By George Gilson
When the last Turkish president to visit Greece, Celal Bayar, arrived in Athens on 25 November, 1952, he came on the presidential yacht Savarona and was met with all manner of pomp and ceremony.
Bayar received a huge welcome at the port of Piraeus, and was feted by King Paul and Queen Frederica for three days in Athens, before the royal couple took him on the warship Elli to Thessaloniki, and via Kavala and Xanthi they reached Komotini, where crowds welcomed their monarchs and distinguished visitor.
In Komotini, they inaugurated the Celal Bayar high school, which had been agreed to earlier when the Greek royal couple had visited Istanbul.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s two-day visit to Greece beginning tomorrow morning is taking place in much more difficult bilateral, regional, and international conditions, with Ankara routinely violating Greek air space and territorial waters, challenging the Treaty of Lausanne that still largely determines bilateral geopolitical balances, Erdogan declaring that the ‘borders of his heart’ include parts of Greece and the Balkans, Ankara questioning the Exclusive Economic Zones of Greece and Cyprus and speaking of a Turkish minority in Western Thrace, and with Greece and the European Union relying on the good will of Erdogan to enforce an agreement for the return of illegal migrants.
At the same time, Erdogan’s relations with Germany and other EU partners are at an all time low, which makes Greece Ankara’s most receptive European interlocutor and perhaps the only EU-member state that still takes Ankara’s membership application seriously.
It is for all of the above reasons that the government of Alexis Tsipras views the visit as a chance to smooth over the many rough edges in the bilateral relationship.
Migration cooperation crucial
In an interview with the Turkish state news agency Anadolu, which was entitled “Tsipras: ‘Coup-plotters not welcome in Greece’” (a reference to Turkish officers in Greek jails that sought asylum in Greece after being accused of taking part in the coup against Erdogan) and granted on the eve of the Turkish president’s visit, Tsipras makes clear that the migration crisis tops the Greek agenda and that international law must always be the compass guiding bilateral relations.
«Firstly, we must develop our positive agenda on migration cooperation, the economy and people-to-people contacts,” Tsipras said of the future of the bilateral agenda.
With the islands of the Eastern Aegean buckling under the weight of the migration crisis, and with other European countries unwilling to undertake their share of the refugee load, full implementation of the EU-Turkey readmission accord was stressed by Tsipras.
“We must develop our positive agenda in managing the migration issue, in the economic sphere, in contacts between our peoples, and in the bilateral Readmission Protocol. Readmissions must continue as effectively as possible,” the Greek PM underlined.
“The EU-Turkey readmission agreement was a difficult but necessary initiative, after the unilateral shut-down of the Balkan route at our northern borders. Turkey has shown dedication to its implementation and to the drastic reduction of migration flows towards the Aegean. Yet, the situation remains difficult on the eastern Aegean islands. I shall discuss implementation with both President Erdogan and EU leaders,” Tsipras said.
Energy projects front-and-centre
“At the same time, we have ahead of us a number of important projects, in the areas of transport networks, energy, commerce, culture, and tourism. The TAP-TANAP natural gas pipeline is proceeding rapidly, and other gas projects are being discussed,” Tsipras said.
Regarding transport networks, Tsipras said that soon there will be a shipping connection between Thessaloniki and Izmir, and that the two countries will relaunch the Thessloniki-Istanbul railway line.
Sovereign rights and Lausanne Treaty
In a thinly veiled response to Erdogan’s public historical revisionism vis a vis the Lausanne Treaty, Tsipras said bilateral relations,»must develop on the basis of solid foundations of mutual respect, international law and full respect for the Treaty of Lausanne».
Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, who issued the official invitation to his Turkish counterpart, also publicly underlined Turkey’s obligations under the Lausanne Treaty.
Tsipras told Anadolu that, «We need to make sure that the Aegean and the Mediterranean are seas of peace and dialogue and not of tension or confrontation.»
«Regarding the [Turkish] violations of Greek airspace and resulting dog fights, the situation has worsened over the last years, creating a danger of serious accidents. We must revitalise our discussions on Confidence Building Measures and the Exploratory Talks,» Tsipras said.
The exploratory talks have been going on since the late 1990s when George Papandreou was foreign minister, but for years the two sides have managed only to agree on disagreeing.
Civil society contacts, solidarity key
“We have faced challenges and difficult moments in our relations. We must be guided by the heightened support that our peoples have exhibited towards each other at difficult moments. That includes natural disasters, the Greek economic crisis, terrorist attacks, and the heinous attempted military coup in Turkey. I believe the first official visit of a sitting Turkish president to Greece in so many years is an opportunity to take bold steps forward,” Tsipras told the Turkish news agency.
Extradition of Turkish officers a judicial matter
Asked about Ankara’s demand for the extradition of eight Turkish officers who sought asylum in Greece after the abortive military coup, Tsipras stressed the separation of powers in a democracy and the independence of the judiciary.
“The judiciary is independent from the executive branch of government, and its decisions in specific cases are respected. With that as the foundation, my position was always absolutely clear – that coup plotters are personae non gratae in Greece. Within this framework, we are continuing our collaboration in the areas of security and justice,” the PM said.