ANKARA -- A meeting aimed to improve fraught ties between NATO allies Greece and Turkey quickly descended into a tense exchange of accusations between the two neighbors' foreign ministers on Thursday.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias traveled to Ankara to discuss ties with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, following a slight easing of tensions. Appearing before the cameras to deliver their press statements, the two men initially spoke about keeping the channels of dialogue open and increasing economic cooperation in an effort to improve relations.
But their meeting soon turned sour after Dendias accused Turkey of violating Greece's sovereign rights in the eastern Mediterranean and warned that Ankara would face European Union sanctions if the violations continue. Cavusoglu retorted calling Dendias' remarks “unacceptable.”
The two ministers then proceeded to list grievances against each other's country.
Greek Foreign Affairs Minister Nikos Dendias said talks in Ankara were "extensive, open and sincere," speaking after meeting with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on Thursday.
In the beginning, the Greek minister welcomed the restart of exploratory talks and political consultations with Turkey, and he underlined that several regional and bilateral issues were discussed at the meeting with Cavusoglu, including a series of proposals towards reviving initiatives for the economic collaboration between the two countries.
The meeting also provided "a positive agenda of economic issues to promote our relations further," and to "change the climate that exists in Greek-Turkish relations."
Dendias did however underline that "a necessary prerequisite to this is de-escalation and refraining from actions and statements that undermine the climate."
Greece, he underlined, "supports Turkey's EU accession process, if it so wishes," but respect of EU principles and values is an inviolable condition for it.
Concerning the five-sided summit on the Cyprus issue, under the aegis of the UN, he said all sides concerned will join with a "constructive spirit in mind." The only acceptable solution to the Cyprus issue, he added, is "the one supported by all international actors: a bizonal, bicommunal federation."
The minister pointed out that he found himself in agreement with his Turkish counterpart that migration is an "EU-Turkish issue". Turkey, however, should meet its commitments as inscribed in its joint statement with the EU on migration, he noted. Furthermore, Dendias reminded his counterpart of what he said was the "instrumentalization of the migration issue" at the Greek-Turkish borders in Evros in 2020.
Additionally, reversing its decision to turn the Hagia Sophia historic monument to a mosque "would be beneficial to Turkey and its international image."
"Greece and Turkey are destined to coexist in a region with many complex problems," said Dendias. It is, therefore, to the benefit of both countries "that we cooperate within the framework of good neighborliness for security, prosperity and peace."
"We are not ignoring reality; we know we have a long way ahead of us, but we can take that first step today," he concluded.
Issues between us can be resolved by constructive dialogue
Issues between Greece and Turkey "can be resolved by constructive dialogue," Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday, at statements following his meeting in Ankara with his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias.
Welcoming the restart of exploratory talks and political consultations, he added that "fait accomplis and provocative statements can be avoided." He said the two discussed all bilateral issues related to the Aegean and the East Mediterranean and acknowledged that Greece and Turkey held differences of opinion. He also highlighted the proposal earlier in the day by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a summit on the East Mediterranean.
On the informal five-sided meeting on the Cyprus issue in Geneva, he said that "all sides must join in the most positive and constructive manner."
Referring to Greek-Turkish trade and economic relations, he said that as neighbors both should continue and expand them, something being worked on. He also highlighted the importance of the restart last month of flights between the two countries that had been suspended due to the pandemic.
Cavusoglu called for "continuing the counterterrorism fight against organizations like FETO and PKK," and said managing illegal migration must be done in a "spirit of cooperation, not antagonism."
The Turkish FM also noted the two ministers discussed what he called "the Turkish minority living in Thrace", adding that "from the very start, we introduced best practices for the Greek minority living here." Both minorities he noted should continue living in either country in a way that leads them to prosperity and peace. FM Dendias responded that in Greece there is a Muslim minority, which is what the Lausanne Treaty recognizes and what the Greek state believes.
Turkey is "prepared to offer any support to protect the cultural heritage of Ottoman monuments in Greece, the same is true for the Greek and Christian monuments in Turkey," Cavusoglu said, while noting that "on this issue we can have mutual support and cooperation."
Commenting on the meetings on Thursday, he said, "In the near term, we believe that visits between countries, talks without terms and conditions and visits to one another of our state leaders will provide a very productive foundation for the expansion and development of our contacts."
In terms of improving Greek-Turkish relations and resolving disagreements, the Turkish minister said, addressing Dendias, "we believe we must continue the dialogue you began today with your visit," while he added that both have known each other since 2003 at the Council of Europe and retained a friendship.
