Another round of talks; this time in Athens

Another round of talks; this time in Athens

I think we all remember - with mixed feelings - the last time the Turkish and the Greek foreign ministers met. It was in Ankara in the Presidential Palace of Beştepe on April 15. It was preceded by a “very cordial” meeting between Niko Dendias and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - according to the Turkish president’s own description. And the day was Thursday, because the day after, Erdoğan spoke about it after the Friday prayers. Why do we have such detailed recollections of that meeting? Simply because it was the first time we witnessed a non-diplomatic fight between the two ministers in front of the cameras where everybody saw with their own eyes how raw feelings of anger and frustration could go out of control even between professional diplomats.

That meeting, and particularly the confrontational press conference which followed it, sparked a debate in both countries on the usefulness of such display of discord against the greater problematic picture of Turkish-Greek relations.

The question now is that are we going to have a clearer idea of which way bilateral talks will be heading after the upcoming meeting between Dendias and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu due to take place on coming Monday, May 31, in Athens?

According to Greek sources, the meeting between the two foreign ministers is likely to be preceded by another meeting between Çavuşoğlu and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on Monday morning. If that goes ahead, then it will be a reciprocal move to match the reception by Erdoğan of the Greek foreign minister in Ankara. Mitsotakis himself neither denied nor confirmed a meeting with the Turkish foreign minister. When asked about it yesterday, he said, “What I can tell you is that if our plans coincide, of course, I have all the good intention to meet with him, as President Erdoğan also met with the foreign minister when he went to Turkey.” It was an answer which, in my opinion, confirmed the meeting.

Another detail of the agenda of this visit was announced yesterday by the Turkish Foreign Ministry that Çavuşoğlu before going to Athens, will visit Western Thrace the day before the meeting, i.e. on Sunday, May 30. The visit of Çavuşoğlu to the Muslim-Turkish minority in Western Thrace was read in various critical ways by Greek commentators who think that as the eastern Mediterranean has somewhat quietened down once Turkey pulled back its research and drillships, Ankara is now planning to raise the issue of the Turkish minority in Thrace. There may be another explanation, though. During the last meeting of Çavuşoğlu-Dendias back in April, the Greek foreign minister, the day before going to Ankara, met with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who is also the leader of the Greek Orthodox minority in Turkey. So, in that sense, Çavuşoğlu will be following the same order of diplomatic procedure by visiting the Muslim minority in Western Thrace.

As to whether we should expect a breakthrough in the attitude of both sides towards their bilateral issues, I think this is not very likely. The time since the last meeting is too short for both sides to have managed to alter the negative atmosphere and the statements that followed did not indicate the opposite. Both sides carried on the same aggressive rhetoric against each other, showing no intention to de-escalate the existing tension.

However, there is an element of Çavuşoğlu’s visit that is worth noting. I copy from the official announcement of the Turkish Foreign Ministry: “The foreign ministers of Turkey and Greece agreed in Ankara on April 15 to promote a positive agenda in the economic and trade sectors. In this context, Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Sedat Önal will meet with Mr. Kostas Fragogiannis, the deputy minister for Economic Diplomacy and Openness in the Greek Foreign Ministry, in Kavala on the 29th, 2021.”

I am wondering whether we might have some kind of joint decision regarding public diplomacy initiatives that would justify Mr. Fragogiannis’ participation. Besides being the city of the Greek deputy minister’s birth, Kavala is a major regional city of Macedonia, which is very popular among Turkish tourists.

There are more reasons why we should not expect a dramatic change in the atmosphere between the two sides on Monday. Both countries are looking forward to defining their relationship with the new Biden administration. On June 14, the Turkish president is set to meet the American president in person on the sidelines of the NATO Summit. The meeting will be important for the recalibration of Turkey-U.S. relations, but it may also affect the climate of the relations between Europe and Turkey and consequently between Turkey and Greece. Let us not forget that on June 24, the EU Summit will evaluate Turkey’s behavior and weigh it against issues like migrants, customs union, etc., as well as the state of the Greek-Turkish affairs, to decide whether the positive agenda with Turkey should continue.

One thing is certain that June will be a very hot month.

Ariana Ferentinou,