Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s state visit to Greece is historic in itself, being the first by a head of state of Greece’s neighbor and rival in 65 years. Whether this initiative has a positive or negative outcome is yet to be seen. From the beginning it was clear that the invitation was a high-risk gamble for Athens: Mr Erdogan had nothing to lose and everything to gain, whereas for Greece any stirring up of sensitive bilateral issues is always dangerous. The results will show whether it was wise to propose the visit at this particular point in time.
Because the context is key. Mr Erdogan is isolated in Europe, at loggerheads with the United States and dependent on Russia. His country is deeply divided, a former close associate of his government is testifying in a US court about how he bribed ministers to help him break the international embargo on Iran, and Erdogan’s approval rating has fallen below the crucial 50 percent threshold at home. Yet, Donald Trump’s decision to proclaim Jerusalem capital of Israel has given the Turkish leader the opportunity to declare “Mr Trump, Jerusalem is the red line for Muslims.” After backing the wrong horse in several cases during the Arab Spring of 2011 and its aftermath, and finding himself and his country isolated, the Turkish leader now has a second chance to present himself as the voice of the world’s Muslim community.
Regarding Greece, it is clear that Mr Erdogan’s priority during his visit is to raise the issue of the Muslim minority. A hardened player, he knows that throwing the demand for a “revision” of the Treaty of Lausanne, which established the borders between Turkey and its neighbors, would cause turmoil in Athens, allowing him to raise even higher the tension with claims of the minority’s misfortunes. There, too, when he talks about “fellow Turks” he knows he can only win, seeing as he can blame former Turkish governments for persecuting and expelling the Greeks from Turkey. The injustice against the Greeks is “historic,” and therefore should not weigh the present, while, for him, the other is an issue to be resolved.
It is likely that for Mr Erdogan it is not so important that he achieve something directly with his visit, whose most immediate result will be a commotion in Greek politics. What he needs is to show his domestic audience that he is fighting for the rights of fellow Turks and fellow Muslims everywhere, all the time. What remains to be seen is whether his Greek interlocutors were able to exploit his need to appear a winner all the time, whether they were able to exchange some small benefit for the platform that they provided him.