Can Erdoğan and Tsipras make a difference on Turkish-Greek ties?

Can Erdoğan and Tsipras make a difference on Turkish-Greek ties?

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will pay a two-day visit to Ankara and Istanbul on Feb. 5 and 6 upon the invitation of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Although an initial program suggested Istanbul as the venue of the Erdoğan-Tsipras meeting, the two leaders will meet in the Turkish capital after a last-minute change in the plans.

For many obvious reasons, a visit by a Greek prime minister to Turkey, and vice versa, is always a very important development in this neighborhood. Tsipras’ visit is no different at all given the long list of unresolved bilateral and regional problems between Ankara and Athens.

However, it’s always good to start from positive notes. First is about Tsipras, himself. He fairly earned respect in the eyes of the Turkish public opinion as well as in the governmental circles for successfully navigating his country in the dire straits by recovering its almost bankrupt economy. The Greek prime minister’s positive approach on better bilateral ties and his efforts to this end have also been taken as affirmative notes by Ankara. His dialogue with former Turkish prime ministers, Ahmet Davutoğlu and Binali Yıldırım, and of course with Erdoğan — even at the hardest times — has never been cut. It may be well predicted that this mood on Tsipras will prevail during his talks with Erdoğan on Tuesday, although both leaders will continue to spar on so many issues.

The second important point is the timing of this visit. It comes days after the Greek parliament approved an end to a name dispute with Macedonia, which has changed its name to the Republic of North Macedonia. Tsipras stood tall against his far-right coalition partner, whose ministers resigned from the government. The Greek premier nearly escaped a confidence vote in parliament and signaled that early elections loom this spring. Turkey, which has always lent support to Macedonia’s integration with European institutions, openly welcomed the Greek approval of the Prespa Agreement through a written official statement.

Given the geographical and cultural similarities, as well as the potential for further boosting cooperation between the two nations, one would wish to extend this list of positive notes. But that’s all for now.

The rest is about unresolved problems, bilaterally and regionally. On the bilateral front, Erdoğan and Tsipras will surely discuss more the problems stemming from the Aegean Sea. In 2002, Turkey and Greece had launched “exploratory talks” in order to determine the problems and best ways to address them. The 60th and the last meeting of this mechanism were held in early 2016. There is an expectation that these talks would resume upon the instructions of Erdoğan and Tsipras along with a number of confidence-building measures.

The departure of former Defense Minister Panos Kammenos from the Greek cabinet surely gives hopes for enhanced talks between the two countries. Both militaries refrained to commemorate the 23rd anniversary of the Kardak crisis, when the two countries came to the brink of a war due to an islet whose sovereignty is, still, disputed. Furthermore, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar sent a congratulatory letter to the new Greek defense minister, Evangelos Apostolakis, inviting him to Turkey for an official visit. All these are signs of the Turkish government’s intention to re-engage with Greece to resolve problems with regards to the use of the Aegean Sea.

Erdoğan and Tsipras will also talk on Cyprus and the growing hydro-carbon dispute between Turkey and Greek Cyprus. The Turkish position is not categorically against the Greek Cypriot-led exploration activities, but insists that all these efforts should be held with the participation of the Turkish Cypriots. A mechanism to be set up by the EU along with other international companies to oversee the rights of the Turkish Cypriots is necessary, Ankara says, which in return has already launched its own exploration activities off the island.

That is of course one of the results of the failure in finding a solution to the Cyprus problem. The leaders will sure discuss the prospects of a new U.N. effort, but political situation does not promise much for any willing party.

Erdoğan and Tsipras will also talk about fugitive Turkish soldiers who were given asylum even though they had attempted to overthrow the government through a coup in July 2016. Turkey was pretty sure that Tsipras tried hard to reverse the situation and extradite them. Erdoğan, who paid a historic visit to Western Thrace in 2017, will certainly bring forth the problems of the Turkish minority, while Tsipras will sure demand the re-opening of the Halki Seminary.

The list of problems could be extended, but this column has a limited space. To make it short, this visit by Tsipras speaks for itself and should be counted as a positive development for the sustained dialogue between the two capitals. The second positive aspect would be if they can come up with an announcement for the resumption of the Aegean exploratory talks.

Turkish-Greek ties need a positive trend and this move would boost that. It would also set an example for Cypriot talks. It’s our hope that the Tsipras-Erdoğan meeting will inject a piece of hope for peace and stability in our region.