was correct and brought on centre stage the revanchist rhetoric of Turkey.
They agree that EU’s response towards Turkey regarding the amendment of Lausanne Treaty was timely and it was needed it to put off Erdoḡan.
“Turkey desires to control politically and diplomatically Greece and the surrounding countries in a form of “Finlandization”. This desire makes Athens react and therefore the Greek-Turkish disagreements prolong”, said Yiallourides.
It remains to be seen how far Ankara will go regarding her aspirations in the region, especially with the changing internal political landscape in Turkey and how the Greek side will react this time.