ATHENS – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won’t talk to him and broke off all communications with Greece but Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he still hopes there will be dialogue between them to settle disputes over rights to the seas and Aegean islands.
In an interview with state broadcaster ERT, Mitsotakis said while Erdogan suggested military force could be used unless Greece takes troops off Aegean islands near Turkey’s coast that the Turkish leader would talk about it yet.
“Turkey’s complaints … are completely irrational to the extent that they question Greek sovereignty over the eastern Aegean islands,” Mitsotakis said. “I don’t think a single thinking human being – including in Turkey – believes that nowadays Greece can threaten Turkey,” he said, adding that, “There is high verbal tension, but we don’t yet have — and I hope we don’t reach that point — tension in the field.”
He said that “Turkey often adopts precisely such rhetoric,” but said he hopes Erdogan will change his mind and talk to him although the Turkish leader said that for him Mitsotakis “no longer exists.”
Mitsotakis shrugged it off as bluster and said that, “We must meet and we must talk,” after the two met in March and agreed to a detente in provocations that Erdogan almost immediately broke.
Turkey also warned it would be a cause for war if Greece doubles its maritime boundaries to 12 miles, cutting off Turkey’s coast from the Aegean, and Erdogan said he would at some point again send an energy research vessel and warships around Greek islands to hunt for oil and gas.
The brouhaha shouldn’t make Greeks quake, said Mitsotakis, adding that while he prefers diplomacy that Greece is ready if a conflict comes, the military on high alert and as he moved to buy French figher jets and warships and built foreign alliances.
That included renewing a military co-operation agreement with the United States that will see more American bases in the country and possibly buying F-35 fighter jets denied Turkey when Erdogan went ahead and bought Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems.
Turkey said it would challenge the sovereignty of islands including the popular tourist destinations of Rhodes, Kos and Samos and would ask the United Nations to get involved in the feud.
The two NATO allies have long been at odds over offshore rights, ownership of uninhabited islets and the war-divided island nation of Cyprus, and have come close to war three times in the past half century.
Erdogan raised the stakes earlier, warning Greece to demilitarize its Aegean islands and saying he was “not joking.” He spoke during Turkish wargames near the Greek islands that included an amphibious landing scenario.
Turkey said that Greece has been building a military presence on the islands in violation of treaties under which they were ceded to Greece in the 20th century after a long period of occupation by the Turks — or by Italy in the case of Rhodes and Kos. Turkey doesn’t recognize those agreements though.
Greece counters that the islands need defenses given threats of war from Turkey, which has NATO’s second-biggest military and maintains a large landing fleet on its Aegean coast.
Mitsotakis said that “if basic sense prevails” relations will not deteriorate further. Otherwise, he added, “we will do what is necessary.”
Concern has increased that tensions could boil over into some form of a military confrontation this year, even as both Greece and Turkey look to boost their vital tourism revenues this summer after two years of pandemic-induced losses.
Mitsotakis said that relations were not yet at the point where both countries sent warships to the eastern Mediterranean in a dispute over gas and oil exploration rights in 2020 when COVID hit.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)