Greek-Turkish relations blow hot and cold
It was smooth sailing for Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias on his one-day working visit to Ankara on Oct. 24. Shortly after his trip, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan confirmed that he would be visiting Greece soon.
There was, however, no joint press meeting between Kotzias and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu in Ankara. Nor is the date of Erdoğan’s proposed visit to Greece confirmed, akthough Greek and Turkish media outlets have published a flurry of articles stressing the end of November or early December as a possible timeline. A small independent news agency (IBNA) has even stated that the meeting will take place on the weekend of Dec. 7-8.
Expectations are high. After an unusually frosty beginning to the year, with suspected Gülenists released by Greek courts and aggression in the Aegean, both sides now appear to show willingness for de-escalation.
The first step came when Greek President Pavlopoulos attended the BSEC summit in Istanbul in May, though his private meeting with Erdoğan was cancelled at the last minute. Pavlopoulos’ visit was followed by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s trip to Athens in June, when he is said to have conveyed Erdoğan’s wish to visit Greece. Then came Kotzias’s visit to Ankara, followed by Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Hakan Çavuşoğlu, who visited Greece at the end of last week.
Çavuşoğlu, who was born in Komotini (Gümülcine) in Greek Thrace, visited Athens on Nov. 2. But his meeting with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was inexplicably cancelled and he met with his Greek counterpart Yannis Dragasakis instead. Details of the Turkish president’s potential visit to Athens were the main topic and talks reportedly went smoothly.
However, the second leg of Çavuşoğlu’s visit to his city of birth in Thrace caused a stir. He chose to visit the Komotini Turkish Youth Union, which the Greek authorities closed because they do not wish to associate being “Turkish” with the Muslim minority in Greece.
Çavuşoğlu’s visit coincided with a sudden escalation in bilateral military and diplomatic tensions, which began with the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s terse warning against a joint Greek-Egyptian military exercise on the island of Rhodes. Ankara warned that such military activity was prohibited under the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty and amounted to “a violation of international law.”
The Greek Foreign Ministry replied with an equally defiant tone. “Greece has a right to take the necessary measures to effectively defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity on the basis of the provisions of the U.N. Charter,” the official statement said, adding that “Greece was not a party to the Paris Treaty.”
The Greek authorities subsequently released reports of increased Turkish air-force presence over the Aegean, in the area of the islet of Kardak/Imia. “To our neighbor we offer friendship. We want a prosperous Turkey with a European perspective. But Turkey should also provide real proof that it respects international and European law,” the Greek president stated.
So here we are. Only a few days ago Greek and Turkish media outlets were lauding the preparations for Erdoğan’s historic visit to Athens, which would be the first such visit made by a Turkish president since Celal Bayar’s visit in 1952.
The main problem with Turkish-Greek relations is unpredictability. At any given moment “extreme weather conditions” are liable to unsettle whatever has been settled, precipitating a minor or a major crisis. The list of unsolved bilateral issues stretches back a long way, and there have been very few high-level attempts to clear the air.
This time both sides need to make concrete steps forward, each for their own reasons. Athens knows that this historic visit could provide a unique opportunity to “talk business” with their only real interlocutor, the Turkish president.