The issue of the Greek Muslim minority in Western Thrace has become an almost permanent fixture on the agenda, most recently as a result of comments made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his visit to Greece in early December.
The issue of the minorities in Greece and Turkey stems from the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which exempted “Greeks” living in Istanbul, Imbros and Tenedos, and Muslims in Western Thrace from the population exchanges between the two countries. Since then, no major issues have arisen concerning the Muslim minority in the northern Greek region – or at least not until very recently, and with a few exceptions in the 1990s. No Greek government (on the basis of the mutuality principle laid down in the treaty’s Article 45) has ever subjected individuals or the entire minority population to reprisals prohibited under international humanitarian and human rights laws.
Despite the constant persecution of Greeks in Turkey and significant territorial violations on Imbros and Tenedos, Greece never once considered punishing human beings who were also its citizens in response to a policy of suppression, even when the victims of this policy were of Greek descent. This resulted in the disruption of the equilibrium in terms of the size of the minority population in both countries, which defined the spirit of the Treaty of Lausanne.
Having no Greek element to use as leverage anymore – with the exception of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which, however, is an issue that stirs reaction from the West and international public opinion – Turkey has in the past few years started using the Muslim minority in Western Thrace via nationalist groups that are often beyond the state’s control. This new tactic coincided with a general policy shift in Turkey toward so-called “Pan-Turkism.” Kemal Ataturk’s pledge that Turkey would become involved only in regard to Turks living within its own borders has gradually given way to the notion that regards all “Turks” living in other countries as “enslaved brothers.”
The Treaty of Lausanne grants certain rights to the Muslim Greeks in Western Thrace, and issues governed by international agreements or owing their legal existence to international law cannot by their very nature have a purely domestic character. This is why any issue regarding the minority comes under the purview of the Foreign as well as other ministries. That the Muslims of Western Thrace are Greek citizens does not exclude that some of their rights and obligations may be guaranteed by specific provisions of international law. The same is the case for the Greek minority in Turkey. Showing an interest in the minorities does not perforce mean intervention in domestic affairs. However, the prophetic Article 27 of the Lausanne Treaty explicitly prohibits any “Turkish intervention” on the political, administrative and judicial fronts in Western Thrace.
State and government officials in Turkey, therefore, should be wary of being dragged into a dangerous adventure by the well-known extremist and nationalist elements that surround them. Both Athens and Ankara also need to pay due attention to the issue, as all questions regarding minorities are also broadly about human rights, over which European and international public opinion are particularly sensitive, regardless of political background. They should also consider the huge international political dimensions that any issue regarding ethnicity and ethnic minorities can assume in this day and age.
* Aristidis Calogeropoulos-Stratis, PhD from the University of Geneva, is a former press officer at the Greek Embassy in Ankara and general secretary of European affairs at the Foreign Ministry in Athens.