Defense ministers too thaw relations in the wake of Tsipras visit to Turkey

Defense ministers too thaw relations in the wake of Tsipras visit to Turkey

This has been an important month for the way the relations between Turkey and Greece are heading, albeit not in terms of concrete results or substantive steps, but in symbolism and expectations.

The two-day working visit of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to Turkey last week was spent both in Ankara and Istanbul. I think we all agree that the meeting of the Greek prime minister with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the Presidential Palace in Ankara had none of the atmosphere of tension and nervousness that had marred their meeting in Athens at the end of 2017. Then, the Greek government received quite a lot of bashing from the opposition for an “unprepared and unnecessary visit,” which produced no results but fueled division. Many saw it as adding to bilateral tension already boiling up around the issues of Aegean and oil/gas exploration rights in the east Mediterranean.

There was no antagonism last week between the two leaders except for an unconfirmed rumor that was circulated on the part of the Greek media. According to it, the reason for the two-hour delay in the Greek prime minister’s arrival in Ankara — for which no official explanation has been given so far — was that the Turkish side did not initially approve of the visit of Tsipras to the Halki Seminary but had to allow it when Tsipras threatened to cancel his visit to Turkey altogether.

But even if that was true, the rest of the trip went ahead and both leaders kept their tone at an acceptable friendly level, although the demand for the extradition of the eight Turkish officers who escaped to Greece, accused as FETÖ members by Turkey, was put forward by Erdoğan to which Tsipras responded again by saying the matter concerned the judiciary not him.

However, in spite of the agreeable atmosphere in Tsipras’s visit to Ankara, the meetings between the Turkish and Greek delegations did not produce any concrete results. Both sides demonstrated more of an intention to start a new process in the near future rather than show that they were ready to sign binding agreements. Actually, it was Erdoğan himself who noted to Tsipras that “we do not have any agreement to sign” as Tsipras revealed during their joint press conference. They will have agreements to sign, they said, very soon when their High-Level Cooperation Council meets in Thessaloniki, without giving an exact date.

Perhaps we do not have to wait until then in order to see some concrete signs of what the two sides agreed to in Ankara.

“The climate was exceptionally good, smiles, patting on the shoulder and all,” reported several journalists who followed the meeting of the defense ministers of Turkey and Greece last Wednesday, on the side lines of NATO’s ministerial summit in Brussels.

Defense ministers Hulusi Akar and Evangelos Apostolakis have got lots in common: They were both former chiefs of staff of their respective armed forces, they already knew each other and kept the “lines of communication open,” and they were both given their respective countries’ defense portfolios. They are also known to have come up with some very harsh statements against each other’s defense policy, especially regarding the Aegean.

“They have agreed to go back in time and start the Confidence Building Measures as agreed by Yılmaz-Papoulias Memorandum of Understanding,” many sources reported from Brussels.

There is an interesting historical coincidence with all that. Last week there was the centennial anniversary of the birth of Andreas Papandreou, former prime minister of Greece. Actually, he was born on Feb. 5, the date of Tsipras’ arrival in Turkey last week. He has been a major political figure who dominated post-coup Greece, fondly remembered by many, although his Socialist party has now shrunk to a single-digit percentage. It was during his term, though, that the Aegean became a sea of dispute and tension with Turkey over exploration rights. The 1987 Aegean Crisis brought the two countries close to war, but eventually following the intervention of NATO and the U.S. led to the “Davos Process” when Papandreou and the late President Turgut Özal met and decided to launch a dialogue. This led to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding 32 years ago by the then two foreign ministers Mesut Yılmaz and Karolos Papoulias for avoiding accidental conflicts in air and sea and resulted with the first official visit by a Turkish president to Greece in 46 years.

Of course, things again went wrong later and the two countries came to the brink of another hot conflict during the Kardak/Imia crisis, whose 23rd anniversary we commemorated last month.

Given all that, we cannot but hope that the Akar-Apostolakis meeting will not be a date of false expectations in the calendar of Turkish-Greek relations, but a date of a beginning of a meaningful and beneficial process for all parties involved.