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Turkey's Foreign Chief Arrives, Greece Seeks Easing of Tensions

Αssociated Press

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, center, with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, left, and the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias during their meeting at Maximos Mansion in Athens, Monday, May 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

ATHENS – Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias told journalists after meeting Turkey's foreign chief Mevlut Cavusoglu that Greece wants a “gradual normalization' of relations that have frayed so badly it brought the countries to a near-conflict over disputed claims to the waters in the Aegean and East Mediterranean

But Dendias said it won't be easy, admitting both sides “hold different and, on certain serious issues, dimatetrically opposed positions,” that haven't been broached despite repeated tries.

He said Greece and Turkey so far agreed only on some economic cooperation deals and accepting each other's COVID-19 vaccine certificates as resolution of the big issues remains unattainable for now.

Cavusoglu said that Athens and Ankara both seek to “increase cooperation” and find solutions to their problems “on the basis of international law and shared interests,” said Kathimerini, without his noting that Turkey doesn't recognize those laws, especially concern the United Nations Law of the Sea.

The Turkish foreign minister confirmed that Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will meet with Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of a NATO conference in Brussels on June 14.

It's the first time Cavusoglu and Dendias had met since Greece's foreign chief ripped his counterpart in a news conference after they talked in Ankara about Turkish provocations in the Aegean and East Mediterranean.

Read also: Cavusoglu: We Agreed with Dendias That Positive Cooperation Will Continue

This time it was more cordial with both sides said to want good will and progress in their disputes, said Kathimerini, but only after Greece's Foreign Ministry fiercely objected to Cavusoglu referring to a “Turkish minority” in northern Greece.

Greece calls the Turks living there a “Muslim minority” the two sides splitting hairs after claiming to want to end divisiveness while picking it up, Greece saying Cavusoglu was distorting reality.

Amid all the talk about reducing tension, both sides ramped it up even before Cavusoglu arrived in Athens over his visit to the northern region of Trace to meet with Turks who are the Muslim minority there and who want more rights.

He tweeted he was there “to meet members of the Turkish Minority,” and that Turkey would “always stand resolutely with the Turkish Minority in their struggle for their rights.”

Αssociated Press

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, right, and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu talk to the media during a press conference after their meeting in Athens, Monday, May 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

While most of the Muslim minority in Greece is comprised of Turks there are also smaller numbers of Pomaks, who speak Bulgarian, gypsies and even Greeks who converted to Islam.

Calling the Muslim minority Turkish is diplomatically sensitive and highly contentious in Greece, which recognizes the minority only as as Muslim, Greece not recognizing separate ethnicities.

Read also: Greek Diplomatic Sources: Dendias, Cavusoglu Talks Sincere and Detailed

It's said to be done to try to contain Turkish influence and any idea of seceding and aligning with neighboring Turkey with no report how that could be done.

Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexandros Papaioannou responded that Greece “steadily adheres to international law and the protection of human rights. It fully implements the obligations stemming from the Treaty of Lausanne, which explicitly and clearly refers to a Muslim minority in Thrace.”

Αssociated Press

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, right, and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu leave the podium after a press conference after their meeting in Athens, Monday, May 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

He said that “Turkey's constant attempts to distort this reality, as well as the allegations of supposed non-protection of the rights of these citizens, or of alleged discrimination, are unfounded and are rejected in their entirety.”

The 1923 Lausanne treaty handled the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey in the aftermath of war, uprooting around 2 million people: approximately 1.5 million Orthodox Christians living in Turkey and half a million Muslims living in Greece. Turkey doesn't call Greeks living in Turkey an Orthodox Minority.

Greece regards the minority in Thrace as religious, pointing out the diverse ethnic backgrounds of its members, while Turkey insists on referring to it as an ethnic Turkish minority, in contravention of the Treaty of Lausanne, which the ministry reminded Turkey of its obligation to implement.

The Muslim community in Thrace and the Greek community of Constantinople were exempt but the Greek minority in that city has fallen fast from some 200,000 at one point before brutal persecution began in the 1950's.

Αssociated Press

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, right, and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu talk as they walk following for their meeting in Athens, Monday, May 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Papaioannou said that “Greece desires the improvement of relations with Turkey. A necessary condition is the respect of international law,” which Turkey doesn't accept unless invoking to its advantage at times.

Greece and Turkey have been divided for decades over a series of disputes, including territorial rights in the Aegean with Turkey claiming waters around Greek islands under a maritime deal with Libya no other country recognizes.

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