Greek people still wonder what the purpose of the visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Athens, was. Or rather, what would Greece gain from the official visit of a man who seems to be challenging Greece’s territorial sovereignty; claims the Muslim minority of Western Thrace are Turks; refuses to acknowledge his country’s invasion to Cyprus, and so on.
Diplomatic protocol was forgotten from the moment the Turkish presidential couple arrived in Athens. The reason was an interview Erdogan gave to a Greek journalist, that was aired the night before his arrival.
In the interview, the Turkish president challenged the Treaty of Lausanne that delineates borders between the two neighboring countries; claimed that the Muslim minority of northern Greece are his “compatriots” that he cares about; demanded the extradition of eight Turkish military officers who allegedly participated in the failed coup attempt of July 2016 and were granted political asylum in Greece, and so on.
Thereby, President of the Hellenic Republic Prokopis Pavlopoulos put protocol aside and received Erdogan as if he was ready to reply and rebut all the challenging issues the Turkish president touched on in the interview. What followed was a political bras de fer in front of the cameras, where the two men presented their positions openly, ignoring the basic rule of diplomacy: crucial issues are only discussed behind closed doors.
Erdogan played on that. Because his purpose of coming to Greece was not to resolve the perpetual differences between the two countries, of course. It was to promote his own political agenda. When he spoke, he was not speaking to Pavlopoulos; in essence he was addressing his people back home. He showed them that he is in Greece challenging the borders set by the Treaty of Lausanne. He showed them that he cares about Muslim “brothers” in Western Thrace. He showed them that he played hard ball in the opponent’s own court.
It doesn’t matter that international treaties are unshakeable and non debatable. The important thing is that he challenged the Treaty of Lausanne, in front of television cameras, in a foreign country. He also claimed that he cares for his Muslim “compatriots”, preparing the ground for a possible future claim that Greece “oppresses the Turkish minority”. And let’s not forget that in 1974 Turkey invaded Cyprus in order to “protect the Turkish minority of the island”.
It is questionable whether the Greek government was prepared for that. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras simply improvised – as is the norm of his administration – as he was forced to pick up the debate from where Pavlopoulos left it. And he was forced to defend the Greek positions. To his credit though, Tsipras spoke openly about the thorny issue of the Turkish invasion in Cyprus, and the illegal occupation of part of the island to this day. On the other issues, he fell back on International Law.
Both Tsipras and Pavlopoulos kept a defensive attitude in front of a man who every day seems to be moving further away from being a democratic leader, and becoming an old-style sultan. His practices so far, have shown that he imposes his policies by force. The cruel elimination of his opponents, real and imaginary, are proof that notions such as International Law do not exist in his vocabulary. His populist pledges at home, that he will revive the greatness of the Ottoman Empire, at least on a territorial level, show that there is no way that the thorny issues of the Aegean Sea borders, Cyprus and the Muslims of Western Thrace will be resolved in the foreseeable future.
So, the question, “Will this visit after 65 years improve the difficult relations between the two neighbors?” remains purely rhetorical, if not surreal.