Politics

Turkey, Greece and the era of 'Cold Peace'

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's landmark trip to Greece aims at boosting dialogue between the two countries.

Tsipras (left) will host Erdogan (right) in Athens on Thursday [File: Anadolu]

When Celar Bayar arrived in Athens on November 28, 1952, he could not possibly have envisaged that he would be the first and only Turkish president to ever visit neighbouring Greece.

Sixty-five years later, another leader's name will be added this week to that exclusive list.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who hadn't even been born at the time of Bayar's trip, will land in the Greek capital on Thursday for a landmark two-day visit aimed at keeping dialogue open between two countries that have traditionally been at odds over a number of thorny issues.

"Without a doubt, President Erdogan's visit is historic," said Alexandra Voudouri, a foreign policy expert at MacroPolis, an Athens-based political and economic analysis website.

"It is significant, mainly for its symbolism … and comes at an extremely crucial time for the developments in the wider region," she told Al Jazeera.

Troubled past

The two NATO allies have long shared a tumultuous relationship, fuelled by historical rivalries and mutual distrust stretching back centuries.

Greeks lived under Ottoman rule for some 400 years, before fighting and winning independence in the 1820s and 30s. About 100 years later, the Republic of Turkey was founded by Kemal Ataturk following the defeat and expulsion of Greek forces from Anatolia by his troops.

Since then, the two neighbours have lurched through the decades surrounded by militarised disputes and bitter prejudices - as well as the occasional rapprochement.

At the worst of times, they have come close to war, as happened in 1996 over conflicting ownership claims over unpopulated islets in the Aegean Sea.

At the best of times, they have sought warmer ties, as in 1999 after successive deadly tremors in both countries sparked an outpouring of mutual sympathy and a political willingness to address differences in the so-called earthquake diplomacy that followed.

An aerial view of the damage caused by a powerful earthquake that struck Turkey's Izmit in August 1999 [File: US Navy/Getty Images]

Trade and cultural ties have since been strengthened, and channels of communication remained open, with an increasing number of meetings at the foreign minister and prime minister level taking place over the past few years.

Erdogan himself last visited Greece in 2010, when he was prime minister.

"The relationship between Greece and Turkey has always been marked by ups and downs," Emmanuel Karagiannis, a senior lecturer at King's College London, told Al Jazeera.

"The current phase can be characterised as 'Cold Peace'. The two countries have maintained high-level exchanges, but tensions remain high."

Erdogan speaks to then-Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou during his last visit to Athens in 2010 [File: Kostas Tsironis/Reuters]

Split island

At the heart of the strained ties, beyond disputes over maritime and airspace rights in the Aegean, lies Cyprus.

The Mediterranean island has been effectively divided since an Athens-backed coup in 1974 and a subsequent Turkish invasion.

Since then, its Greek- and Turkish-Cypriot communities have lived on either side of a 180km-long, UN-monitored, ceasefire line cutting across the island, while repeated diplomatic efforts to end the partition, which also involve Greece and Turkey as guarantor powers, have failed.

The most recent reunification bid, described as the best chance to broker a deal in generations, collapsed dramatically last summer - and analysts believe nothing substantial will come out of the upcoming talks in Athens.

"No one should expect a miraculous effect on the Cyprus issue," Sinem Akgul Acikmese, professor of international relations at Istanbul's Kadir Has University, told Al Jazeera.

Analysts in Greece agreed, pointing out that nothing will change before the Greek-Cypriot presidential elections in early 2018.

"I estimate that there might be an attempt for some kind of informal understanding to lay the ground that, in the case of any future favourable conditions for the resuming of the talks, the mistakes and omissions of the past will not be repeated," Aggelos Athanasopoulos, senior diplomatic and European Union affairs editor at Greek daily To Vima, told Al Jazeera.

Keeping dialogue open

During his time in Athens, Erdogan will meet Prokopis Pavlopoulos, his Greek counterpart holding a largely ceremonial post, before having high-level discussions with Alexis Tsipras, Greece's prime minister.

Erdogan will also head to Thrace, a region in northeastern Greece with a Muslim minority. There, he will attend Friday prayers at a mosque in the city of Komotini.

Ahead of the talks, diplomats from both countries hailed the focus on the "positive development of the relations through dialogue at the highest level".

In their meeting, Tsipras, 43, and Erdogan, 63, are expected to discuss issues of mutual interest, including ways to advance trade and economic ties, as well as cooperate on transport, culture and tourism.

