Why Turkiye and Greece must continue on the friendship path
Voters in both Turkiye and Greece went to the polls this month, and those in Turkiye will do so again on Sunday in a presidential election runoff between incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.
In Greece, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s center-right New Democracy party demolished its main rivalsin elections for the Hellenic Parliament, unexpectedly increasing its share of the vote but falling just short of an outright majority. As a result, Mitsotakis called for another snap election in June.
Both elections are significant for two countries which in the past few months have engaged into a process of rapprochement. Depending on the outcomes, the neighboring NATO allies will draw a new path in their relationship. Although they have been going through critical elections, the rhetoric of the leaderships in the two capitals has not escalated, unlike in previous eras. Moreover, ahead of the elections, both Erdoğan and Mitsotakis conveyed mutually positive messages for bilateral ties. Erdoğan said that hostility and competition could be set aside, hoping that the elections in Greece and Turkiye would mark the beginning of a new era.
With the same tone, Greece also sent a positive message right after the May 14 polls. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said he hoped whichever governments were in place in Greece and Turkey after elections would continue a rapprochement instead of seeking the return of tensions. “Honestly, I believe that it would be a dream to erase Greek-Turkish differences from the map and have the two countries collaborate,” Dendias said, and they could work together on energy projects in the Aegean and East Mediterranean.
Both elections are significant for two countries which in the past few months have engaged into a process of rapprochement.
In March, Dendias and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu met in Brussels and agreed that Turkey would support Greece’s campaign for the UN Security Council in 2025-2026. In return, Greece said that it would back Turkey’s candidacy for secretary-general of the International Maritime Organization.
Aside from the elections marathon, two significant developments have led both Turkiye and Greece to put aside their differences in territorial and energy disputes. First was the devastating earthquakes that hit Turkiye in early February, which generated huge support from the Greek side. Greece was among the first countries to convey condolences, offer aid and send search and rescue teams to quake-hit cities. Second was the deadly train crash in northern Greece that killed at least 57 the same month. Turkiye was the first country to offer condolences and aid following the train accident. The solidarity and goodwill demonstrated by two neighbors toward each other have paved the way to opening a new page in relations in light of the “disaster diplomacy.” Upon these developments, Turkiye also allowed a Greek prisoner to visit Greece to attend his son's funeral.
Following the meeting between the Turkish and Greek foreign ministers, the defense ministers came together in April. In a very rare visit, Greek Defense Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos visited Turkiye upon the invitation of his Turkish counterpart. Normally, the heated rhetoric about Turkish-Greek disputes comes from the defense ministers of two countries. Therefore, the visit was symbolically very significant. Traditionally, two neighbors, situated on seismic fault lines, help each other in times of natural disasters, while hitting each other in the wake of elections. It is not the case this time as different factors have been in play on both sides.
First, there has been ongoing German mediation behind the scenes between two neighbors. The current positive climate plays into the hands of the socialist-led government of Olaf Scholz, who aims to resolve the disputes between Ankara and Athens. In the aftermath of every election, opportunities and challenges arise in the sphere of foreign policy. On the Greek side, Mitsotakis’s winning control of the parliament is not likely to bring a change in Greek foreign policy. However, a change of presidency in Turkiye might lead to a significant change in the foreign policy of the country.
The current positive climate plays into the hands of the socialist-led government of Olaf Scholz, who aims to resolve the disputes between Ankara and Athens.
It is noteworthy to understand how Turkish presidential rivals are perceived in Greece. Greek media has mostly approached Kılıçdaroğlu with concern, although he is a secular and pro-Western official. Kılıçdaroğlu, on several occasions, has raised the issue of demilitarizing Greece’s eastern Aegean islands. Kılıçdaroğlu has even criticized both Mitsotakis and Erdoğan for being populist, while pledging that he would solve the issue of the armament of the Aegean islands when he assumes power. While Greeks have been concerned about Kılıçdaroğlu and depict him as a danger in Turkish-Greek relations, Turks residing in Greece have voted in favor of Kılıçdaroğlu in the May 14 elections, rather than Erdoğan. This was an interesting trend.
Thus, it remains to be seen what the outcome of the Sunday’s election in Turkiye would bring out. In any scenario, whether change or continuity, maintaining the rapprochement trend between Athens and Ankara is crucial, as the two neighbors face similar internal and regional problems, including Russia’s war on Ukraine, the Syrian refugee issue and economic difficulties. In the post-election era, instead of consuming their energies on endless disputes, both leaderships should focus on ways to build mutual trust in bilateral relations and ways of cooperation for mutual benefit. That path will certainly not be a bed of roses, but there is always light amid the darkness.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkiye’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz