Lausanne: a possibility for a new beginning with Greece?

Lausanne: a possibility for a new beginning with Greece?

The unexpected reference by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the Treaty of Lausanne in his latest address to local community leaders last week understandably caused a wave of reactions both by the opposition in Turkey and by the Greek political establishment. The strong reaction by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, already reported widely in the Turkish media, was labelled as “opportunistic” by his Turkish counterpart. But Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos took it one step further. During a ceremony last Saturday at the unveiling of the “Monument for Asia Minor” in the city of Kalamata in the Peloponnese, Pavlopoulos – himself a law professor – underlined the legal repercussions of challenging the validity of the Lausanne Treaty. “The Treaty of Lausanne is an integral part of international law, compliance is mandatory and any breach of it results in the imposition of sanctions according to international law,” he said. 

Since Erdoğan’s statement, the debate over the real merits of the Lausanne Treaty for contemporary Turkey have now developed into a debate over the way the Justice and Development Party (AK party) over its 13 years in power has dealt with its relations with Greece. And it has grown into a clash between the government and the official opposition, with the latter accusing the governing party of not having sorted out the outstanding issues with Greece in the Aegean. And although the Turkish prime minister, Binali Yildirim, warned the head of the official opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) that “he won’t gain anything by doing politics over the Lausanne Treaty,” a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry last Saturday touched specifically upon Aegean issues. The statement called the allegations by the opposition that there has been a transfer of sovereignty of some islands and islets to “another country” since 2003 as “completely untrue.” It pointed out that “there are some existing problems linked with some islets and rocks in the Aegean” and with the fact that “there is no valid international agreement regarding the sea borders with Greece.” It also underlined that there has not been any change in the legal status of the Aegean islands, islets and rocks in the last 13 years and added that the Aegean issue is being addressed within the framework of the existing channels of dialogue between Turkey and Greece. 

By “existing channels of dialogue” one can only assume that the statement of the Turkish Foreign Ministry refers to the secret “exploratory talks” which have been going on since the late 1990s between high-level delegations of Turkey and Greece after the Kardak/Imia crisis and the “earthquake diplomacy” policy that followed. They were set up with the aim precisely of finding solutions to the outstanding issues between the two countries. 

But, in spite of the strong verbal support by successive political leaders of each country, this ongoing dialogue has not come to an end, and the contents of the talks have remained secret from the public. Critics have claimed that both sides, for their own reasons, have preferred to deal with “low politics” issues such as tourism and culture but have been reluctant to touch upon “high policy” issues where differences remain. 
This year’s round was announced by both sides with a single-line official announcement: “The 60th round of the exploratory talks between Turkey and Greece will take place in Athens on March 1.”

But it was not how the two sides had announced their meeting a few months before. The 59th meeting had taken place on Dec. 23, 2015, in Ankara in an atmosphere of a “new beginning” and with the newly elected Syriza-led government in power in Greece. After meeting in Ankara, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias and his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that they had agreed to intensify talks on the thorny issue of the continental shelf, promote confidence-building measures and back a new round of peace talks on Cyprus. “It is our shared desire to resolve the problems in the Aegean... and to reduce tensions and disputes,” they said. 

Last year, major developments in the region changed the political dynamics in both countries. Whatever considerations or national interests prevented each side from committing itself to concrete policies all these years may not be valid any longer. Perhaps it is time to think things over. And the recent flare-up in bilateral tension could be an opportunity for a new impetus for bilateral dialogue and for both sides to move from the exploratory stage to the stage of concrete conclusions.