Talks aimed at Turkish-Greek detente trigger bickering instead
Turkey and Greece’s top diplomats bickered publicly on Thursday evening after a round of talks that had been aimed at reducing tensions over the neighbours’ territorial disputes and the divided island of Cyprus.
Greece’s foreign minister, Nikos Dendias, travelled to Turkey for the first time since warships from both nations were caught up in a dangerous confrontation in the eastern Mediterranean Sea last year over drilling for hydrocarbons in contested waters, provoking threats of sanctions from the EU.
Turkey is a candidate for EU membership but its poor relationship with member states Greece and Cyprus and an erosion in human rights at home have stalled its bid.
In a televised joint statement, Dendias said Athens supported Turkey’s EU entry because it was in Greece’s interests to have its neighbour as an ally in the bloc — but Turkey first had to “de-escalate and avoid statements that could dynamite our relations”.
Territorial “breaches have increased recently and such infringements are an obstacle to creating an environment of trust”, he said. “If Turkey continues violating our sovereign rights, then sanctions, measures that are on the table, will be put back on the agenda.”
His assertions visibly angered Ankara’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who accused Dendias of going off-script from a “positive” message they had agreed upon during the closed-door talks and making “extremely unacceptable accusations” to appeal to Greek public opinion once he was in front of the cameras.
“We do not agree on these issues, and despite the consensus we reached on these issues during our meeting, if you come out here and blame Turkey, I will respond,” Cavusoglu said. Turkey was not violating Greek sovereignty but merely defending its own rights in the eastern Mediterranean and those of Turkish Cypriots, he said.
Dendias countered: “I would be surprised if you were expecting me to be here in Ankara and not express these concerns, as if nothing had happened in the Aegean or eastern Mediterranean.”
Turkey has said it wants to “turn a new page” with the EU but its recent diplomatic approaches have been overshadowed by embarrassing gaffes.
Last week, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, was not given a chair next to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during her visit to Ankara. Charles Michel, the European Council president, took the seat next to Erdogan, and the protocol breach led to charges of sexism against the two men.
Nato allies Greece and Turkey are at odds over maritime borders in the Aegean and Mediterranean and over Cyprus, which has been split along ethnic lines since Turkey invaded in 1974 in response to a shortlived Greek-Cypriot coup.
Cavusoglu and Dendias are due to meet again later this month when UN-brokered talks on Cyprus convene in Geneva.
Cavusoglu rejected Dendias’ suggestion that Ankara had exploited the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey as leverage against Greece and the EU. “In four years, you have forced back 80,000 people and threw those who would not return into the sea,” he said to Dendias.
Dendias, who also met Erdogan, called on Turkey to uphold religious freedom for its dwindling population of 3,000 or so ethnic Greeks. He said Athens expected Turkey to turn two ancient Greek Orthodox landmarks back into museums. Erdogan last year converted the sixth-century Hagia Sophia and the 1,000-year-old Chora Church into mosques, defying objections from Greece, the US and Unesco.
Dendias had been in “full consultation” with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister, an official in Mitsotakis’ office said on condition of anonymity. “The foreign minister had an explicit order: if provoked, to respond accordingly,” he said.