However, no major breakthrough is expected in any of the long-standing contentious issues.

"Keeping dialogue widely open through such a positive agenda has obvious significance," said Acikmese. "However, it is over-realistic to foresee 'a new chapter' in bilateral relations with such pragmatic dialogue channels as long as there is no political settlement on issues of conflict between the two sides."

Conditions inside Greece's refugee camps, like Moria on Lesbos, have been widely criticised [Ayhan Mehmet/Anadolu]

Refugee deal, Turkish soldiers

The two leaders will also discuss regional security and "terrorism", but another topic high on the agenda of both sides will be the refugee crisis.

In March 2016, the European Union - of which Greece is a member - and Turkey signed a controversial deal aimed at stemming the influx of refugees to Europe.

The agreement, which sees Greece and Turkey carry almost all the responsibility, has led to a sharp decrease in arrivals compared with the height of the crisis in 2015.

Erdogan has previously accused the bloc of not keeping its side of the deal about visa-free travel for Turkish citizens.

Turkey hosts nearly three million Syrian refugees, and Erdogan has also threatened to open the country's border gates with the EU for refugees to pass freely.

With Greece still struggling to cope and arrivals picking up lately, Voudouri said the Greek side at the talks "will insist on preserving the deal to avoid a return to the situation of 2015 and early 2016", when more than one million people crossed into the country.

"Greece wants to put an emphasis on this and secure Turkey's compliance with the deal because there is a big concern over the size of migrant flows by boat from Turkey," added Athanasopoulos. "The situation on the islands has reached a tipping point."

Hotspots on the islands of Lesbos, Samos and Chios are hosting up to three times as many people as they were designed to accommodate. With winter approaching, human rights groups are sounding warnings over deteriorating conditions in the islands' cramped and dangerous camps.

For his part, Erdogan is expected to renew a Turkish call for the extradition of eight soldiers who fled to Greece in a military helicopter and sought asylum as a failed coup attempt was under way in July 2016.

Earlier this year, Greece's top court ruled against extraditing the officers, drawing an angry response from Ankara which said it would review its ties with Athens.

Tsipras has maintained that the decision by the Greek justice system must be respected.

Under the EU-Turkey deal, Ankara agreed to take back undocumented migrants leaving its shores for Greece in return, among other things, for visa-free travel for Turks [File: Giorgos Moutafis/Reuters]

Turkey and the EU

While it is certain that Erdogan's trip will dominate discussions in Greece and Turkey, his statements in Athens will also be closely watched in diplomatic circles further away - from Brussels, through Berlin, to Washington, DC.

His visit comes at a time of worsening relations between Turkey and some of its Western allies, including the US.

In recent months, Turkish and EU officials have also been locked in an escalating war of words, with Ankara accusing some member states of backing "terrorism" and bloc leaders alleging a deterioration of democratic and human rights in Turkey in the wake of the failed coup attempt.

"Erdogan's visit to Athens is one of the few official trips to an EU member country in the last couple of years on a bilateral basis, specifically at a time of nearly lost hopes in Turkey's EU accession process," said Acikmese.

Turkey applied for EU membership in 1987 and began accession talks in 2005.

However, negotiations have been essentially frozen over the past decade, with no progress made.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets Erdogan at the G20 summit in Hamburg in July [File: John MacDougall/Reuters] 

Amid the stalemate, Erdogan said recently that Turkey "does not need the EU" any more, while also accusing the German and Dutch governments of "Nazi practices" after they prevented Turkish ministers from speaking at expatriate rallies ahead of a referendum.

Acikmese said, "even though some claim that this [visit to Athens] is a signal of slightly turning towards Europe ... it would be too early and equally naive to make such comments".

Despite the heightened tensions, Ankara says that cutting off EU membership negotiations would harm both sides.

In Athens, Erdogan is expected to continue seeking the support of Greece, which has traditionally maintained that it backs Turkey's EU ambitions.

In October, during a visit to the US, Tsipras reiterated its long-stated foreign policy that it "supported the Turkish course towards Europe".

Athanasopoulos, the Athens-based journalist, argues that Greece's backing for Turkey's European perspective is crucial for Greek interests, but notes that its influence might be limited due to EU dithering.

"The Europeans are confused about how to approach Turkey," he said.

"On the one hand, they seek close relations because they are worried about the refugee crisis. But on the other [hand], they raise concerns about issues like the rule of law and human rights which, coupled with the [heated] rhetoric, do not allow for the development of such ties."

Source: Al Jazeera News