After the lull, what?

After the lull, what?

Talks between Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara will be conducted in a much heavier climate than last December’s meeting in Athens. It is a reciprocal visit, of a more transactional nature, and comes as Turkey distances itself further from the West because of events in Gaza and during an ebb in the momentum of US-Turkish ties that led to the cancellation of Erdogan’s visit to Washington. 

On the Euro-Turkish front, Ankara is obviously annoyed by the inclusion of the Cyprus issue as a prerequisite for good relations with the European Union, as evidenced by the spike in aggressive rhetoric against the Europeans. The Turks have also assigned themselves the role of protector of the Palestinian people and persecuted Muslims around the globe. 

On the purely bilateral front, though, too, we have seen a fresh upsurge in aggressive posturing against Greece. This was evident both before and after the local elections in Turkey, where Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party slipped from the top spot, in the stated intention to teach the so-called “Blue Homeland” doctrine (which is evolving into a strategic credo) at schools, in Ankara’s reaction to Athens’ creation of marine parks in parts of the Aegean, including areas where it challenges Greece’s sovereignty, in the official inauguration of the historical Byzantine-era Church of Chora in Istanbul as a mosque, and in the frequent references to the Muslim minority in Thrace as a “Turkish minority.” In short, Ankara has not been idle in the five-plus months since the Athens Declaration was signed.

On the other hand, Turkey has upheld the cessation of overflights with admirable consistency – the likes of which we haven’t seen in the past 50 years – while military exercises are being conducted in a more restrained and acceptable manner. Sure, Turkey will be going ahead with its major Seawolf exercise this year as opposed to last year – though that was two months after the devastating earthquakes, so that had provided an excuse for their cancellation – but will be using a much smaller number of aircraft (for practical reasons too). Most importantly, Turkey informed Greece, seeking its tacit approval, for its Navtex before it was issued, a fact seen as Turkey’s acceptance of Greece’s jurisdiction in the particular part of the Aegean being reserved for naval exercises. It also appears that the search and rescue leg of the drill will be conducted after May 16 so as not to coincide with the Greek prime minister’s visit. From there on, the two leaders obviously intend to maintain a functional relationship, which is confirmed at every one of their meetings. This is what makes the frequency of these contacts so important. It is up to them, after all, to keep up the relatively good climate.

It is reasonable to assume that a certain “choreography” has been agreed between the two sides for the press conference that will follow the leaders’ meeting in Ankara on Monday to avoid any unpleasant surprises and further consolidate the climate, by putting an emphasis on the so-called “positive agenda.” It is wrong to underestimate the value of the latter, since such initiatives help foster the understanding that there are areas of mutual interest and mutual problems that call for joint solutions. Two areas where we have already seen “quantifiable results,” to quote the Greek prime minister, are immigration (with a sizeable reduction in inflows) and tourism (the seven-day express visa has been extremely good for the 10 eastern Aegean islands it relates to with a tripling of the number of Turkish visitors).

It is, nevertheless, naive to expect that such synergies would compel Turkey to make even the slightest shift from its revisionist agenda. The events of the past year are nothing more than a first step in a roadmap whose ultimate aim ought to be initiating substantive negotiations on the big issues down the line. But, of course, a climate of relative mutual trust and a period of calm in the field and in rhetoric needs to precede any such endeavor.

That said, so far as new generations are indoctrinated with the “Blue Homeland,” and Turkey continues to challenge Greek sovereignty and maintain the casus belli, any attempt at more meaningful talks will always run into hurdles. Furthermore, the unresolved disputes and Erdogan’s assertive style of politics can quickly upset the current dynamic. This is why Greece needs to regain the upper hand on the way ahead and to set a clear framework on relations and, more specifically, on how negotiations are carried out with a long-term view toward resolution. Because it is obvious that Athens and Ankara hold differing views on what the ebb of tensions means and so long as talks on the big issues continue to lack substance, the risk of the current climate turning sour again looms large. 

Constantinos Filis is an associate professor at the American College of Greece and director of its Institute of Global Affairs.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.