Status Quo, No Static: Tsipras-Erdogan Meet in Turkey

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras smile during their meeting in Ankara, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)

It wasn’t expected to produce any breakthroughs and it didn’t, with the meeting in Ankara of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras resulting in their agreeing to keep talking about differences.

In a showcase of conciliation, they cited the need to “channels of dialogue” open between their countries, which have come to the brink of war three times since the early 1970s and remain divided over an array of issues, exacerbated by Erdogan continuing to send fighter jets into Greek airspace and fighter jets past Greek islands.

Erdogan has been seeking to expand Turkey’s reach in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean and has claimed waters in Greek and Cypriot territories with the three countries vying to hunt for potentially lucrative oil and gas.

“If I had not been able to pick up the phone, and the president had not picked up the phone to get in touch, we would have very likely found ourselves often … faced with a dangerous escalation,” Tsipras said. “So I’m glad that there is this level of communication and sincerity between us.”

Tsipras added during a joint news conference the neighboring NATO allies had agreed to take steps to try and ease tensions from decades-old territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea. He did not elaborate.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, shakes hands with Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras during their meeting in Ankara, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)

There was no movement either on the most contentious issue, Erdogan’s demand that Greece return eight Turkish servicemen seeking asylum after fleeing a failed coup against him in July, 2016 in which they denied taking part.

The eight, released from pre-trial detention, are being guarded in a military camp by riot police after Turkey put a 5.6 million euros ($6.38 million) bounty on their heads for their return after threatening to go as far as kidnapping them.

Greece’s highest court has barred their extradition, saying their lives would be in danger with Erdogan having considered return of the death penalty and purging civil society and the military after the attempt to overthrow and assassinate him.

Greece does not welcome coupists but the case of eight soldiers comes under the jurisdiction of the courts, said Tsipras. “Greece must respect the judiciary’s decisions,” Tsipras said after meeting Erdogan.

“Coup plotters are not welcome in Greece, however what is more important is to strengthen our cooperation on the sector of security,” he added.

Earlier in the press conference, Erdogan said he expected more cooperation from Greece in the repatriation of the eight soldiers. “As allies, we must be against terrorism. We will have to form a joint roadmap and act in a similar manner against the PKK and the FETO movement which we consider as terrorist.” He added: “These fugitives…must not find a place in Greece.”

Before Tsipras set foot in Turkey, the state-run Anadolu Agency reported the Turkish Interior Ministry had added 74 officers to the list of people wanted for alleged roles in the coup attempt, including the eight servicemen.

Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras drinks water during a press conference with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

In Greece, Giorgos Koumoutsakos, an opposition lawmaker with the New Democracy party who is responsible for foreign affairs, accused Turkey of “a new provocative move” to undermine Tsipras’ visit.

“It has placed a bounty on the eight Turkish servicemen, disregarding the final decisions of the independent Greek justice system which has granted them asylum,” he said.

THE BIG DIVIDE

Tsipras also said the countries agreed to de-escalate any tensions in the Aegean Sea and proceed with confidence building measures, while any differences with Turkey “can and must be solved with dialogue,” although similar past agreements were quickly broken by Erdogan who then ratcheted up provocations.

“Today, in our talks, it became once again clear that neither you nor me accept the logic of inertia and compliance with the beaten track. Because we recognize that the challenges we face in our times and in our region do not allow us to remain trapped in impasses,” said Tsipras, saying there’s room to talk about exploration of the Continental Shelf between them.

THE CYPRIOT DILEMMA

With talks to reunify Cyprus having collapsed in July, 2017 at the Swiss resort of Crans-Montana when Erdogan said he would never remove an army from the northern third unlawfully occupied since a 1974 invasion, the Turkish leader said an important parameter is achieving “equality” for Turks on the island.

With Greece and Turkey, along with the United Kingdom – the former Colonial ruler which still has a military base on the island – Tsipras called for a  “fair and lasting” settlement, typical diplomatic boilerplate generally used to show there are no no ideas or thoughts.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras join a press conference in Ankara, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

Turkey has demanded a share of any energy finds off Cyprus – to which Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades agreed – but Erdogan said that’s not enough and he wants Turkish-Cypriots to take part in the licensing of foreign companies looking for oil and gas.

Tensions have flared over gas exploration off Cyprus. Turkey insists that gas exploration by “I believe that we, as Turkey, can peacefully solve all issues with Greece on the basis of fairness,” Erdogan said without adding why if that’s the case he keeps hinting that even a military option would be on the table.

MINORITY REPORT

Erdogan also called on Greece to improve the lives of the Muslim minority in western Thrace he had visited previously. “We have made every effort to improve the situation if our citizens of Greek descent and expect Greece to adopt the same approach,” he noted.

Asked about the Greek request to reopen the Orthodox seminary on the island of Halki, Erdogan said: “Every time this comes up, I tell them we should resolve the issue of the muftis in western Thrace. Let’s also solve this issue.”

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, second right, and Greece’s Prime Minister Tsipras join a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)

Tsipras was to visit an Orthodox theological seminary on an island off Constantinople, becoming the first serving Greek Prime Minister to do so. The seminary, which trained Orthodox church leaders, has been closed since 1971, despite calls on the Turkish government to reopen it.

Erdogan said Turkey was prepared to reopen the seminary if Greece took steps to improve rights of the Muslim minority which Greece identifies as Muslim Greeks even though they are Turkish and won’t let them elect their mufti religious leader.

Commenting on the migration crisis, he said his country has kept all its promises deriving from the EU-Turkey statement to stem migration but the bloc has not keeping its side of the deal. Turkey has an “excessive burden,” caring for four million refugees, he added.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)

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