ISTANBUL – The uncertainty of fallout over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to sit down in Istanbul and agree to ratchet down pension between them.
There was worry in Greece that Erdogan would be emboldened by the world imposing only economic sanctions on Russia and seeing President Vladimir Putin wreak havoc on Ukraine, the Turkish leader having the same expansionist ideas to take Greek islands and sea lanes.
But media reports said the two leaders agreed to set aside differences and avoid a confrontation and would continue with deescalation and resuming confidence-building measures that have failed – but all bets would be off if one side makes a move.
They talked over lunch at Erdogan’s Presidential residence and Greek government sources not named said it was a relatively friendly meeting although what specifically was said was kept secret apart from agreeing to keep open lines of communication that had mostly been shut down before.
“Despite the disagreements between Turkey and Greece, it was agreed at the meeting to keep communication channels open and to improve bilateral relations,” the Turkish Presidency said in a statement.
“Turkey and Greece have a special responsibility in the European security architecture which has changed with Russia’s attack on Ukraine,” the statement said, adding that both countries should increase cooperation and “focus on positive agendas” for regional benefits, media reports said, including from the Associated Press, Reuters and Greece’s state-run Athens-Macedonia News Agency AMNA.
Sources not named told Kathimerini that Mitsotakis agreed to holding a Greece-Turkey confidence-building measures meeting in April, as long as there is no escalation of tension, although 64 rounds of exploratory talks have gone nowhere fast.
It was said that the two, wary of what might happen if there was another geopolitical crisis in the world now, stood their ground but said economic considerations, trade and business shouldn’t be affected.
“With the goal of starting a new page in bilateral relations,” Erdogan told Mitsotakis he believes there can be common ground on who has rights to the seas between them, fighting terrorism and dealing with migration issues.
GUNS ‘N ROSES
Despite that, Erdogan has a history of being diplomatic and then erupting with warnings and threats and had previously said he would not relent in his demands that include hunting for oil and gas off Greek islands, and that Greece take troops off islands near Turkey’s coast.
Turkey also is still allowing human traffickers, in violation of an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union, to keep sending refugees and migrants to Greece, predominantly to five islands.
Greece has also accused Turkey of allowing migrants to cross its land and sea borders despite a deal with the European Union to prevent illegal crossings, while Turkey and rights groups have documented Greek authorities’ practice of migrant “pushbacks” to Turkey.
They also were said to have agreed to try to get Russia to allow people to leave Ukraine through humanitarian corridors that Putin allowed to be bombed and attacked previously after saying refugees – some 7,000 of which are now in Greece – could flee.
Greece and Turkey are nominal NATO allies but have strained relations over competing maritime boundary claims that affect energy exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean.
Tensions flared in the summer of 2020 over exploratory drilling rights in areas in the Mediterranean Sea where Greece and Cyprus claim their own exclusive economic zone, leading to a naval standoff.
Under Mitsotakis, Greece has been building a military arsenal, including buying French-made warships and fighter jets, upgrading its fleet of F-16 fighters and making a mutual defense pact with France and renewing a military cooperation deal with the United States.
Greece and Turkey also cooperate on energy projects, including a newly-built pipeline that spans their countries transporting natural gas from Azerbaijan to Western Europe ‒ a project that is part of Europe’s effort to reduce dependence on Russian energy exports.
The meeting came after Mitsotakis attended a service for Orthodox Christians at the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. “We have big differences which cannot be overcome just like that,” Mitsotakis told Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios.
“I believe we set the foundations to improve our relations,” he said, adding that if there was good progress, Greece might organize in autumn a High-Level Cooperation Council meeting.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)