Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems ready to initiate a comprehensive negotiation on the Aegean and Greek-Turkish relations, but also appears steadfast as regards his intentions. In an interview with Kathimerini ahead of his visit to Athens on Thursday and Komotini in northern Greece on Friday, Erdogan stresses, for example, that the Treaty of Lausanne – which governs Greek-Turkish relations and is considered the cornerstone of peace in the region – needs to be updated in regard to Greece's relations with Turkey.
The Turkish president also refers to past talks with all the Greek prime ministers he has met in his time, saying that while there was a convergence of opinion, an agreement was always elusive. He also addresses the mock dogfights between Greek and Turkish air force jets over the Aegean and the casus belli, which he refuses to lift.
Erdogan also expresses his annoyance at Greece's failure to respond to Turkish demands for the extradition of eight servicemen accused by Ankara of taking part in last year's failed coup, stressing, however, that relations between the two countries will not suffer as a result.
Mr President, first of all thank you very much for this interview. I would like to ask you why you are visiting Athens now and why it is so important for you to go to Thrace.
We were having a meeting in Istanbul where the Greek president also participated and because I had to leave Istanbul due to a prior engagement, we couldn’t get together but I promised him. And there is 65 years of history here. Sixty-five years ago, a Turkish president went to Athens for the first time, and I think this is something that we need to change. Visits like this should have been initiated a long time ago. And now, as the Turkish president, I will be traveling to Athens and it is quite exciting for me, I must say. I had been to western Thrace in 2005, where we have about a 150,000 Turkish descendants. And while in Athens, I think it wouldn’t be very proper for me not to go and visit our descendants as well. The excitement of 2005 was quite big. Our arrival in Athens will be very important for our descendants, for the Turks in Thrace who are a bridge between Turkey and Greece, and I think our visiting them will contribute tremendously to the strengthening of the relationship between Greece and Turkey. The Greek descendants in Turkey are not as many as the Turks in Thrace. Currently, we have a small number of Greek descendants and I am talking to the family members of those who have left Turkey to go to the United States, telling them to come back and settle in Turkey. They can create a new life here and I hope and pray that they will return to Turkey.
Before getting to the substance of the debate about issues relating to Greek-Turkish relations, I would like to ask you about a query that I have. That dramatic summer of 2016, did you ever think about coming [to Greece], about landing in Athens? Did that ever cross your mind?
When the developments were unfolding, my eventual intention was to either land in Istanbul or Ankara, a part of my motherland, because it didn’t even cross my mind to travel elsewhere. The owner of the hotel I was staying at, made a recommendation. I told him that if I was going to die, I would die here on this land, in my own country. I boarded a helicopter, reached our airplane and then we took off and until the very last moment our pilot did not know whether to go to Istanbul or Ankara. After flying on a certain route, I told him to land in Istanbul where we joined thousands of my citizens. The result of the operation, which took 16 hours, was that the failed coup of July 15 was completely quashed.
You have spoken many times, Mr President, about the need for the Treaty of Lausanne to be revised. But the Lausanne Treaty is the one on which Greek-Turkish friendship and peace has been based all these years. What do you have in mind? A change of borders? What does changing the Treaty of Lausanne mean to you, and does that have to do with Greece or other regions involved in the treaty?
First and foremost, the Lausanne Treaty does not only encompass Greece but the entire region and because of that alone – I think that over time all treaties need a revision – the Lausanne Treaty, in the face of the recent developments, needs a revision if you will. This revision is not only for Turkey but also for Greece. It could be mutually beneficial, but of course there are those who do not understand what this might be all about. The ones who don’t have enough knowledge about what the Lausanne Treaty entails, start immediately blaming me and seek another meaning behind my statements, but there is nothing behind these statements. Our security and our friendship can do wonders to strengthen our relationship. I do not want to expound on the details. The islands and other discussions are ongoing and just because of one development, things become complicated. I think this is something that we need to surmount on a vast sea such as the Aegean. Commercial and tourist ships should be allowed to travel unhindered. We should overcome any complications. This is the reason I am talking about a possible revision.