In ex agenda comments after the statements by Dendias, and in response to his counterpart's expressed Greek stance, Cavusoglu said he could not accept that Turkey is violating Greece's rights in the Aegean, while he also claimed that the Muslim minority in Thrace declares itself as being "of Turkish origin". He also added that what the European Commission says about the issue of the Aegean and maritime zones is not related to International Law and to the International Court at The Hague.
Turkey's Aim: Unseat Greece’s Claims to Aegean, East Mediterranean
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias- with the waters boiling between them - headed to Turkey April 15 for a face-off with that country’s foreign chief Mevlut Cavusoglu - and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkey is making claims to waters around Greek islands and in the Aegean and East Mediterranean where it plans to hunt for energy and has gotten the European Union and Greece to back down from demands for sanctions.
After Erdogan made the EU’s top leaders - European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel come to him - humiliating her by making her stand - Greece sent Dendias to Ankara.
Turkey and Greece, for the first time in four years, have already had two informal, non-binding chit chats about their differences and this is the first time in two years a Greek Foreign Minister will go to Turkey.
There was no explanation from the Greek side why Cavusoglu wasn’t made to come to Athens to make Turkey’s case for what it claims are contested waters, the EU now essentially having stepped out of the fray.
While alternating between wanting diplomacy and talking tough, Turkey has intensified pressure on Greece ahead of the meetings, now saying that Greece is providing support to terrorists without offering proof.
Erdogan, his charm offensive having won over the EU, also now has gone back to saying he wants Turkey to join the bloc, after trying fruitlessly for 16 years to get in, but that he also won’t relent in plans to drill off Greek islands.
Expectations for any progress or breakthrough are less than zero, with Turkey trying to further corner Greece now that the EU wants no part of the differences between the countries.
And while Greece wants to confine discussions to the dispute over the seas, Turkey is also expected to bring up its essentially-suspended 2016 refugee and migrant swap deal with the EU that has seen Greece and five of its islands packed with thousands of them, almost all wanting asylum.
It wasn’t said whether the talks will include Cyprus, where Turkey has drilling in Cypriot waters, snubbing its nose at soft EU sanctions and with Erdogan saying he won’t talk about reunifying the island where Turkey has occupied the northern third since an unlawful 1974 invasion.
Greece, Turkey and Cyprus’ former Colonial ruler the United Kingdom are due to take part later in April in Geneva, Switzerland in United Nations sponsored talks about the island dilemma as Erdogan and Turkish-Cypriot leader Ersin Tatar said they’ll only discuss two separate states there.
The Dendias visit is expected to try to pave the way for a meeting between Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis but it’s uncertain whether the Turkish leader will make the Greek leader come to him.
Accepting an invitation, Dendias said the talks would also seek common ground to resolve the “sole bilateral dispute” between the NATO allies. “In other words, the delimitation of the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean,” said Al Jazeera.
Turkey for now has pulled an energy research vessel and warship away from the Greek island of Kastellorizo, a tactic which got the EU not only to reject sanctions talk but send von der Leyen and Michel to Turkey to offer more money for containing refugees and migrants there.
Turkey has also accused the Greek Coast Guard of pushing back refugees and migrants in dinghies trying to reach Greek islands, which Greece has denied despite new evidence that includes GPS positions.
Turkey, however, isn’t facing any consequences for letting human traffickers keep sending refugees and migrants to Greek islands in violation of the suspended agreement.
“The differences between Turkey and Greece are intricate and intractable,” Eyup Ersoy, a faculty member at Ahi Evran University’s international relations department in Turkey told the news site.
“Therefore, under current conditions, an overall resolution of these differences is impractical. The prudent approach is to reach a mutually acceptable modus vivendi based on common interests,” he said.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Director of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara office, said the talks though marked the start of normalization between the countries although the demands are one-sided.
“The best the two sides can agree on is de-escalation and nobody expects anything else,” he also said.
“Both countries have taken such maximalist positions that it will really be difficult to reconcile their positions but they can commit to de-escalation and continuing to talk and to not using the resources in the Mediterranean as an ongoing issue.”
Karol Wasilewski, head of the Middle East and Africa Programme at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, said that, “Greece, in turn, partly due to EU’s support and in part thanks to Turkey’s regional isolation, thinks it enjoys an upper hand and thus is unwilling to back down from its demands.”
Turkey’s claims are partly based on an agreement with Libya dividing the seas between them, which no other country recognizes and both Turkey and Greece wooing Libya.