ATHENS: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pledged Thursday to open a “new era” in relations with historic rival Greece, as he opened his first official visit to Athens since 2017.
“I believe that the Turkiye-Greece strategic cooperation meeting will lead to a new era” in relations, Erdogan told Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, adding that “we need to be optimistic, and this optimism will be fruitful in the future.”
In meetings with Sakellaropoulou and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the fiery Turkish leader was expected to discuss trade, regional issues and the perennially thorny issue of migration.
In an interview with Greek daily Kathimerini a day before his five-hour visit on Thursday, Erdogan said he was seeking a “new chapter” in relations on the basis of “win-win” principles.
Ankara has served as a migration bulwark since a 2016 deal with the European Union, which Mitsotakis and fellow EU leaders hope to update.
A retinue of diplomats accompanying Erdogan are also broaching with Greek counterparts the longstanding issue of Greek-Turkish territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea.
Erdogan has questioned century-old treaties that set out Aegean sovereignty, and Turkish and Greek warplanes regularly engage in mock dogfights in disputed airspace.
The discovery of hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean has further complicated ties, with Ankara angering Athens in 2019 by signing a controversial maritime zone deal with Libya.
Relations further cratered in the next two years, prompting Mitsotakis to announce a military buildup in naval and air force equipment, and sign defensive agreements with France and the United States.
In 2020, Erdogan was seen in Athens to have encouraged thousands of migrants to attempt to cross the frontier into Greece, causing days of clashes with border guards.
At the time, the move was interpreted as a Turkish attempt to draw EU attention to the millions of asylum seekers in Turkiye.
Erdogan also used increasingly inflammatory rhetoric toward Greece, often in conjunction with his electoral campaigns.
Last year, he accused Greece of “occupying” Aegean islands and threatened: “As we say, we may come suddenly one night.”
But relations have improved since February, when Greece sent rescuers and aid to Turkiye after a massive earthquake killed at least 50,000 people.
Speaking to Kathimerini on Wednesday, the Turkish leader said communication channels with Greece had been “revived” and that he looked forward to signing a declaration of bilateral friendship with Greece on Thursday.
“Kyriakos my friend, we do not threaten you if you do not threaten us,” Erdogan said.
“If differences are addressed through dialogue and common ground is found, this is to the benefit of all,” he added.
Mitsotakis, the conservative prime minister who won a second four-year term in June, has also shown readiness to reduce tension with Ankara.
The two leaders previously met in September in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
Erdogan was last in Athens in 2017, when he met Mitsotakis’ leftist predecessor Alexis Tsipras.
Without sidestepping the “major territorial disputes” that have long existed between the NATO allies, Mitsotakis favors settling differences at the International Court of Justice at The Hague.
“It is important that disagreements do not lead to crises,” and that “every opportunity for dialogue — such as the very important (meeting) of December 7 — leads us forward,” Greek government spokesman Pavlos Marinakis told state TV ERT this week.
Greek and Turkish ministers will hold a meeting of the high cooperation council, a bilateral body that last convened in 2016.
A diplomatic source speaking on condition of anonymity called it a “positive step” in the rapprochement.
“Dialogue is the only tool in order to develop a road map for the delimitation of waters in the Aegean,” Antonia Zervaki, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Athens, said.
Greek migration minister Dimitris Kairidis this week said the two countries’ coast guards had been cooperating smoothly on migration in past months.
He did not rule out an agreement with Ankara to station a Turkish officer on the Greek island of Lesbos, and a Greek officer at the western Turkish port of Izmir.
Thursday’s talks are expected to also discuss the Israel-Hamas war, where Erdogan has shown no sign of abandoning his support of Hamas militants.
In contrast, Mitsotakis has made a clear distinction between Hamas and the Palestinian people, stating that Israel had suffered a “savage terrorist attack” on October 7 that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took around 240 hostages, according to Israeli officials.
Israel vowed to destroy Hamas following the deadliest attack in its history and launched a retaliatory military campaign that has killed more than 16,000 people in Gaza, mainly civilians, according to the territory’s Hamas authorities.