I would like to understand something, Mr President, as Greece has no demands opposite Turkey relating to the islands. You said, during a speech in September 2016, that it was unfortunate that the Turkish government at the time ceded certain islands to Greece through the Lausanne Treaty. So this negotiation is clearly not balanced as you are asking for something, while Greece isn't.
Well, I don’t fully remember that speech. When I talk about revision, I mean a discussion of everything, from A to Z. Greece may be not very comfortable with certain issues, certain provisions, but we can sit down and talk. And there are many crises that could have been settled by now. All of the foreign ministers have met and discussed, but every time, different ideas and different proposals are being presented. One minister uses one proposal and the other one uses another, and all the problems persist on different issues. To overcome the problems, we need to come together and talk once again. This would be very important for the future of our countries – we can settle our disputes by talking. Without talking, without getting together, disputes cannot be settled. I that think without any reservations, without any hesitations, we can take a step forward. A significant number of tourists travel from Turkey to Greece and similarly we welcome a significant number of tourists, despite some obstacles from time to time, because we have a great deal of dialogue between our nations and we have great bridges of friendship. This has been going on for a very long time. The Greek islands are quite popular destinations for Turkish tourists and in order for us to be able to further strengthen our relations we can take resolute steps forward. Whether it be the president of Greece or the prime minister, we talk about these problems that could be easily solved. In our traditions, in our customs, we have a lot of points in common that we can enjoy and do enjoy. For example, on the islands Gokceada [Imvros] and Bozcaada [Tenedos] we have ethnic Greek citizens of ours living on those islands, sharing their life with the Turks. There is a Greek school that was inaugurated when I was prime minister, even though there is just a single student. A Greek youngster used to be the chairman of the Youth Movement of my political party there. And he was in love with a Turkish girl and in order for them to get married, I tried to convince the father, and I told him not to stop this marriage from happening. The mother wanted, the father did not want that marriage to happen and I think these relations can be further flourished and they can be further expanded, which is important for me. We think we can find alternative ways to build a stronger future, and this is information I think we need to focus on.
Let me ask you directly then: if you had a theoretical solution for the Aegean what would this solution look like?
Of course in the Aegean, some distances between islands are quite problematic, but I think these problems can easily be solved. We have issued with the delineation of air space, sea borders and the continental shelf. There are certain problems that can be easily surmounted, and once we overcome them, both countries will be relieved. The entire matter is about this. As guarantor powers, as fair countries, we can initiate certain processes. We should not be over-ambitious but we can make concessions, reach mutual concessions in order to surmount the challenges. The issue of delineation of territorial waters is very important at this point and if we can overcome the challenges on that issue, we will have tackled the process once and for all. You might wonder why it's problematic for Turkish ships to sail in the Aegean. This is not something we can live with. And in regard to air space, there are certain challenges from time to time but we can surmount them. Our fighter jets and our planes should not be a threat to each other. We should get past that and forge a spirit of solidarity between our two nations: in the air, on land and in the seas. If we can forge this solidarity, I think the exchange between the two nations can be further developed. We are ready, as Turkey, to do a lot. We have no concerns whatsoever, but as I’ve stated before, we have to leave the preconditions aside and we need to focus on peace, with the help of the media and other outlets. We should no longer provoke our peoples; instead we should forge a stronger commitment.
The problem, Mr President, and I imagine you understand, is that it is very difficult for there to be a negotiation when the threat of casus belli is hanging in the air. There is a decision by the Turkish Parliament that there will be war in the event that Greece makes certain decisions. Wouldn't it be a good move to revoke this threat?
Yes, as I have said before, if we reciprocally take very positive steps, we can surmount all the challenges. But if we can still keep certain topics in our agenda, which can be a subject of war, for example, this could complicate the situation and casus belli is one of them. We should no longer provoke and allow our technical people to work on these challenges.
Mr President, you have met more Greek prime ministers than I have met Turks. My question is whether you ever agreed, or came close to an agreement, with any of them?
