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Turkey’s Erdogan meets Greek PM, sees ‘no unsolvable problems’ in ties

In News, World
May 13, 2024

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitotakis that there were “no unsolvable problems” between their countries as the leaders met in Ankara.

Turkey and Greece have long been at odds over issues including maritime boundaries, energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean, flights over the Aegean Sea, and the division of Cyprus.

Since both leaders were re-elected last year, they have started taking high-profile steps to improve ties.

“Despite disagreements, we focus on a positive agenda by keeping our dialogue channels open,” Erdogan told a joint news conference with Mitsotakis on Monday.

“We showed today that alongside our proven disagreements, we can chart a parallel page of agreements,” Mitsotakis said.

“Looking towards the many things that unite us, we wish to intensify our bilateral contacts in the coming period.”

Mitsotakis reiterated Greece’s support for Turkey’s EU accession “despite great difficulties … on the condition it integrates to the European acquis.”

Hamas disagreement

The two leaders also discussed Israel’s war on Gaza. While they agreed that a long-term ceasefire is needed, they appeared to be deeply divided over the status of the Palestinian group Hamas, which governs Gaza.

Erdogan said that he was saddened by the Greek position that deems Hamas a “terrorist” organisation.

The Turkish president said at the joint news conference that more than 1,000 members of the Palestinian group were being treated in hospitals across Turkey. Erdogan has repeatedly reiterated that Hamas is a “resistance movement”.

“Let’s agree to disagree,” Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in response.

The group as a whole or in some instances its military wing, the Qassam Brigades, is designated as a “terrorist” organisation by Israel, the United States, the European Union, Canada, Egypt and Japan.

On October 7, Hamas fighters led an unprecedented attack on Israel killing at least 1,139 people, mostly civilians, according to an Al Jazeera tally based on Israeli statistics, and seizing about 250 others as captives.

Dozens of captives were released in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails during a week-long truce between Israel and Hamas in November, but Israel says dozens of others are still being held in Gaza.

Israel responded to the Hamas-led attack by launching a devastating war on Gaza that has levelled much of the territory, displaced more than 80 percent of the population and killed more than 35,000 people, mostly women and children, according to Palestinian authorities.

Past unpleasantness

Ties between Ankara and Athens have long been fraught, with the two countries arriving at the brink of war five times in as many decades. A friendly meeting took place last year when Erdogan visited Greece in an attempt to reset the relationship with positive agreements.

But his previous visit to the Greek capital in 2017 was a disaster. He and then-Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos argued over the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which set the borders between the two countries.

Later, Erdogan and then-Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras traded accusations about the division of Cyprus. Erdogan blamed the Greek side for two failed rounds of talks to reunify the island in 2004 and 2017.

Cyprus has been divided between Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities after inter-communal clashes in 1964 and a Turkish invasion of the island 10 years later, following a Greek-inspired coup.

Things got worse after the 2017 visit. The following year, Turkey proclaimed its Blue Homeland policy, claiming sovereign commercial rights to exploit undersea wealth under 462,000sq km (178,400sq miles) of the east Mediterranean, much of which Greece also claimed under international maritime law.

In 2019, Turkey agreed to exploit a swath of the east Mediterranean with Libya, further encroaching on what Greece saw as its own maritime jurisdiction. The European Union denounced the memorandum as “illegal” under international law.

Shortly after, Greece unofficially warned Turkey that it would sink any Turkish survey ship attempting to search for undersea oil and gas in what it considered its jurisdiction. Turkey called Greece’s bluff the following January, allowing its ship Oruc Reis to conduct surveys for a week southeast of Rhodes.

Greece sent a frigate to observe the Oruc Reis without attacking it, but the following summer, the Oruc Reis returned, and the entire Hellenic Navy deployed across the Aegean within hours in a state of heightened alert. Turkey’s navy did the same. The standoff continued until August, when two frigates from opposing navies collided, and the US called for detente.

Hydrocarbons weren’t the only source of friction. Erdogan allowed asylum seekers to storm Greek borders in 2020 and disputed Greece’s sovereignty over its east Aegean Islands in 2021. And Turkey has a standing threat of war against Greece, should attempt to extend its territorial waters in the Aegean to 12 nautical miles, which Greece says is consistent with international law.

The turning point in the escalation was provided by two powerful earthquakes that levelled Turkish cities in February 2023, killing tens of thousands.

Greece’s was the first overseas search-and-rescue team to arrive, and the two countries’ foreign ministers made a show of friendship by touring the wreckage together.

After elections in both countries in May and June, newly mandated foreign ministers met in Ankara in September, paving the way for Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Erdogan to meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly two weeks later.

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