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Dimitar Bechev
Feb 07 2019

Greek PM faces tough test in Turkey

When Alexis Tsipras became prime minister of Greece in January 2015, few thought he would last very long. Even fewer saw the radical leftist as a future mover and shaker in the politics of southeast Europe. But here he is, four years later, and, boy, have regional perceptions changed.  

His stock in the European Union is as high as ever. Last August, Greece completed its emergence loan programme with the bloc. Its economy expanded by more than 2 percent in 2018 and is set to continue growing this year. 

Tsipras has turned into something of a NATO icon, too. He recently won a battle in the Greek parliament over the ratification of the Prespa Agreement resolving the long-standing name issue with neighbouring Macedonia. As a result, the newly renamed North Macedonia signed a NATO accession protocol on Feb. 6 and is poised to join the alliance by the end of the year. 

Greek relations with the United States are thriving as well. Tsipras was received warmly at the White House in October 2017. A 1.2-billion euro deal to upgrade Greece’s fleet of 85 fighter jets is music to the Trump administration’s ears, which is therefore unlikely to give Tsipras much trouble for his support of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.    

Thus far, Turkey has been a sore spot in the Tsipras government’s diplomacy. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Athens at the end of 2017, which ended in a heated exchange with his hosts, was a missed opportunity. Tensions mounted through early 2018, especially after Turkey arrested two Greek soldiers who had strayed across the border.

But after June elections in Turkey, a period of détente set in. Erdoğan sought to dial down disputes with EU members. Europeans okayed a new tranche under the refugee scheme adopted with Ankara in early 2016 – a win for Tsipras, amongst other things, as he reminded Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency in an interview this week. 

Though coming short of a full-blown reset between EU and Turkey, the change in atmospherics has benefitted Greece. In August, Turkish authorities released the detained Greek servicemen and Ankara dropped plans to trade them for eight Turkish soldiers who sought refuge in Greece after the failed coup attempt in July 2016.  

Tsipras’ two-day visit to Turkey this comes as an effort to cash in on the positive momentum. He received royal treatment from the hosts, with visits to Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia and a former seminary school on Heybeliada in the Sea of Marmara, where the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew presided over a service. Tsipras, a self-avowed atheist who refused to swear in over a Bible during the prime ministerial inauguration, became the first Greek statesmen to visit the religious academy since Eleftherios Venizelos in 1933.

The trip to Halki seminary is no small event. Tsipras is pandering to sentiments of patriotism and nostalgia shared by many Greeks. Relaunching the conversation with Erdoğan over the re-opening of the seminary brings Tsipras some domestic dividends. The prime minister has come under heavy criticism by nationalists for capitulating to Western pressure on the Macedonian issue.

Lobbying on behalf of the ecumenical patriarch helps brush up his image. There are elections for the European Parliament around the corner in May, which will be a critical test for Tsipras. Legislative polls are due in September too. Even if voters will most likely make their decision based on bread-and-butter concerns and loyalty to party, symbolic issues matter as well.

Dealing with Turkey remains an unthankful business however. If Tsipras is serious about Halki he will need to accommodate Ankara on its long-standing demands with regard to the Turkish community in western Thrace. The recognition of muftis elected by local Muslims is a particularly thorny subject.

With his actions on the Macedonian issue, Tsipras has demonstrated he has the guts to tackle controversial issues head-on. But a compromise with Erdoğan might carry additional cost for him. The opposition New Democracy has already been blasting Tsipras for not doing a good job during the visit.  

Erdoğan might be ready to haggle, but he will not lower his guard. Tsipras’s visit started on an embarrassing note when Ankara put a bounty of 4 million lira ($770,000) on each of eight Turkish soldiers who fled to Greece after the failed coup of July 2016.

The move by the Turkish government was possibly for domestic consumption, as Erdoğan wants to signal to his constituents that Turkey is not walking away from its demands. Tsipras, for his part, remained adamant that the soldiers’ fate is in the hands of the independent judiciary in Greece. All he could give to his host were assurances Greece is against harbouring terrorists. In short, no serious breakthrough was achieved.  

Another goal Tsipras came with was to scale down tensions in the Aegean. At a press conference in Turkey, the prime minister referred to confidence building measures agreed with Erdoğan, yet we are yet to see what that means in practice. It is worth remembering that Tsipras and Erdoğan also spoke of confidence building measures after their meeting in December 2017.  

For all of Tsipras’ diplomatic achievements, relations with Turkey remain a tough nut to crack.