Turkey and Greece: old habits die hard

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s landmark visit to Greece has been mired in controversy from the get go.

Turkey Greece Reuters
Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend a state dinner at the Presidential Palace in Athens, Greece on December 7, 2017 [Costas Baltas/Reuters]

Greek-Turkish relations, once the source of endless drama, have grown stable over the past decade and a half. There are outstanding frictions, to be sure. The flow of refugees across shared maritime and land borders certainly causes headaches as do recurrent dogfights between fighter jets. Yet prospects for a military showdown between Athens and Ankara, painfully real in the 1990s, have receded. By the grim standard set by Turkey’s dealings with its turbulent Middle Eastern neighbourhood, ties with Greece along with the rest of the Balkans look moderately positive.

That, of course, does not provide for a smooth relationship. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Athens comes as a sobering reminder.

World media painted the trip as an unprecedented event of historic significance. It is true that no Turkish head of state had set foot in Greece since Celal Bayar in 1952. But this does not imply Turkish leaders steered clear from the rival nation of Greece for all these years. Up until 2014, when Turkey held its first direct elections for president, the office of the president was largely ceremonial in Turkey. And Erdogan, Turkey’s undisputed master (or reis, that is captain, as his aficionados call him), did pay a visit to Greece as prime minister seven years ago, before taking on the role of the country’s first elected president. He was there in May 2010, when he and the then Prime Minister George Papandreou inaugurated a “High-Level Cooperation Council”, a joint body bringing together the two cabinets. But times were different: Turkey still had not given up on the EU, “zero-problems with neighbours” was more than a hollow phrase, Greece had seen the worst of the financial meltdown.

Century-old disputes


This time, Erdogan courted controversy right from the get-go. In an interview for SKAI, a popular Greek TV channel, and then during a tense press conference with President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, he took on the 1923 Lausanne Treaty. He called for an update of the agreement demarcating the common border and establishing the status of Greek minority in Turkey and the Turks (or, as Athens insists, adhering to the letter of Lausanne, the Muslim minority) in the Greek province of Western Thrace.

His brash remarks echoed a statement from September 2016 to the effect that the then rulers of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his comrades, gave away Aegean islands to Greece by signing the convention. At that time, one could play down his words as a piece of electioneering aimed at discrediting the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), heir to Ataturk whose victory in the War of Independence (1919-22) Lausanne sealed. Now however, with the opposition under Erdogan’s thumb and no election forthcoming, that argument does not hold any more more and Greece is alert (as is next-door Bulgaria, too, as its border with Turkey is similarly demarcated in the treaty).

The escalating spat seems to have hijacked the visit. That is more than unfortunate, as the whole fuss about borders is little more than rhetorical bluster. The Lausanne Treaty is a multilateral instrument, with Great Britain, France, Italy and even the Soviet Union and Japan as signatories. It cannot be called off by Greece and Turkey, even if they agreed to do so (unlikely), let alone by Erdogan alone. What’s more, Lausanne simply reconfirmed the Ottomans’ loss of the northeastern Aegean islands such as Lesbos, Chios or Lemnos as a result of the First Balkan War. 

Turkish minority in Greece

So why is Erdogan bringing up, yet again, a convention signed nearly a century ago? One probable explanation is the urge to put pressure on Greece over the Muslim community. Since 1990, Athens has been appointing muftis directly, a violation of Lausanne. Also, the economic crisis has hit hard the people in Western Thrace, Greece’s poorest region.

However, the left-wing Syriza Party of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras might already have the right instincts: it counts three members of the 110,000-strong community in its parliamentary caucus, having triumphed in Western Thrace in the last elections. It is sincere about improving the situation of the Turks, Pomaks and Roma in the region, still seen by many Greeks as Ankara’s fifth column. In an interesting twist, the government is now implementing a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that allows Greek Muslims recourse to the mainstream courts on matters of family and inheritance. Under the Lausanne provisions, they are limited to Islamic law, a leftover from the Ottoman-era millet system.

In any event, visiting Komotini, the main city in Western Thrace, was a beneficial move for Erdogan. It allowed the Turkish president to bask in the glory of a leader of Turks and Muslims across the former Ottoman Empire, as seen during his recent trip to Serbia.

Extradition of coup suspects

Another behind Erdogan’s tough talk during the visit was Greece’ refusal to extradite eight military officers who fled from Turkey in the aftermath of the failed coup in July 2016. At their press conference, Tsipras shrugged off Erdogan’s renewed call for extradition by pointing at the direction of the judiciary. While some of Turkey’s other neighbours, from Azerbaijan and Georgia to Bulgaria and Bosnia and Herzegovina, have played along in Ankara’s campaign against the cleric Fethullah Gulen’s supporters, it seems that Greece is not prepared to jump on the bandwagon. Erdogan’s displeasure at his hosts was in no way tempered by the arrest of nine left-wing supporters from Turkey on terrorism-related charges several days before his arrival. 

Such immediate questions straining ties have left Erdogan and Tsipras little time for more long-term challenges. There was no progress on either the protracted disputes regarding territorial waters, the continental shelf and the airspace in the Aegean. Not much to report on Cyprus either, where reunification talks under way since May 2015 went belly-up last July.

That does not mean that doom and gloom prevails.

Some projects linking Greece and Turkey are well under way. The consortium behind the Transadriatic Pipeline (TAP) crossing through Greece and Albania reported that close 2/3 of the pipes had been trenched. TAP is to ship Caspian gas pumped through Transanatolian Pipeline (TANAP) which is coming onstream in Turkey next year. There are plans to overhaul the railway connection between Istanbul and Thessaloniki as well as a regular ferry line between Thessaloniki and Izmir. Despite Turkey’s stalled EU bid, integration is working at the bilateral level, albeit at an excruciatingly slow pace. If you are looking for good news, you have to wait until the upcoming joint session of the Greek and the Turkish cabinets in Thessaloniki slated for 2018. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.