Greece, Turkey try to reset their relationship after years of hostility

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set to visit Greece and sign a series of agreements, but differences remain.

FILE PHOTO: Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis meets with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan during a NATO leaders summit in Vilnius, Lithuania July 12, 2023. Dimitris Papamitsos/Greek Prime Minister's Office/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY./File Photo
Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are enjoying new bonds after years of hostility [File: Dimitris Papamitsos/Greek Prime Minister's Office/Handout via Reuters]

Athens, Greece – Issues that have brought Greece and Turkey to the brink of war five times in as many decades will be off the agenda during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Athens on Thursday.

The visit is an attempt to reset the relationship with positive agreements, Greek diplomats have told Al Jazeera.

“Maritime borders [and Cyprus] won’t be discussed,” said a senior Greek diplomat. “There hasn’t been any preparation for that to happen.”

Greece and Turkey have been discussing 31 potential areas of cooperation since 2021. This so-called “positive agenda” will be centre stage, foreign ministry officials told Al Jazeera, leading to about a dozen agreements.

One accord will see the construction of a new bridge over the Evros River in Thrace, which forms the border between the two countries. Another will promote student exchanges, an official said on condition of anonymity.

While undersea hydrocarbons have divided the two neighbours, other forms of energy could unite them. One accord will lead to the construction of a new electricity interconnector to trade energy.

Other agreements will promote joint initiatives in tourism, sport and among small businesses.

“There was an intensification of talks in the last three months, which shows the mutual political will for things to go well,” the official told Al Jazeera.

Some military agreements were also lined up.

“There will be a series of agreements on confidence-building measures – for example, not flying drones over warships while wargames are taking place,” Angelos Syrigos, an MP with the ruling New Democracy party, told Al Jazeera.

“The climax will be a pact of friendship declaring our intention to resolve differences peacefully,” Syrigos said.

“[Prime Minister] Kyriakos, my friend, we won’t threaten you if you don’t threaten us,” Erdogan told Kathimerini newspaper in an interview published on the eve of the visit. “Let’s strengthen the trust between our two countries. Let’s increase bilateral cooperation in all areas,” Erdogan said.

An agreement on irregular migration could also be in the offing, Greece’s migration minister recently implied – something of particular interest to the European Union.

Refugee flows from Turkey to Greece fell by 40 percent in October relative to September, and by a further 30 percent in November, the Greek migration ministry said.

Overcoming past unpleasantness

Erdogan’s last visit to Athens, in December 2017, was a disaster. He and then-Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos argued over the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which set the borders between the two countries.

Later, Erdogan and then-Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras traded accusations about the division of Cyprus. Erdogan blamed the Greek side for two failed rounds of talks to reunify the island in 2004 and 2017.

“The Greek Cypriots promised us that we would solve the Cyprus problem but that’s not what happened,” said Erdogan.

“This issue remains open because 43 years ago there was an illegal invasion and occupation of the northern section of Cyprus,” replied Tsipras.

Cyprus has been divided between Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities after inter-communal clashes in 1964 and a Turkish invasion of the island 10 years later, following a Greek-inspired coup.

Things got worse after the 2017 visit. The following year, Turkey proclaimed its Blue Homeland policy, claiming sovereign commercial rights to exploit undersea wealth under 462,000sq km (178,400sq miles) of the east Mediterranean, much of which Greece also claimed under international maritime law.

In 2019 Turkey agreed to exploit a swathe of the east Mediterranean with Libya, further encroaching on what Greece saw as its own maritime jurisdiction. The European Union denounced the memorandum as “illegal” under international law.

Shortly after, Greece unofficially warned Turkey that it would sink any Turkish survey ship attempting to search for undersea oil and gas in what it considered its jurisdiction. Turkey called Greece’s bluff the following January, allowing its ship Oruc Reis to conduct surveys for a week southeast of Rhodes.

Greece sent a frigate to observe the Oruc Reis without attacking it, but the following summer the Oruc Reis returned, and the entire Hellenic Navy deployed across the Aegean within hours in a state of heightened alert. Turkey’s navy did the same. The standoff continued until August, when two frigates from opposing navies collided, and the US called for detente.

Hydrocarbons weren’t the only source of friction. Erdogan allowed asylum seekers to storm Greek borders in 2020 and disputed Greece’s sovereignty over its east Aegean Islands in 2021. And Turkey has a standing threat of war against Greece if it should attempt to extend its territorial waters in the Aegean to 12 nautical miles, which Greece says is consistent with international law.

Earthquakes breach mistrust

The turning point in the recent escalation was provided by two powerful earthquakes that levelled Turkish cities in February, killing tens of thousands.

Greece’s was the first overseas search-and-rescue team to arrive, and the two countries’ foreign ministers made a show of friendship by touring the wreckage together. Turkish violations of Greek airspace in the Aegean stopped, allaying a constant Greek complaint.

After elections in both countries in May and June, freshly mandated foreign ministers met in Ankara in September, paving the way for Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Erdogan to meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly a fortnight later. Greece’s Deputy Foreign Minister Kostas Frangogiannis and his Turkish counterpart met in October. So did the two ministries’ general secretaries.

But Turkey’s outstanding positions remain, and have led some to doubt the usefulness of Erdogan’s visit.

“Yes, airspace violations may have fallen off, at least for now, but provocations haven’t,” former conservative Prime Minister Antonis Samaras recently said in an interview. “I’m talking about the faits accomplis Turkey has put in place against us, which continue to apply. Violations fell off in my day, too … but that didn’t prevent Turkey from escalating [tensions] later.”

The two sides aren’t ignoring the elephant in the room during the visit.

“We will go into a discussion about everything else,” said Syrigos, referring to sovereign maritime rights. “This discussion won’t happen now. There will be a discussion now on the rules of the future discussion.”

The ground rules agreement should restart a high-level dialogue between the Greek and Turkish leaders inaugurated in early 2010 to resolve the two countries’ differences over maritime borders. This is an attempt to recapture the spirit of that time.

“The airspace violations have stopped. The inflammatory rhetoric has stopped. So there is a basis to meet,” said the senior diplomat.

Source: Al Jazeera