ATHENS – It was an unexpected sight: Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at peace and talking after communications had broken off, signing the so-called Athens Declaration of diplomacy.
That replaced frequent tension and threats of a conflict after a volatile Erdogan in May 2022 said he would never speak to Mitsotakis again after the Greek leader in an address to the US Congress asked lawmakers to block President Joe Biden’s plan to sell Turkey more F-16 fighter jets that could be used against Greece, and to upgrade Turkey’s Air Force.
Erdogan, now on a path to try to be President for life and enhance Turkey’s role as a regional power, had even threatened to invade Greece and said “We could come suddenly one night.”
But his tune has changed as he again hopes for Turkey to be admitted to the European Union, a process that began in 2005 and had worsened under his authoritarian rule and provocations against Greece.
That has changed, or so it seems, with a kinder, gentler Erdogan offering a calmer path between the countries although the biggest issues – Greek troops on Aegean islands near Turkey and Turkey’s plans to hunt for energy off Greek islands – still unresolved.
In a review of their meeting in Athens, the New York Times said the “declaration on friendly relations and good neighborliness” has put the countries on a more constructive path after Mitsotakis reacted calmly to Erdogan’s frequent belligerence and didn’t raise the stakes.
“The eventual goal, they said, was to resolve long standing differences, which in recent decades have brought them to the brink of military conflict,” the piece noted, two NATO allies often at odds.
This came during Erdogan’s first visit to Greece in six years, the interim period often at a cauldron boiling point that saw Mitsotakis build Greece’s arsenal with French Rafale fighter jets and warships and seeking US F-35’s denied Turkey for its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems.
“Although the pact is not legally binding, it is historically significant – previous Greek leaders have tried but failed to achieve it – and carries strong symbolism,” the paper said in what is perhaps Mitsotakis’ greatest achievement yet.
WALKING THE TALK
As they talked at the highest level, so too did officials from both countries on a range of other issues including energy, tourism and trade in hopes of doubling the amount between them to $10 billion, half of what Greece tourism brings in as the country’s biggest revenue engine.
They talked also about the thorny issue of migration and refugees, with Turkey holding some 4.4 million people who went there fleeing war, strife and economic hardship in their homelands, especially Syria and Afghanistan.
Erdogan had threatened to unleash them on the European Union, which closed its orders to them, seeing human smugglers sending them mostly to Greece in violation of a 2016 EU-Turkey swap deal.
The meeting was so relaxed in comparison to other tense photo opportunities earlier this year at NATO and EU meetings that the almost always grim Erdogan smiled in a TV meeting with Greek President Katerina Sakelloropoulou, who holds a symbolic position.
“Erdogan engaged in an unusually cordial handshake before ascending the steps of the Prime Minister’s mansion for talks,” as unlikely as seeing Russian President Vladimir Putin smiling.
“There is no problem between us so large that it can’t be resolved,” Erdogan said later in televised remarks with Mitsotakis, “as long as we focus on the big picture.” “We want to make the Aegean a sea of peace and cooperation.”
Mitsotakis said, “Geography and history have ensured that we live together, and I feel a historic duty to bring the two states side by side, like our borders. We owe it to the next generations to build a tomorrow with calm waters where a tailwind blows.”
The countries signed a total of 15 agreements in areas including education, exports and agriculture, said Mitsotakis’ office and they vowed to hold continuing talks on political and economic issues like energy and tourism and step up Confidence Building Measures to reduce tension sources.
And they also said they would keep open the communication channels shut down by Erdogan when he said after Mitsotakis’ Congressional address that the Greek leader “no longer exists for me.”
They said if disputes occur that they will try diplomatic means although left on the table were the most contentious issues that weren’t brought up and they wouldn’t take questions from reporters despite the significance.
RIDING THE CREST
Mitsotakis said resolutions to disputes over the so-called continental shelf and mineral rights in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean would be explored as a “next step” once high-level talks had progressed.
Erdogan didn’t raise the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that set boundaries between the countries and ceded a number of islands to Greece that he said he wanted back, refusing to accept the 100-year-old agreement.
Erdogan said he wants further summits with his Greek counterpart and invited Mitotakis to Turkey’s capital Ankara for the next one, indicating Turkey seems genuinely interested in diplomacy and not as just a ploy.
There was only brief discord when Mitsotakis responded to Erdogan’s reference to a “Turkish minority” in Greece, noting that the international treaty that set the countries’ modern borders refers to a “Muslim” minority even though they are Turks, splitting hairs, Greece anxious that calling them Turks – even though they are – implies territorial aspirations.
Ahmet Kasim Han, a Professor of International Relations at Beykoz University in Istanbul told the Times that, “Turkey basically cannot afford to have a further point of tension with the West” because of its domestic economic difficulties, adding: “Greece is presenting a great window of opportunity in that sense.”
Turkey also wants to protect its interests in the eastern Mediterranean, an important route for natural gas to Europe that borders other important regional players like Israel and Egypt, especially with Turkey’s newly strained relations with Israel over its invasion of Gaza against Hamas.
Han said that Erdogan also had to show statesmanship, particularly after refusing to abide by EU sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine and defending Hamas terrorists as freedom fighters.
“You have to show them you can do real business, too,” he said, and not just protect and bicker and battle all the time over almost every issue, the meeting also a key opportunity to reduce military conflict potential.
Constantinos Filis, Director of the Institute of Global Affairs at the American College of Greece, told the paper that, “It is clear that both sides are willing to put behind them the bad moments of the recent past but also to set aside, for the time being, what separates them.”
The apparent new era of detente was set in motion by tragedies in both countries in the same month, February of this year, when thousands died in an earthquake in Turkey and 57 people were killed in a head-on train collision in Greece.
After the earthquake, Greece sent recovery teams to Turkey and Erdogan and Turkish officials offered condolences over the train crash, the dual incidents putting them on a track to diplomacy and away from rancor.