Papandreou in Erzurum

Never before has a visit by a Greek prime minister to Turkey raised so much controversy. Supporters of George Papandreou point to his public language during his recent meeting with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to make the case that he is an effective defender of our national interests. On the other hand, Papandreou’s critics express concern, suggesting that the Greek premier is likely to have made secret deals with Ankara. They invoke signs of Greek concessions in the ongoing negotiations as well as statements by Turkish officials regarding the joint exploitation of Aegean resources. One’s view basically depends on whether one has political faith in Papandreou. In truth, it is nearly impossible to draw a safe conclusion because the precise content of the prime minister’s talks in Turkey is known only to a small circle of close aides. Needless to say, public statements do not tell the whole story. Both leaders like to cultivate ties through regular meetings, each for their own reasons. Papandreou is a strong believer in personal diplomacy and he thinks it is very important to keep a low-tension policy. But he is willing to make some concessions if that will help him correct the existing problems and forge friendly ties with Ankara. For his part, the Turkish premier is pursuing the so-called neo-Ottoman strategy, a hegemonic policy based on the exercise of soft power. He avoids putting military pressure on Greece because this is after all the prerogative of the deep state. He does not want tension with Greece because that would work in favor of his domestic rivals. This however does not mean that he is prepared to make any compromises over Turkey’s claims. Meanwhile, Papandreou’s visit served Erdogan’s campaign needs ahead of the June parliamentary elections. The Aegean overflights by Turkish fighter jets almost made Papandreou call off the visit. Such violations used to be standard practice ahead of or even during high-level bilateral meetings, as they were seen as a way to assert Turkey’s determination, underscore foreign policy claims and gain a political and psychological advantage. During the Erdogan years, military provocations seem to serve an additional purpose. The military is indirectly trying to sabotage neo-Ottoman diplomacy. For his part, Papandreou reacted promptly to the overflights. By threatening to put off his visit to Erzurum, the Greek premier gained a chance to say what he wanted without creating tensions in Greek-Turkish ties. At the same time, he sold his tough posturing to the domestic public at a time when he is short of political capital.