Ground is fertile for warmer Turkish-Greek ties
After several fluctuations, a thaw in Turkish-Greek relations has now been resumed. Sometimes, familial relations become better after a dispute. This is what is taking place in the Turkish-Greek relationship. All the contentious issues are still stored up, but both sides are focusing their attention on the full half of the glass.
In 2017, a visit at the level of heads of state between Turkiye and Greece took place for the first time in 65 years. This time, it is again Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is taking the initiative.
Despite the many similarities between the Turkish and Greek peoples, relations between these two countries have never been cordial. They have so many conflictive items on their agenda. However, most of the problems are solvable if strong political leaders take them up seriously.
A mechanism called the High-Level Cooperation Council, initiated by Erdogan with several countries, including Greece, helped Turkiye solve several bilateral issues. When Turkish-Greek relations broke down temporarily, the High-Level Cooperation Council also ceased to function. The reactivated council this month resumed its activities after a lull of seven years.
A “declaration on good neighborly relations” was signed during Erdogan’s visit to Athens. It is composed of 10 introductory and three operative paragraphs. It tries to prepare the ground for better future relations. However, it is specifically underlined that this declaration does not constitute an international agreement that binds the parties under international law. The carefully drafted text also underlines that it should not be interpreted as creating legal rights or obligations for the parties.
A British proverb says that “a scalded cat fears cold water.” Similarly, because these two countries have suffered several disappointments in the past, they are acting more cautiously this time. Erdogan praised himself for being able to persuade Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to sign such a declaration without an outside sponsor.
Mitsotakis has now been invited to visit Ankara for the next session of the High-Level Cooperation Council. Hopefully, such encounters will lead to a further warming of the relationship.
However, it appears that Erdogan could not persuade Mitsotakis to remain neutral in the Gaza conflict. This shows the difficulties that lie ahead in bilateral relations. There has been a slight softening in America’s attitude toward Hamas, but these efforts seem to be doomed at the end of the day because Washington is not expected to give up its blind support for Israel.
While in Athens, Erdogan received a delegation of the Turkish minority of Eastern Thrace. They are the remnants of the population exchange that took place between Turkiye and Greece after the First World War. Their population is thought to be about 150,000. Theoretically, their rights are tied to strong guarantees under international agreements, but in practice the Greek authorities do not let them enjoy these rights and freedoms. There is almost nothing that is not problematic for this community.
Because Turkiye and Greece have suffered several disappointments in the past, they are acting cautiously.
The delegation that was received by Erdogan in Athens had a very heavy agenda. The delegation of the Turkish community specifically raised two important problems during this encounter: the education of Turkish children in Greece and the election of Islamic clerics (muftis) within the Turkish community in Greece.
The number of schools where the education is conducted in the Turkish language has reduced from 194 to 90 in the last 13 years. This is in violation of the provisions of the Treaty of Lausanne of 1924.
Also in stark violation of the provisions of the Treaty of Lausanne, the Greek government refuses to recognize the elected mufti and instead appoints one, who is not recognized by the Turkish Muslim community. In the 1990s, the Greek authorities put a mufti in jail for using this title. Ibrahim Serif, the elected mufti of the Turkish Muslim community of Greece, was condemned by the Greek authorities to eight months in prison, claiming he had usurped this post.
Serif took the case to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that the claim of usurpation was unfounded. It ordered the Greek government to pay compensation of 2.7 million Greek drachma (about $10,000) to Serif. As a gesture of goodwill, Serif donated this money to the victims of an earthquake that had just taken place in Greece.
Similarly, two associations formed by the Turkish civil society — the Turkish Union of Xanthi and the Turkish Women’s Cultural Association for Rodopi — sued the Greek government for the closure of their associations. This case was also referred to Strasbourg and the court concluded in 2008 that the Greek government violated the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. Furthermore, the court, taking into account the time it took to finalize the procedures, decided that Greece violated the organizations’ right to a fair trial and ordered it to pay €8,000 ($8,700) as moral compensation.
Despite this background, it appears that the controversial issues were avoided to the largest extent possible during the recent meeting of the High-Level Cooperation Council. Both sides took care not to antagonize the other. Erdogan focused more on areas of cooperation. There are plenty of such areas — the EastMed pipeline being one of them — but it is unclear whether Greece is prepared to step back from the point that it has already reached.
Erdogan raised the possibility of letting Greece benefit from the energy hub that is to be established in Istanbul. This is a project proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, the EU may not let Greece be part of any deal that involves Russia. Erdogan has also mentioned the possibility of letting Greece benefit from Turkiye’s nuclear power plant, which is scheduled to be constructed near the Black Sea port of Sinop. Greece may be interested in receiving power from this project.
Defense expenditures constitute a heavy toll that both Turkiye and Greece have to pay. However, no country will agree to reduce its defense spending in volatile regions such as the Aegean Sea or the Eastern Mediterranean. It would need genuine efforts to persuade the countries of the region to reduce their defense spending.
The ground is fertile for cooperation between Turkiye and Greece, but past experiences prevent the two countries from taking bold steps. We will see whether this time will be different.
• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkiye and founding member of the ruling AK Party. X: @yakis_yasar