Greeks in two minds about Erdoğan visit
“So, why did we invite him?” asked the young Greek journalist taking part in a TV panel, just after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had left Athens to visit the Muslims minority in the city of Komotini (Gümülcine) on Dec. 8.
“In my 28 years as a diplomatic reporter I have never experienced such a thing,” said another journalist taking part in the panel. He was referring to the unexpected diplomatic row that broke out between Erdoğan - the first Turkish president to visit Greece in 65 years - and Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos in front of the TV cameras.
Pavlopoulos stated that for the visit to become truly “historical” it had to be based on European law and on acceptance of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which for Greece is non-negotiable and cannot be updated. It was obvious that he was indirectly responding to Erdoğan, who had claimed in an interview with a Greek private broadcaster that the Treaty of Lausanne is old, does not take into account contemporary realities, and must be updated.
Pavlopoulos’s opening statement was enough to trigger a strong reaction from Erdoğan. He repeated his position emphatically “live” before the cameras only to cause a further reaction by Pavlopoulos, who, referring to his academic credentials as a professor of law, explained at length why this was not possible. He received a brisk counter-reply from Erdoğan, who stressed his own expertise in politics. This exchange was a first of its kind in Greek-Turkish relations, lasting more than 30 minutes and leaving onlookers aghast.
Erdoğan’s Athens adventure did not stop there. A few hours later, during his press conference with Greek Prime Minister Alexi Tsipras, he repeated the same position (albeit in a milder manner). This time he received a response from Tsipras, who went as far as to question the issue of opening Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia to Muslim prayers by the Turks.
Still, by the evening, during the official banquet, the tension seems to have dissipated, with Erdogan in his dinner speech referring to the benefits to both sides from “doing business together.” During his subsequent visit to Komotini he, among others, advised members of the Muslim minority to “act as good Greek citizens.”
So was Erdogan’s visit to Greece ultimately a “diplomatic flop”?
That is what the Greek opposition thinks, and it is voicing this loudly. They accuse the government, saying such an important visit was ill-prepared despite the fact that there was ample time to organize a pre-arranged schedule as Erdoğan accepted Pavlopoulos’s invitation back in May. If there had been more preparation, they say, such an ugly on-camera undiplomatic exchange would never have happened.
Since Erdoğan’s quiet departure, Tsipras’s spokespeople have fought to convince everyone that the visit was well-prepared, that it was an opportunity for both sides to “speak openly” about everything that divides them, and to work on finding solutions. Already teams from both sides are set to meet in a High-Level Cooperation Council platform in Thessaloniki on Dec. 15, where joint technical projects will be on the table.
So now that the initial shock has died away, we can perhaps put another question: Was Erdoğan’s visit useful?
I think it was useful - but not for the improvement of Turkey-Greece relations. It was useful for the leaders involved. The Turkish president was able to show to his domestic audience that he stood up and defended his people, even by asking for an “updating” of the historic Treaty of Lausanne that gave birth to the Republic of Turkey. It was also useful for Greek leaders, who were able to show that they stood up against any threat or challenge to their country’ s integrity, even if it comes from a direction that could bring Greece much-needed economic benefits.
But let’s wait before we judge; and let’s hope that the momentum this visit initiated is not lost. Unfortunately, the signs are not good. The impact of the visit has already faded: Turkey’s agenda has already switched to Jerusalem and Greece’s politicians have already returned to their infighting.