Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Greece is taking place at a time of his choice. It is probably related to Turkey’s difficult relations with the majority of European Union member states, as well as with the United States and the resulting diplomatic isolation.
A state visit to Greece was probably perceived as a good photo opportunity and a successful public relations exercise for the Turkish president, who is eager to show that he is still welcomed in an EU member state, despite the bilateral problems and his authoritarian style of government.
For the Greek government, the expectation was that this visit and the resulting goodwill, in combination with Ankara’s many foreign and domestic problems, will lead to a period of lower tension between Greece and Turkey, and perhaps better cooperation on the migration issue. Boosting economic cooperation was another expectation for the Greek side.
Discussion on the difficult issues (bilateral relations and the Aegean, Cyprus, illegal migration, the extradition of the eight military officers accused by Turkey of taking part in last year's failed coup, the rights of minorities, etc) was expected to be routine, with each side repeating its well-known positions and agreeing that they had “a frank and useful meeting.”
President Erdogan had every reason to turn this visit into a success story. Instead, he gave an interview to Kathimerini newspaper in which he spoke of the need to “update” the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which remains the cornerstone of Greek-Turkish relations. He is too experienced not to realize that the Greek side, and especially President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, would feel compelled to answer and that most likely this answer would be public.
The lengthy and rather tense public statements by the two presidents on the Lausanne Treaty issue (who, incidentally, have very different roles and competencies) instead of a purely ceremonial exchange, have probably set the tone for the whole visit and have created uncertainty as to whether it can be considered successful, or at least neutral in terms of real impact.
One struggles to understand why President Erdogan turned a public relations exercise into a mini-crisis with the least problematic of Turkey’s neighbors and European partners. A slip of the tongue or one of his usual outbursts without any other hidden agenda sounds rather like wishful thinking than a plausible explanation.
The two sides should now intensively engage in damage limitation. It is hoped that during his visit to Thrace, President Erdogan will be as careful in his statements as he was in his visit to the area as prime minister in 2004. In any case, public dialogues and statements about sensitive issues is a practice that should be avoided, as the results are seldom positive.
Finally, in response to comments in the European media about Athens turning a blind eye to Erdogan’s authoritarian practices, it should be emphasized that not only is this largely inaccurate but that in addition to European policies vis-a-vis Turkey, Athens is obliged to develop its own bilateral relationship with Ankara for political and geographic reasons, as any turbulence in EU-Turkey relations affects first and foremost Greece, which is a front-line state in various respects.
* Thanos Dokos is the director-general of the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).