GR US

U.S. State Dept Welcomes Restart of Greece-Turkey Exploratory Talks

Αssociated Press

Turkey s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to reporters following a Cabinet meeting, in Ankara, Turkey, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021. (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool)

WASHINGTON -- The United States welcomes the restart of exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey, related to maritime zone delimitation, the US State Department said on Tuesday.

A State Dept. spokesperson said that the US supports all efforts to reduce tensions in the East Mediterranean, and these talks could contribute to that effort.

With official diplomatic ties technically off, broken lines of communication between Greece and Turkey led to a report they were going to meet Jan. 25 in Constantinople to try to ratchet down tension over rights to the seas, only to say they weren't. 

The initial story said Greek and Turkish officials agreed to resume exploratory talks broken off in 2016 but within hours were denying that was the plan, adding further confusion to their duel over rights to the Aegean and East Mediterranean. 

Greek diplomatic sources not named later told Kathimerini no meeting had been scheduled, leaving talks up in the air after the European Union in December, 2019 held off on sanctions demanded by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

He had insisted on penalties for Turkey for its plans to drill for oil and gas off Greek islands as has been happening in Cypriot waters, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ignoring essentially meaningless soft EU sanctions there.

Apparently the mess began after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was reported to have said the two sides would sit down in a bid to ratchet down tension, Turkey wanting to avoid sanctions at the next EU meeting in March.

Sources not named told the paper that while Cavusoglu has long had friendly personal relations with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias that they hadn't agreed to set terms for negotiations.

"Of course, Dendias remains open to the prospect of a meeting with Cavusoglu whenever the conditions allow," the same sources added after the story spread rapidly among major media as a breakthrough in icy relations between the countries.

Before that happened, media reports quoted Cavusoglu as saying that, “Today ... we want to extend an open invitation to Greece. We invite Greece to start exploratory talks, with the first meeting being held in January.”

That was despite he and other Turkish officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the drilling plans would go on again after a Turkish energy research vessel and warships were temporarily removed off the Greek island of Kastellorizo.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said while the invitation for talks didn’t come through official channels - the two countries aren’t officially talking - that, “I retain as a positive element that Turkey has expressed the will for the process to start” and to set a date.

“Greece will come to the exploratory talks, once the date is finalized, also following the directions the European Council itself has given, which are none other than to essentially continue where we left off in March 2016, in other words to make progress, I hope, on the issue of determining the maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean.”

THOSE MUDDY WATERS

Cavusoglu said Dendias rejected an invitation by Albanian Minister Edi Rama to host a meeting between the Greek and Turkish foreign ministers in Tirana because of COVID-19 but that a meeting could take place there at some point.

“I hope Greece does not turn down this opportunity,” Cavusoglu said. There was no explanation from Greek officials why they are going to Turkey, which has been the source of the provocations.

The foreign ministries of Turkey and Greece later issued separate statements saying the so-called exploratory talks, after a four-year delay over other issues before the dispute over the seas, would be the 61st round of negotiations to improve relations.

The NATO allies are at odds over a series of issues, including territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea and East Mediterranean and have been at the brink of war three times since the mid-1970’s.

Fear of a conflict ramped up again this summer when the Turkish ships were off Kastellorizo, the EU reluctant to provoke Erdogan, fearful he would unleash on the bloc - through Greece and its islands - more refugees and migrants who went to Turkey fleeing war, strife and economic hardship in their homelands.

Peter Stano, the European Commission spokesperson on EU external affairs, Peter Stano, said Turkey had to behave constructively toward EU member states, a reference to Greece and Cyprus.

“The EU has on numerous occasions stressed its solidarity with Greece, with Cyprus, and it has stressed also the need to solve all the bilateral issues," Stano said, while noting that "the EU is ready to do whatever is needed for our member-states if they ask us to support them in any other way,” - except for sanctions Mitsotakis wanted.

Greece's tiny center-left Movement for Change KINAL said it wanted dialogue with Turkey “on the issue of maritime zones and only on that issue, spokesman Pavlos Christidis told public radio ERA.

“It was Turkey that broke off the exploratory talks in 2016, on the one hand, and that by adding more issues to the agenda, on the other hand, it is in this way undermining dialogue. Dialogue that involves the violation of our sovereign rights cannot happen. Ankara must stop these illegal actions for good," he said.

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