Turkish, Greek leaders seek PR boost on historic – and tricky – visit
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President Recep Tayyip Erdogan became the first Turkish head of state to visit Greece in more than six decades on Thursday in a landmark trip that quickly exposed long-held historical grievances.
Even before Erdogan set foot on Greek soil, his two-day visit had got off to a rocky start when Turkish jets accompanying him were headed off by Greek aircraft upon entering the country’s airspace. Military sources in Athens said the pilot of the Turkish presidential plane had flatly refused to be escorted by the Greek air force – in an early sign of just how delicate Erdogan’s trip might prove to be.
The two countries are both historic rivals and awkward allies within the NATO alliance shepherded by the United States. While relations have improved over the past two decades, they are still saddled with a divisive past that dates back to the establishment of the modern Turkish republic out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.
The scars of the past were apparent at once on Thursday during an unusually blunt exchange between the Turkish president and his Greek counterpart, whose role is largely ceremonial. The thinly veiled spat revolved around a 1923 treaty that defines Turkey’s land and maritime borders with Greece, and which Erdogan says is in need of an “update”.
Seated alongside a stern-looking Erdogan, Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos stated that the Treaty of Lausanne, which gave Greece ownership of most islands in the Aegean Sea, is “non-negotiable” and “does not need to be revised”. He added: "It is clear that to achieve our goals and to make this visit a historic one, […] requires the full respect of international law."
Pavlopoulos also dismissed Erdogan’s claims that a 100,000-strong Muslim community of Turkish origin in northeastern Greece, which the Turkish leader will visit on Friday, was the target of discrimination.
The tone was markedly calmer later in the day when Erdogan met the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, with whom he has developed a cordial relationship.
"There have always been differences between our countries and the positions of each country are well known," Tsipras told his guest in televised remarks. "What matters is that beyond those differences, we look for common ground and that the differences are addressed in a constructive way, with respect for the other's opinion and without provocation or exaggeration."
Greece’s left-wing prime minister said it was important to expand communications with Turkey during “a period of tension in European-Turkish relations”. He said the two sides would launch “confidence-building measures” and expressed a readiness to address the thorny issue of navigation and exploration in the Aegean Sea while stressing that “Turkish violations [of Greece’s airspace] must end”.
According to Dr Othon Anastasakis, the director of South East European Studies at Oxford University, the Greek leader is hoping Erdogan’s visit will help raise both his international profile and his standing at home.
“Tsipras wants to come across as a leader who connects and builds bridges with Turkey at a time when Erdogan is experiencing major difficulties with the West,” Anastasakis told FRANCE 24.
“Everything has to do with internal politics,” said Anastasakis. “Erdogan has come under a lot of criticism at home for alienating Western countries and parts of the Turkish military,” he added, referring to the sweeping crackdown on army and other officials that followed a botched coup last year.
Turkey's ties with the EU and several European countries have deteriorated significantly as a result of the post-coup crackdown. Tens of thousands of Turks have been fired from their jobs, and tens of thousands more have been imprisoned on accusations of being linked, however tenuously, with Fethullah Gulen, the US-based Islamic cleric Erdogan blames for masterminding the coup.
Erdogan’s frequent vitriolic outbursts have further estranged European leaders. Earlier this year, he accused officials in several European countries of “Nazi practices” after they cancelled Turkish election rallies on their territory, citing security concerns.
In this fractious context, Ankara’s relations with Athens appear – somewhat ironically – comparatively warm. The two countries are cooperating on the migrant crisis following a controversial deal between Turkey and the EU that has significantly stemmed the flow of people to Europe. Greece has also been supportive of Turkey’s stalled bid to join the EU, even as the rest of Europe cools on the prospect.
But when it comes to the many outstanding issues between the two sides, analysts are expecting little progress.
Erdogan, in particular, is unhappy that Greece is hosting eight Turkish servicemen who have requested asylum in Greece following last year's failed coup. On Thursday, he reiterated his calls for the suspects to be extradited at once.
Ahead of Erdogan’s visit, Tsipras had said he would like to oblige, telling Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency that the suspected coup plotters "were not welcome" in Greece. But the Greek government has been frustrated in its attempts to expel the Turkish fugitives by successive court decisions, including a Greek Supreme Court ruling in January that rejected their extradition citing possible human rights violations.
“Erdogan will use the visit to continue to pressure Tsipras, claiming the Greek premier promised to hand them over,” said Anastatsakis, noting that the Turkish leader had already criticised Greece’s government for allowing the courts to get involved.
Another festering sore is the issue of Cyprus, whose northern portion was occupied by Turkish troops in 1974 invasion in response to an Athens-backed coup aimed at uniting it with Greece. Much-touted peace talks this year ended without a breakthrough.
“But here too, little progress is expected,” said Anastasakis, noting that there had been "no build-up to the talks”.