A missed opportunity in Athens

A missed opportunity. There is no other way to describe President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Greece last week.

What could have been a step towards upgrading economic and political ties across the Aegean degenerated into a neighbourly quarrel worthy of the streets of Kasımpaşa, Tayyip’s home turf.

Whether the Lausanne Convention from 1923 is liable to revision or not should not be on top of Ankara’s agenda.

Nor should it be the main concern in Greece, notwithstanding the fact that issues of sovereignty cannot be simply swept under the carpet.

But there are plenty of more urgent questions Turkey and Greece have on their hands: the collapse of reunification talks in Cyprus and refugees, to give but two obvious examples.

The irony, of course, is that, in its day, Lausanne was meant to give Turkey a clean slate.

Establishing firm borders, swapping populations (on a hitherto unseen scale), locking in the rights of Istanbul Greeks and Muslim Turks, and Pomaks and Roma in Greece’s province of Western Thrace should have ended these disputes once and for all and allowed the two states to move on. Yet, as we know well, it didn’t take all that long before Turkey and Greece were at each other’s throats again. 

To lay the blame for what happened last week on the poisoned legacy of the past, however, is to miss the point.

It is a failure of leadership, rather than the long shadow of history. And both sides are complicit.

More than a year ago, Erdoğan raised the Lausanne treaty in order to hurt his secular opponents in Turkey.

Rather than a crowning achievement of Turkish diplomacy, ratifying the Kemalists’ triumph in the War of Independence, the agreement, he reasoned, had given away territory to the Greeks.

But that was in September 2016. Erdoğan certainly did not need to bring up the subject of revising Lausanne once again, in an interview for the Greek daily Kathimerini just before his visit.

His remarks made it inevitable that President Prokopis Pavlopoulos would fire back during the joint press conference.

Which, as one would expect, began a vicious circle. Erdoğan slammed Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, for failing to take care of Ottoman historic sites, guarantee the religious rights to Muslims and do something about the economic gap between the Turkish minority and the majority.

To which Tsipras responded by voicing grievances about Turkey’s military jets violating Greek airspace in the Aegean.

And to make things even worse, there was no meeting of minds with regard to the eight Turkish officers who sought asylum in Greece following the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016.

The Greek government is adamant that extradition is a question to be answered by the courts.

To make a long story short, Erdoğan decided that pandering to his base was more important than getting business done with the Greeks. Equally, Tsipras had to push back to avoid appearing soft on Turkey.

The debacle was partly caused by poor planning on the Greek side, too. Surely, Tsipras et al. should have foreseen the danger of a war of words breaking out during the visit.  Then again, perhaps they did but decided to take a chance.

In reality, Greek-Turkish relations are not in such a bad shape as this diplomatic debacle suggests.

The second day of Erdoğan’s visit, marked by the hero’s welcome he received by the Turkish community in Komotini/Gümülcine in Western Thrace, went smoothly and was scandal-free.

The president is not the only Turkish leader to be seen in the town of late. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım paid a visit in June (“You are all citizens of Greece”, he reminded his hosts) and his deputy, the Komotini-born Hakan Çavuşoğlu, in November.

Economic cooperation between Turkey and Greece is also moving forward. The High-Level Cooperation Council, bringing together the two cabinets, is alive: it had its fourth meeting in Izmir in March 2016 and is due to hold a session in Thessaloniki next year.

Though the Greek financial crisis has seen trade volume nearly halved over the past five years, Turkish exports have registered modest growth.

In 2019–20, once the TANAP and TAP pipelines come onstream, Greece and Turkey will become part of the Southern Gas Corridor linking the Caspian and the EU. 

Even if the EU membership perspective, which anchored Greek–Turkish rapprochement since 1999, is not at play anymore, economic integration is moving on.

But, sadly, business opportunities are not a silver bullet.  It takes political will to crack the difficult issues burdening Greek–Turkish relations for decades, whether it is minority rights or the sovereignty disputes in the Aegean. And right now, there is very little sign such will exists.