Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sudden questioning of the Treaty of Lausanne raises many issues. In trying to decipher his motives, however, we should not rule out the possibility that with this statement Erdogan simply made a grave error; perhaps he was misled by his arrogance after his victory over the coup plotters last July, perhaps he is blinded by his rush to revise history and to shape the new Turkey according to his wishes. If Ankara does move to revise the Treaty of Lausanne, however, this will set in motion unpredictable forces and could cost Turkey dearly.
The Treaty of Lausanne established not only Turkey’s borders with Greece but also with its eastern neighbors – Syria and Iraq. Those borders divided the territory in which the three countries’ Kurds live. At a time when the Kurdish issue is at the forefront because of the war against the so-called Islamic State, Syria’s disintegration and the renewed fighting with Kurdish separatists in Turkey, a responsible government would not dare to broach the issue of border changes. The clashes of interests (from local tribes to superpowers) are so complicated and developments so fluid that no government would want to undermine its state’s very foundations.
On July 24, in a statement commemorating the signing of the Lausanne Treaty in 1923, Erdogan himself had called the agreement “the title deed of our newly founded state.” The treaty was signed, on behalf of Turkey, by Foreign Minister Ismet Pasha (Inonu), who later succeeded Kemal Ataturk in the presidency, and by the representatives of the British Empire, France, Italy, Japan, Greece, Romania and the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs. After the Turkish victory over Greek and other forces, and the scrapping of the Treaty of Sevres (1920), which had been bad for the Ottoman Empire, the Lausanne Treaty was presented as a victory by the Turkish leadership and established the borders of the Republic of Turkey. (It also referred to another convention which set out the exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece.)
Erdogan now projects himself as a new Ataturk in the place of Mustafa Kemal. The attempted coup of July 15, he said Thursday, “is the second War of Independence for the Turkish nation. Let us know that. They [threatened] us with Sevres in 1920 and persuaded us to [accept] Lausanne in 1923. Some tried to deceive us by presenting Lausanne as a victory. In Lausanne we gave away the islands that we could shout across to,” he said, according to Hurriyet Daily News. “We are still struggling about what the continental shelf will be, and what will be in the air and the land,” he said. “If this coup had succeeded, they would have given us a treaty that would have made us long for Sevres,” Erdogan added.
In his effort to control everything in Turkey, Erdogan is unpredictable and dangerous. But however much we neighbors may worry, it is his compatriots who should be more frightened.