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Reciprocal insincerity: Trends in treatment of minorities in Greece, Turkey

HDN | 1/24/2011 12:00:00 AM | DIMOSTENIS YAĞCIOĞLU

The Turkish government has not radically changed its reciprocity-based approach to minority-related issues such as the Heybeliada seminary and minority education.

The visit of Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdoğan to Athens on May 14-15, 2010, and the 21 agreements signed during this visit, marked an important step toward further cooperation between Greece and Turkey. Be that as it may, the governments of the two countries were once again unable to make any decisions that would directly meet the demands of minorities. The Greek government appears reluctant at this stage to start any substantial initiatives regarding the demands of the Turkish-Muslim minority in Greece, and so does, although arguably less so, the Turkish government regarding the Greek-Orthodox minority in Turkey.

The Greek government cloaks its own reluctance with a rejection of the “reciprocity” principle, whereas the Turkish government tries to justify its own reluctance by invoking – not directly but implicitly – that very same principle. Therefore, both governments are disingenuous about reciprocity.

In international relations and treaties, the principle of reciprocity states that benefits, favors or penalties granted by one state to the citizens or legal entities of another should be returned in kind.

Within the framework of international law, it is not considered legitimate for a government to use reciprocity in matters that directly affect the rights, freedoms and well-being of citizens of its own state, even when these citizens have ethnic and/or religious ties with another nation.

Despite these facts, governments in both Greece and Turkey have used Article 45 of the Lausanne Treaty as the justification for applying the principle of reciprocity.

Greek Foreign Minister Droutsas stated in an interview that his government was not “going to allow anyone to put the Muslim minority to the mill of a negatively meant reciprocity.” That was not the first time Mr. Droutsas made an anti-reciprocity statement. The same view was also expressed by Greek Prime Minister Papandreou in a reply letter sent to the Turkish prime minister.

Yet, the foreign and prime ministers, while rejecting reciprocity rhetorically, have neither responded positively to demands of the Turkish-Muslim minority, nor have they talked about any changes in minority education, where reciprocity is still being implemented by law. Reciprocity constitutes a major obstacle to reforms and modernization in minority education in both countries. It discourages both governments from taking new steps or from approving minority-based new initiatives because they are reluctant to give such rights to the other government or the other minority to do the same.

The Ministry of Education in Greece, having long realized the limiting nature of reciprocity in the education of the Turkish-Muslim minority, has been trying to circumvent it through some partial measures since the mid-1990s. In fact, the ministry, in all the steps it took to improve the quality of education for minority children – steps that make it easier for them to learn Greek, to be accepted into Greek universities and to integrate into mainstream society – opted to cleverly ignore the criterion of reciprocity. When it comes to the Turkish-language portion of minority education, however, the Greek government in general, and the Ministry of Education in particular, still deems it necessary to use reciprocity. That makes any attempt to bring this second part of minority education up to date very difficult.

What would be an indication that the Greek government is sincere when it says that it wants to liberate the minority from the constraints of reciprocity? Such an indication would include the government giving more weight to European agreements on minority rights and showing more respect to judgments of the European Court of Human Rights pertaining to minority issues. Sadly, we do not see specific steps in this direction. For example, the Greek courts are still refusing to recognize the Turkish Union of Xanthi [Iskeçe], the Association of Turkish Women of Rhodope, and the Minority Youth Association of Evros, despite judgments from the European Court condemning Greece for not recognizing them.

In short, the anti-reciprocity rhetoric of the Greek government is actually hiding an unwillingness to take any new steps toward resolving the problems of the minority.

In the last few years, the Turkish government has adopted the following rhetoric: “It is not appropriate to apply the reciprocity principle to minority rights, but…” However, the same government then raises demands that can only be derived from the logic of reciprocity.

For instance, during a press conference in Athens, Prime Minister Erdoğan responded to a question regarding the possible re-opening of the Heybeliada (Halki) Greek Orthodox Seminary by recalling the issue of non-recognition of the elected muftis in Thrace by the Greek government. In other words, Mr. Erdoğan sent the message that, “If Greece wanted the reopening of the seminary, then elected muftis should be recognized in return.”

Even if we accept the logic of reciprocity (which we should not), raising the issue of the elected muftis as equivalent to the issue of the seminary and the patriarchate shows a strange and distorted understanding of this principle. First of all, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Istanbul is not a government employee or a civil servant, unlike the official (not the elected) muftis in Thrace, who are considered civil servants and receive their salary from the Greek state. The state also pays for the expenses of the muftis’ offices and for their employees. In addition, since 1926, the patriarch has had no adjudicator powers for his own community in matters of family law. In contrast, the official muftis in Thrace do have such powers and act as “kadı” (a judge who adjudicates on the basis of the Islamic shariah law). To resolve the problem of “dual muftis” in Thrace, it is essential to pass new legislation changing the status of the mufti and its office. The mufti should no longer be a government functionary and a judge, but strictly a spiritual/religious leader. The Greek government has indicated no intention to change the law regarding the muftis. Yet, even if it did attempt to change that law, it would not be surprising to see negative reactions from Turkey and many members of the minority.

What is more, the assertion Mr. Erdoğan made in the same press conference that the Turkish state does not interfere with the election of the patriarchs is not exactly true. Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic, prior to every patriarchal election, the list of names of the candidates has been submitted to the governor of Istanbul. The governor can, for any reason and without providing any explanation, reject the names of the candidates he deems unacceptable – and he has rejected many in the past. It is impossible for the prime minister not to be aware of this fact.

Therefore, we need to read between the lines of Mr. Erdoğan’s demand: Currently, the prime minister may not be willing to take a radical step to solve the problems of the patriarchate, and may be masking his unwillingness through this reciprocity-related demand. He may be linking issues related to the patriarchate to issues related to the muftis, knowing that this linkage would be rejected by Greece, thereby giving himself a justification not to take any further step. It is, therefore, very difficult to accept that his position and rhetoric are sincere.

Even so, it would be unfair not to acknowledge some symbolic moves by the Turkish government in the last few months. That the patriarch was allowed to conduct a service at the Sümela Virgin Mary Monastery in Trabzon attended by a large number of Greek Orthodox Christians was a very welcome gesture. That the government gave Turkish citizenship to the foreign bishops of the Holy Synod, thus legitimizing their membership in this council was also positive.

These moves notwithstanding, the Turkish government has not radically changed its reciprocity-based approach to minority-related issues: It still indirectly demands reciprocity regarding the seminary and minority education. It also insists that minority issues should be resolved through Turkish-Greek inter-governmental negotiations – through the give-and-take between governments.

* Dimostenis Yağcıoğlu is a former scientific consultant for intercultural and minority education at the Ministry of Education, Life-Long Learning and Religious Affairs in Greece. The full version of this article was published in the Fall 2010 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly at www.turkishpolicy.com.

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