More symbolism than substance as Turkey and Greece vow to avert crises

Erdogan and Tsipras stressed their readiness to engage in further talks, even if their meeting in Ankara did not produce new agreements.
Sunday 10/02/2019
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the end of a joint news conference in Ankara, February 5. (AFP)
Keeping it civil. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at the end of a joint news conference in Ankara, February 5. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Faced with potentially explosive political conflicts over issues ranging from gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean to minority rights, neighbours Turkey and Greece vowed to keep talking to each other but failed to make substantial progress on outstanding problems.

In a visit to Turkey that was heavy on symbolism, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to stress that “communication channels are open” between the two countries, which share a history of tension and distrust.

Turkey’s troubled relations with Greece have complicated Ankara’s EU bid and overshadowed the row over the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, which has been divided between the internationally recognised Greek south and the breakaway Turkish north for more than four decades. The two NATO partners came close to war in 1996 when an unresolved territorial dispute in the Aegean escalated.

They also disagree over gas exploration plans near Cyprus. Ankara is concerned the exploitation of reserves would deprive Turkish Cypriots of their share of the island’s offshore resources and wants a suspension of exploration until a solution is found to the Cyprus issue. Turkey is also concerned about Cyprus and Greece cooperating with Egypt and Israel in developing gas fields.

Shortly before Tsipras’s arrival in Ankara on February 5, Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Turkey would not allow a “fait accompli” in the eastern Mediterranean and would defend “equal and fair” sharing of the resources. In his meeting with Tsipras, Erdogan criticised Greece’s refusal to extradite eight Turkish soldiers accused of having been involved in a coup attempt in 2016.

The European refugee crisis is another source of friction. Greece says the number of refugees crossing from Turkey is rising despite Ankara’s pledge under a 2016 deal with the European Union to stem the flow. Erdogan, whose country houses more than 3 million Syrians, used a news conference with Tsipras to accuse the European Union of not meeting its obligations, such as accepting up to 72,000 refugees from Turkey.

Asked for a response to Erdogan’s statement, an EU official insisted the refugee agreement “continues to deliver thanks to the close cooperation between the EU and its member states and Turkey.” EU members have taken over nearly 20,000 Syrian refugees from Turkey, said the official, who declined to be identified.

“No issue has been resolved but at least we have a dialogue,” said Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, director of the Centre for International and European Studies at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, in summing up the Tsipras visit

Both Erdogan and Tsipras stressed their readiness to engage in further talks, even if their meeting in Ankara did not produce new agreements. “We believe every problem could be resolved through dialogue,” Erdogan said at the news conference. Tsipras said “more concrete steps” could follow in the future.

Atmospherics during the visit were much better than during Erdogan’s trip to Athens in December 2017, the first visit by a Turkish president to Greece in 65 years. Erdogan shocked his hosts by suggesting that a 1923 treaty serving as the cornerstone of bilateral relations should be “modernised,” triggering Greek fears of territorial claims by Turkey.

This time, Erdogan said a “politician’s job is not to win enemies but friends” and Tsipras praised the fact that he could pick up the phone and talk to Erdogan whenever there was a need to address a crisis.

The goodwill expressed by both sides led Tsipras, on February 6, becoming the first sitting Greek prime minister to visit the Orthodox seminary of Halki near Istanbul, which has been closed for nearly 50 years.

The decision by Turkey to keep the seminary shuttered has been a major stumbling block in ties between Ankara and Athens and between Turkey and the European Union. Erdogan said the school can be reopened only in return for improvements in the legal situation of the Turkish-Muslim minority in Greece.

Because the seminary has not been able to provide the Orthodox Church in Turkey with new clerics since 1971, most priests and bishops in what used to be Constantinople are well into their 70s or 80s. The situation is a serious problem for the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, seat of Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.

Bartholomew, 78, and a Halki alumnus, welcomed Tsipras’s visit as highly significant and said he prayed for a reopening of the school soon. Tsipras agreed. “Next time I come I hope we reopen the school with Erdogan,” he said. “The minorities in Greece and Turkey are no reason for conflict but are here to build bridges. I want to believe we are near the day when these halls will once again ring with the happy laughter of students.”

For Tsipras, a left-wing atheist, the trip to the island of Heybeliada near Istanbul, where the school is situated, was a political god-send. “That was a visit for the home front back in Greece,” Triantaphyllou said.

Tsipras, who narrowly won a confidence vote in parliament in Athens in January, is facing elections this year. “His message was: We stand behind the patriarch and we will keep the dialogue going within Greek-Turkish relations,” Triantaphyllou said.

Erdogan, by allowing the visit to Halki, was telling Turkey’s religious minorities: “We are with you,” Triantaphyllou added. Erdogan is facing local elections in March.