Turkiye-Greek ties continue to warm as leaders meet again

Turkiye-Greek ties continue to warm as leaders meet again

Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (AP file photo)
Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (AP file photo)
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Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis last week paid a six-hour visit to Turkiye to return Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit that took place last December. A relative calm now prevails between the two neighbors, apart from some discordant voices coming from the opposition parties in Greece.
Greek media outlets underlined that the general atmosphere of the talks was warm. The two leaders sat at a table together with their interpreters, unaccompanied by other members of the delegation. This allowed the leaders to dig deeper into the subjects of their choice.
Ever since Greece declared its independence from the Ottoman state in 1821, it has expanded its borders at the expense of Turkiye. Now it is coveting the last uninhabited rocks and geographic formations that are less than a mile away from the Anatolian mainland and hundreds of miles from the Greek mainland.
The main peace treaty that drew the present borders between Turkiye and Greece was the Treaty of Lausanne. International law provides that, if an island is not mentioned by name in an agreement, that island, rock or geographical formation has to belong to its original owner.
Late Greek Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis brought this anomaly to the attention of his public by commenting: “What would the Greeks think if an island in Piraeus harbor were to belong to Turkiye.”
Turkish-Greek relations have the potential and means to improve if wise and strong governments come to power in both countries. In the last few years, Turkiye, quoting the refrain of a Turkish song, used a threatening tone in its relations with Greece by saying, “We may come one night all of a sudden.” In return, Mitsotakis had used the US Congress to place all types of blame on Turkiye.
Fortunately, relations have normalized recently. Both leaders have grown calmer and wiser and a period of relative stability seems to be dawning. Major issues, such as the delimitation of the continental shelf, the width of the two countries’ territorial waters and the control of air traffic, are still taboo and both avoid touching them. These files will be opened again when relations become more reasonable. Some of the subjects that dominated this year’s meeting are the following.
One was the renovation of Istanbul’s Kariye (Chora) church, an outstanding cultural site built in the early fourth century. Later additions transformed it into a majestic building inlaid with intricate mosaics and frescoes. After the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the church was converted into a mosque in 1511. In 1948, Thomas Whittemore and Paul Underwood from the Byzantine Institute of America and the Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies sponsored a restoration program and it became a museum. In 2020, Erdogan’s government changed its status to a mosque again. Mitsotakis did his best to bring the question to Erdogan’s attention, but there is little chance that the Turkish president will change his mind.

If the dialogue between Turkiye and Greece is to be maintained, the best way will be to keep it low-profile.

Yasar Yakis

There is a striking imbalance between the number of mosques and churches located in Istanbul and Athens. While the Greek Orthodox Church’s Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is operating in Istanbul together with dozens of churches scattered throughout the city, Athens was, until 2020, the only European capital with no mosque at all.
Mitsotakis carefully avoided any reference to the Turkish minority in Greece. The two neighboring countries have different perceptions regarding the Turkish minority in Western Thrace. Mitsotakis insistently referred to them as the Muslim minority, even though the Muslim minority in Greece is composed mainly of Turks, with few exceptions.
There is a clear imbalance between the size of the Turkish minority in Greece and the Greek minority in Turkiye, which is mainly located in Istanbul and two islands close to the Dardanelles, Imbros and Tenedos. The size of the Greek minority in Turkiye is going down continuously and survives almost with artificial respiration. It will probably be extinguished in a few generations. On the other hand, the Turkish minority in Greece is still sizable.
The Gaza question became the most controversial issue in the talks between Erdogan and Mitsotakis. Erdogan said that more than 1,000 Hamas members were being treated in Turkish hospitals. Mitsotakis insisted that his government considers Hamas a terrorist organization, while Erdogan believes that it is the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Both leaders insisted on their positions and Erdogan had to take the floor again to elaborate in further detail Turkiye’s position on Hamas. Mitsotakis concluded that the parties had no choice but to agree to disagree on this subject.
Erdogan and Mitsotakis are also not on the same page regarding Cyprus. Turkiye believes that the solution to the Cyprus problem has to be based on the reality on the island, meaning a two-state solution, while Mitsotakis believes that the solution has to be based on UN parameters.
In a statement to the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, Erdogan stated that, thanks to the Athens Declaration signed last year between the two leaders, Turkish-Greek relations had reached their highest level. Another positive was that Erdogan said Greece’s project to establish maritime park areas in various parts of the Aegean and Ionian seas would not harm Turkish-Greek relations.
On the question of hydrocarbon cooperation between the two countries, Erdogan believes that this is not an area of confrontation but an area of cooperation. He believes that an energy platform in the Eastern Mediterranean that ignored Turkiye would create a vacuum.
On the American role in ties between Turkiye and Greece, Erdogan said that these two countries have their own properly functioning channels of communication.
If the dialogue between Turkiye and Greece is to be maintained, the best way will be to keep it low-profile.

Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkiye and founding member of the ruling AK Party. X: @yakis_yasar



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