Turkish PM’s visit to Athens may signal easing of tension

Turkish PM’s visit to Athens may signal easing of tension

President Tayyip Erdoğan likes to hit out at Europe over its “mistaken” attitude toward Turkey. Since last July’s traumatic coup attempt, we have often heard him accusing Europeans of “letting Turkey down,” “not showing enough empathy to the country’s problems,” or “supporting the traitors of his country.”

Germany and Greece have often been at the top of his hit list, with the Turkish president making no effort to conceal his anger. 

It was no different last week. Speaking to private broadcaster Haber 7, Erdoğan once again complained about the injustices against to Turkey. He referred to “certain [states] still hiding terrorists who escaped from Turkey [after the coup attempt],” mentioning Greece and Germany by name. “Right now,” he said, “there over 10 [terrorists] in Greece. Do you know what [the Greeks] are telling us? We cannot interfere with the justice system. Is such an absurdity possible?”   

Erdoğan then went on to attack the EU for its “fascistic practices,” referring to the ban on political rallies by Turkish politicians ahead of the April referendum on shifting to an executive presidential system. He also attacked the U.S. for cooperating with a terrorist organization, referring to the Syrian Kurdish Democratic People’s Party (PYD) “after supplying them with a large number of weapons.” Of course, Erdoğan also reminded everybody that the EU has still not fulfilled its promise to grant Turkey 6 billion euros by the end of 2016 as part of the refugee deal. 

The timing of the reference to Greece in Erdoğan’s outburst requires special attention. He touched upon the issue just before Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s visit to Athens on June 18. The subject of coup soldiers in Greece will likely figure highly in the scheduled talks between Yıldırım and his counterpart Alexis Tsipras, while Yıldırım will probably also refer to the same issue in his meeting with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos. It would be interesting to see whether the Greek side will continue to insist on the prevalence and independence of the Greek courts, knowing Turkey’s sensitivity.

But if the issue of Turkish officers being granted asylum by Greek courts is an important matter, then for the Greek side it is equally important to see that the agreement on refugees remains sustainable. Besides the humanitarian aspect, the issue contains serious economic and political dimensions for the Tsipras government, which has just completed a much-delayed agreement with its eurozone partners that will hopefully lead Greece out of a long recession. The last thing that Greece needs at the moment would be any additional problem that would shake its fragile financial equilibrium.

During his visit to Istanbul last month to attend 25th Anniversary Summit of Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) member states, Pavlopoulos said that from his meetings with Turkish leaders he got the impression that the atmosphere between the two countries has improved. 

If so, it will be interesting to see how this is reflected on today’s high-level talks in Athens. Today’s meeting is a follow-up to the initial meeting and agreements signed on March 8 last year between then prime ministers Alexis Tsipras and Ahmet Davutoğlu in İzmir, but its timing is significant from a number of angles. 

The Cyprus issue is set to be discussed soon once again by both leaders of the divided island, but also in the presence of the representatives of the three guarantor powers: Greece, Turkey and Britain. The Cyprus issue will be among the topics of discussion in Athens between Yıldırım and Davutoğlu. Energy will be also discussed, and the presence of Energy and Natural Resources Minister Berat Albayrak among the Turkish delegation is particularly notable given his expressed views on Turkey’s plans for underwater exploration in the Mediterranean. 

There are signs, at least from the Greek side, that today’s visit of the Turkish delegation may be a starting point for a more peaceful period following recent tension between Athens and Ankara. There may even be hopes for cooperation in several mutually beneficial areas.  

In that case, it will be interesting to see whether the Turkish president’s recent outburst against Greece on the eve of Yıldırım’s visit to Athens was intended as a warning shot or as a green light for a de-escalation of tension.