Well, it might be strange to hear, but I must say that from Mr [Costas] Simitis and [Costas] Karamanlis, and including all of the foreign ministers, and right now with Mr Tsipras, I haven’t met a [Greek] prime minister with whom I haven't come to an agreement. Our profound efforts are still continuing. I don’t know what Mr. Simitis is up to nowadays. Is he still involved in politics? He was the first prime minister I met. Then of course we had some bonds with Karamanlis and also at the level of foreign ministers, with Dora Bakoyannis and other distinguished individuals. Also with Mr Tsipras and Mr Simitis, even though some of them were social democrats, for example George Papandreou who was different, we were talking quite positively with many of these friends, but when it came to reaching conclusions, we could not cultivate any. I have seen a total of four prime ministers and spoke positively with them, but there was no outcome. As I’ve said before, results were difficult to achieve. Right now we have to go for results.
Another thing that made an impression on me is that there was a period in 2011 to 2013 when the overflights and violations of Greek air space that happen almost daily in the Aegean had been curbed to a great extent. Recently they have increased. Why is that?
I think periods do not matter that much, but the frequency depends on some other factors. The pilots are quite dynamic and they are young and excited. When one of them intends to violate the [something missing] air space, the other immediately answers and responds to that. The command is always in charge and they are always warning pilots to be careful, but whenever a violation of the air and space occurs, we immediately intervene. The Turkish Air Force immediately intervenes. The parties feel the need to respond to one another, should one party violate the airspace, and quite recently we have experienced this. But I hope and pray that after this day on we no longer experience such violations of the air space.
Are you afraid that, if there is no agreement for all this, there could be a war? Or is that completely inconceivable for you?
It is very wrong, it is very incorrect and it is not pleasant to talk about such risks. But I talked with Mr Tsipras. When the coup plotters fled and sought refuge in Greece, I immediately called Prime Minister Tsipras and said: “My dear friend, this is the situation, they fled Turkey and they landed in Greece. These individuals have attempted a coup and I want them to be extradited.” That was the first night of the failed coup. And he said he was going to follow up on the situation and that in no later than a fortnight they would be extradited to Turkey. That was what he said. But, unfortunately, right now, they are still in Greece. We have to monitor these developments quite meticulously. If such an event was undertaken against Greece, we would have been very careful. We would have immediately detained those individuals and extradited them to Greece. Coup attempt. What is a coup attempt? How could they even dare?
The word war should never be uttered, should never be voiced. This is something we should refrain from, because when we speak of war, who will be disturbed first? The people. The Turkish people, the Greek people. They will be very disturbed and they will start questioning whether there is still such a risk. No, never. Let’s wipe it from our agendas. We have to build our relations on peace and the entire world should build upon peace. That’s what we should work for, don’t you think?
The problem, Mr President, is that the Greek judiciary is independent, in accordance with the Greek Constitution, and also it must adhere to European rules of law as relate to human rights. So there is no scope for them to do what you are asking for.
Alexi, after detention there is a period during which the government could have easily extradited those individuals to us. We have suffered a lot we know what we are talking about and Greece suffered a lot from coup plotters – I think it was the March 18 group or was it September 17? The famous terrorist organization in Greece, November 17, you have suffered a lot at their hands as we have suffered a lot at the hands of the PKK. And now we have Feto [supporters of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen] and we need to be in full solidarity. About November 17, had we detained such individuals we would have immediately extradited them to you. That’s what should be done with terrorists when they are detained in Greece; they should be extradited to Turkey. If you leave it to the judiciary, no outcome can ever be reached and you won't be able to reach any results. The judiciary does not seem to be concerned as much as we are and in order to facilitate the job of the judiciary, as the executive power, as the government, we should take these steps forward. Before delegating it to the judiciary, we should finalize the process as members of the executive bodies. Because the police leadership is doing its job within the framework of the law, not outside the law. Of course they are subject to the law and act within the boundaries of the law. Because immediate action could have been taken quite expeditiously within the law but the judiciary will take longer to expeditiously make certain steps. Bureaucracy is something different; it can stall and linger on. Then the time comes when you see that the perpetrators are somewhere else and the family members keep on suffering. Delayed justice is no justice – and this is delayed justice. When it keeps getting later and later, something can no longer be called justice and we should not allow this to happen. There are some countries with which we have expeditiously finalized the extradition process, but with Greece we are stuck.
