Greeks await Erdoğan’s visit with fingers crossed

Greeks await Erdoğan’s visit with fingers crossed

The announcement and confirmation was brief and late.

“President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will pay a visit to Greece on Dec. 7-8, 2017 at the invitation of President Prokopis Pavlopoulos of Greece,” was the announcement posted on the official site of the Turkish Presidency last Saturday.

We have known about this visit since last May, when Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos attended the 25th Anniversary of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), where both Turkey and Greece are among founding member states. In spite of the cancellation of a planned meeting between the two presidents, Erdoğan and Pavlopoulos, they managed to shake hands and Pavlopoulos invited him to Athens.

However, it took more than seven months of preparation. During this time, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım visited Athens last June accompanied by his key ministers, followed by Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias who was received by Erdoğan during a quick visit in October and then followed by a visit of Turkish Deputy PM Hakan Cavuşoğlu to Athens in early November.

During these months of preparations, very little inside information was given by the media of both countries, except for a standard narrative for the historical importance of the visit as this “would be the first visit of a Turkish President to Greece after 52 years, after Celal Bayar; so both countries should increase their channels of communication to ease their disagreements and tensions and develop closer economic cooperation.”

Returning from Ankara last October, Greek FM Kotzias announced that President Erdoğan had accepted the invitation from his counterpart Pavlopoulos to visit Athens, and that there were “a few details” to be sorted out before Ankara confirmed the date. However, he said it was expected “at the end of November, beginning of December.” Interestingly, according to the Greek press, the official invitation by Pavlopoulos was handed over to the Turkish Ambassador in Athens only last Saturday.

What were the details that delayed the official confirmation? We are not in the position to know, but we can guess.

The government of Alexis Tsipras has been walking on a tight rope lately. The economic crisis has brought drastic changes in the media landscape. Traditional media groups have been bought by new powerful bosses, several of whom are coming very hard against the government in favor of the opposition. They are recently “discovering” cases of government corruption—a sensitive issue for a young leftist-led government whose powerful advantage over the “old parties” was honesty.

During the last days, Tsipras’s coalition partner and Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, has been at the center of coordinated attacks by opposition parties and anti-government media for a failed ammunition sales contract between Greece and Saudi Arabia.

There is also a new political landscape, which might pose a severe threat to Syria. The new united socialist-leftist coalition under the name “Movement for Change” has already climbed to the third place in opinion polls with an upward trend with the main opposition party of New Democracy remaining at the top of the list.

So, Erdoğan’s presence in Athens may have an impact on domestic politics. The last thing Tsipras wants would be an “unexpected” statement by Erdoğan, either in Athens or in Thrace, where we now know he is expected to visit the Muslim community. Any such statement may be viewed as a failure by the government to organize the visit properly and thus, a harm to national interests. For example, will he address the Muslims in Thrace as the “Turkish community,” something officially not acceptable by Athens? And would he comment on the recently approved measure allowing Muslim Greek citizens to opt out of the sharia code still in effect in Thrace, to seek justice in Greek civil courts? Will he repeat his demand for the eight FETÖ (Fethullahist Terrorist Organization) officers demanded by Ankara to be handed over to Turkey? Will he touch upon the situation in the Aegean?

“We are welcoming this visit because there must always be open channels of communication between the two countries …But it has to produce results, not be an image-improving visit for Turkey or a PR exercise” said the spokesman for the New Democracy party.

The worst scenario for the Greeks will be if Erdoğan uses the platform of Greece to deliver a harsher rhetoric against the West (targeting both Europe and the United States). That would make things worse for Tsipras, who may be accused of amateur handling of such a historical occasion.

The best scenario would be if Erdoğan uses his visit to launch a new more conciliatory approach to Europe while relations with the U.S. are getting worse due to the Zarrab trial and the thorny issue of the PYD (Democratic Union Party) Kurds in Syria.