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Politics

No Tough Talk, Kid Gloves On at Mitsotakis-Erdogan Meeting in Turkey

It was more of a sit down than a showdown when Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara to discuss divisive issues between them but saw them reportedly stay away from the big differences.

Erdogan came to Athens in December 2023 and signed the Athens Declaration that kept a period of detente going and was mostly a document of platitudes agreeing on mutual good neighborly relations and to resume Confidence Building Measures (CBMs).

Nothing substantive was decided then or in Turkey this week, especially over sovereignty of the seas that Erdogan has challenged. The two sides said the meeting was held in a “positive atmosphere,” usually diplomatic boilerplate indicating nothing thorny was resolved.

“Next to our established disagreements we can write a parallel page with our agreements”, Mitsotakis said  nevertheless during a joint press conference after signing agreements for greater cooperation in responding to and managing natural disasters and emergencies, and for the establishment of the Greek-Turkish Business Council, said Euractiv.

Still, it was seen as another step in keeping the waters calm between them after Erdogan in the past demanded Greece take troops off Aegean islands near Turkey’s coast, said he would send warships and energy research vessels off Greek islands, and even threatened to invade and saying it would be a cause for war if Greece doubled sea boundaries to 12 miles.

None of that was on the agenda in Athens or Ankara but Erdogan is talking again to Mitsotakis after vowing he never would again after the Greek leader in May 2022 addressed the U.S. Congress and asked lawmakers to block President Joe Biden’s plan to sell Turkey more F-16 fighter jets.

The Ankara meeting, like that in Athens, was seen as a high-level chit chat that avoided sensitive political issues, especially with Erdogan breaking off a planned visit to Washington to meet Biden in the wake of Turkey’s support for Hamas terrorists who are being hunted by Israel in the Gaza Strip.

The news site said that Erdogan wants to put demilitarization of Greek islands on the table and also to give a Muslim minority in northern Greece more autonomy, a population Turkey calls Turkish but which Greece won’t allow.

The two did talk about the war in Gaza – Mitsotakis backs Israel and Erdogan said the Israelis, not Hamas, are terrorists – and Mitsotakis said, “Israel had every right to defend itself against a terrorist organization that does not even represent the Palestinian people. But we agree that the asymmetric use of force must stop.”

ONE MANS TERRORIST

Erdogan wants the international community to get Israel to cease fire, the death toll in Gaza passing 35,000. He said that, “Hamas is a resistance organization fighting for its territories. We would be sorry if you considered it a terrorist organization.”

He added: “I do not see Hamas as a terror group. I see it as a group of people trying to protect their own land.” He also revealed that Turkey was currently treating “more than 1,000 Hamas members” in its hospitals.

Turkey and Greece, which are NATO members, have been at odds for decades over a series of issues, including territorial claims in the Aegean Sea and drilling rights in the Mediterranean, and have come to the brink of war three times in the last half-century.

A dispute over energy exploration rights in 2020 led to the two countries’ warships facing off in the Mediterranean. They agreed in December to put their disputes aside and focus on areas where they can find consensus. The list of items on the so-called positive agenda includes trade, energy, education, and cultural ties.

Since that summit in Athens, the regional rivals have maintained regular high-level contacts to promote fence-mending initiatives, such as allowing Turkish citizens to visit 10 Greek islands without cumbersome visa procedures.

Stressing the ties between the two countries, Mitsotakis said the deal allowed Turks and Greeks to “get to know each other, which is an important step.” Erdogan referred to the Turkish-Muslim minority in Greece’s Thrace region as a “friendship bridge between the two communities.”

He also said, “the channels of dialogue are being kept open and we are focusing on the positive agenda,” adding that they were trying to increase trade volumes from $6 billion to $10 billion, which would benefit both countries.

But there’s animosity too, especially after Turkey converted the Chora Monastery in Constantinople into a mosque as it did with the ancient revered Aghia Sophia in that city, the Orthodox Church most recently a museum now used for Muslim services.

Turkey, meanwhile, criticized a Greek plan unveiled last month for ‘marine parks’ in parts of the Ionian and Aegean Seas. Turkey said the one-sided declaration was “a step that sabotages the normalization process.”

Those disputes are far less intense than the contentious issues that had often put them on the brink of a conflict, especially over a hunt for energy that has now seen them talk about working together instead of against each other.

But left off the table altogether has been the near 50-year occupation of the northern part of Cyprus seized in two unlawful 1974 Turkish invasions and the isolated Turkish-Cypriot minority there demanding recognition from the United Nations.

For the past seven years, Turkey has rejected a long-standing agreement for a reunified Cyprus under a federal system. Turkey and the Turkish-Cypriot self-declared republic want permanent partition and two separate states.

Speaking before the meeting, Greek government spokesman Pavlos Marinakis said that the leaders would review progress in bilateral relations and they agreed upon areas of cooperation, staying away from the tough ones.

“Our country seeks to maintain the climate of dialogue with the neighboring country,” he said, adding that, “we believe that dialogue is only positive for the two countries,” Erdogan so far not reverting to his former volatile and often belligerent self.

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

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