LAST week Recep Tayyip Erdogan made the first trip by a Turkish president to Greece in over six decades. Mr Erdogan called on his Greek counterpart, Prokopis Pavlopoulos; the prime minister, Alexis Tsipras; and representatives of the country’s 130,000-strong Muslim community in Western Thrace.
Discussions centred on migrant and refugee traffic; a 94-year-old treaty that defines Turkey’s borders; and the stalled peace process in Cyprus, which is divided between the internationally recognised Greek Cypriot state in the south and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot republic, recognised only by Turkey, in the north. The trip had offered some hope for improving relations between two neighbours separated by the Aegean sea, a 200km (125-mile) land border, and a litany of old grievances. But was it a breakthrough?
Not quite. To begin with, Mr Erdogan’s visit was not as historic as it was made to appear. The last Turkish president to visit Greece did indeed do so back in 1952, the year both countries joined NATO, a big Western military alliance. Relations collapsed three years later when a deadly pogrom took aim at Greek businesses and homes across Istanbul, accelerating the Greek exodus from Turkey. As many as 50,000 more Greeks were forced to leave Turkey in 1964, following intercommunal clashes in Cyprus.
Turkey’s invasion of the disputed island a decade later, repeated dogfights between Turkish and Greek fighter planes, and tensions over maritime borders ensured that war between the two allies remained a real risk well into the 1990s. Things began to improve in 1999, when Greeks responded with an outpouring of sympathy and support to a devastating earthquake in Turkey. Turks responded in kind when an earthquake struck Athens weeks later. A diplomatic thaw followed. Turkish prime ministers have since visited Greece regularly, and vice versa. (That Turkish presidents did not do so matters less. Until Mr Erdogan was elected to the post in 2014, the presidency remained mostly ceremonial.) Mr Erdogan himself travelled to Greece as prime minister in 2004 and 2010.
The rapprochement has since stalled. Airspace violations have increased. Sabre-rattling over the Aegean resumed this year, when Turkish army officials, followed by their Greek counterparts, visited a pair of uninhabited (and contested) rocks known as the Kardak islands, which are situated between Turkey’s south-west coast and the Greek Dodecanese islands. The Greek government continues to deny its Muslim minority the right to choose its religious leaders. Hopes of a solution to the Cyprus conflict fizzled out when the most promising peace talks in over a decade ended over the summer without an agreement.
Many Greeks recoiled at the scale of Mr Erdogan’s crackdown against opponents after a coup attempt in 2016, as well as suggestions that Turkey may want to revisit the Lausanne treaty signed in 1923, the bedrock of its relations with Greece and other neighbours. The Turkish president’s riff on the subject during his recent visit to Athens precipitated a tense exchange with his Greek counterpart, who categorically ruled out any revisions to the treaty. Mr Erdogan’s hosts also brushed aside his request for the extradition of eight Turkish soldiers who fled to Greece following the failed coup.
The good news today is that Turkey and Greece are no longer at each other’s throats. (Instead, they are discussing energy and other infrastructure projects.) The bad is that there is practically no room for improved relations as long as Mr Erdogan keeps up the irredentist rhetoric. What once promised to be a genuine rapprochement now resembles a period of “cold peace”, says Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, a Greek academic working in Turkey. The best one can hope for is that the two neighbours will continue doing business and talking—and keep the provocations to a minimum.
Source: The Economist