At the moment, the way things stand, their extradition looks rather unlikely. What is your reaction going to be?
Well right now, off course we are saddened and our respect for the Greek judiciary has been disturbed. We are concerned and if no extradition takes place we will say “OK, this is how far the system in Greece works.” Other than that, the military, the trade relations and the political relations between our countries will keep getting stronger in a very resolute and positive fashion.
Mr President, I want to be very honest. I met you and interviewed you for the first time shortly after Mr Avramopoulos had visited you in prison and you had had a very difficult time back then. A lot has changed since then. But over the past year many claim that there is a dictatorship in Turkey with many people in prison. They call you a dictator. How do you answer to that?
Those voicing their complaints should be very frank in their remarks. To start with, I can confidently say that the judiciary in Turkey is more fair than in any other European nation. My judiciary, the Turkish judiciary, can never be compared to any other country. They are working in a very fair and just way: 251 people lost their lives after July 15  and 2,193 individuals were injured. The decisions were made by the judiciary after extensive investigations. What were they supposed to do with the perpetrators of these incidents? Were they to set them free? Of course not. They were immediately incarcerated, their connections were identified and the judiciary is still investigating their further connections.
When it comes to Tayyip Erdogan and the issue around Tayyip Erdogan, I have been in nine elections and we have triumphed at the end of each and every one of them, we have always won. This is democracy isn’t it? And the turnout level was more than 80 percent all throughout these elections and I think it was the last elections where we saw a turnout of 86 percent by the citizens. We elected the president by popular vote for the first time in our history and I got 52 percent of the people's votes. This is democracy. At the end of the day, the July 15 coup plotters are sometimes referred to as democrats. There are people marching in the streets and we convey the relevant instructions to the state bodies for those marchers to be protected. Yet we are accused of not being democratic and everybody else who insults us around the clock is easily called democrat. But we are not undermined by these claims. We have never been eroded. I never lost my political capital. I will keep on being strong and our party is strong. It is the strongest party in Turkey and I am still conducting my rallies, traveling around all of the provinces, and I receive a warm welcome everywhere I go. The ties between my party and the Turkish people are becoming stronger as time goes by.
Mr President, US President Donald Trump tells anyone he meets that you are good friends. The two of you. On the other hand, there is a trial in New York from which various things are emerging and on the other there are claims that, via General Flynn, you tried to influence the Trump presidency. How are these two things reconcilable in your view?
President Trump is my friend but I have never really properly seen Flynn or talked to Flynn. I hear about Flynn only in the papers and on the television, but I am mostly in contact with [Rex] Tillerson or President Trump. Whenever we go, whenever they come we get together and my other friends from the cabinet have meetings with their counterparts. But these latest developments are quite concerning, very upsetting. The developments in Syria and Iraq need to be taken under control jointly and these are the issues that we have always discussed during our telephone conversations with President Trump. But no progress has been achieved. We are talking with Russia and we are taking some positive steps forward in this regard, and we will continue to take those steps further in that regard.
What is the message you want to bring to the Greeks on your visit?
On Thursday I will be in Greece, I will be in Athens, and my first message will be the following: they should rest assured that the negative relations between Greece and Turkey are history, the high-level strategic council agreement has already been signed between parties, and current relations are being built upon at this high level. Turkey is concentrating efforts in this new development in order to build a better future. Security and stability are two fundamental principles and we need to preserve these principles at all cost. I can say that Turkish people feel for Greek people and Greek people feel for Turkish people love and solidarity. We can forge a closer solidarity upon these emotions and upon these feelings.
Eleftherios Venizelos and Kemal Ataturk went down in history, as you know, for the Greek-Turkish friendship that they fostered and peace that last for decades. Do you see any chance of you and Mr Tsipras doing something similar?
Time will tell. Looking back at history, there are certain lessons that can be learned in order to build a better future, but if we don’t learn certain lessons, history will repeat itself, as it always does. With Mr Tsipras we will talk about everything under the sun in order to surmount the challenges. We will hopefully turn a new page and initiate a new process so that Turkey and Greece can build a better future.