COMMENT

Erdogan visit to Greece comes against a backdrop of turmoil

TOM ELLIS

[Sarah Halls/GMF]

TAGS: Interview, Diplomacy

The impetus for Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan's visit to Greece is positive but there is a lingering risk that the conversation on a series of issues, both bilateral and regional, will take a more difficult turn, according to Ian Lesser, vice president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and an analyst who has written extensively on Turkey and Greek-Turkish relations, in an interview with Kathimerini.

What is the purpose of President Erdogan's visit to Greece?

President Erdogan’s visit will be an opportunity to consolidate the prevailing stability in Greek-Turkish relations. Longstanding bilateral issues, from sovereignty disputes in the Aegean to Cyprus and offshore energy, will surely be on the agenda. But these will hardly be resolved. It is simply an opportunity for an exchange of views. On refugees and maritime and human security in the Aegean, there is more scope for agreement, and perhaps some modest new initiatives. Above all, both countries have a strong stake in keeping bilateral differences from further destabilizing an already chaotic regional equation in the eastern Mediterranean.

How does the regional situation influence Greek-Turkish relations?

The prospect of sustained conflict, even durable chaos in the Levant and Libya, an increasingly insecure Egypt, and longer-term migration pressures, give rise to an environment in which Greece and Turkey – and Cyprus – are exposed to greater geopolitical risk.

And what is Washington's stance on this?

This is also a period of considerable uncertainty about the direction and intensity of American and European engagement in the Mediterranean. In fact, there has been little tangible reduction in the American presence in the region. In a strict military sense, it has even increased. But there can be little question that the Trump administration has its eyes on foreign policy challenges elsewher, and may be content to leave the management of eastern Mediterranean affairs largely to European partners. This, too, may be part of Ankara’s rationale for a visit to Athens. The visit also comes at a time of growing tension inside Turkey, in Turkish-European Union relations and in Ankara’s troubled relations with Washington. This presents dilemmas for Athens and Ankara in the context of President Erdogan’s visit.

What kind of dilemmas?

To what extent will Prime Minister [Alexis] Tsipras feel compelled to react to the mounting repression and nationalist mood in Turkey? This may be difficult to avoid if President Erdogan raises the question of Turkish asylum seekers in Greece, European policy toward the Kurds, or others issues at the nexus of domestic and international policy. And to what extent will President Erdogan be able to ignore his domestic audience in addressing bilateral relations? The impetus for the visit may be positive, but there is some risk that the conversation will take a more difficult turn.

How does Turkey view Greece's role?

Greece is arguably the leading external stakeholder in Turkish stability and in the preservation of a multilateral Turkish approach in the Aegean, the Balkans and elsewhere. The sharp deterioration in Turkish-EU relations is clearly at odds with Greek interests, even if Athens shares the wariness of its European partners about the decline of Turkish democracy, media freedom and rule of law. Both countries are also key stakeholders in the evolution of EU and NATO strategy toward Europe’s southern periphery. In short, there is a great deal for the two leaders to address beyond the traditional problems on the bilateral agenda.

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