ATHENS, Greece: Greece is rolling out the red carpet for a visit this week by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hoping to improve often-frosty ties between the two neighbours and Nato allies at a time when Turkey’s relations are being tested with both the European Union and the United States.
Security in Athens will be tight for Erdogan’s arrival on Thursday, when he will meet with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and the country’s largely ceremonial president, Prokopis Pavlopoulos, before heading to northeastern Greece the next day to speak with members of the country’s Muslim minority. Greek authorities on Wednesday announced a ban on demonstrations in central Athens during Erdogan’s stay.
“It’s a visit of exceptionally great significance and importance,” Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said, adding the government was looking forward to “exceptionally constructive discussions.” It will be Erdogan’s first visit to Greece as Turkish president, although he has visited twice before as prime minister.
Talks are to focus on the refugee crisis, as Greek islands have been the gateway into Europe for migrants crossing from the Turkish coast, as well as regional relations, energy and business ties, and Turkey’s stalled bid to join the European Union. Long-standing disputes with Greece such as territorial claims in the Aegean Sea will also be on the agenda.
So will the flight to Greece of eight members of the Turkish military just after last year’s abortive military coup in Turkey. Greece’s supreme court has rejected a Turkish extradition request, saying the men — who have requested asylum in Greece — could not be guaranteed a fair trial in Turkey. That caused considerable anger in Ankara.
In an interview broadcast Wednesday, Erdogan told private Greek Skai TV that his country’s judicial system is “the best in Europe,” and claimed that Tsipras promised to return them in “15 to 20 days” during a telephone conversation just after the servicemen reached Greece in a military helicopter.
“That is what he said. But unfortunately right now they are still in Greece,” Erdogan said, adding that the servicemen should have been handed over before Greek courts became involved.
“If you leave it up to the judiciary there will be no result,” he said. “In order to facilitate the work of the judiciary you must first, as the government, take the necessary measures before you assign it to the judiciary.”
Erdogan’s visit comes as his country finds itself increasingly isolated on the international stage, and he could use his appearances in Athens to improve relations, some analysts say.
“It’s an attempt on the Turkish president’s behalf to de-escalate tensions with the European Union, as the Turkish economy is very much dependent on European capital and as he foresees that relations with the US might take ... a further negative prospect,” said Constantinos Filis, research director at the Institute of International Relations. “I think that Erdogan ... has come to the conclusion that he cannot (maintain) both fronts at the same time with the West.”
Turkey’s ties with several European countries — Germany in particular — and the EU as a whole deteriorated significantly following Erdogan’s crackdown in response to the July 2016 failed coup. Tens of thousands of Turks have been fired from their jobs, and tens of thousands more were imprisoned on accusations of being linked, however tenuously, with the man Erdogan blames for the attempted coup: Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic cleric who lives in the US and runs a network of schools, hospitals and businesses.
Since the failed coup, Greece is only the second EU country, after Poland, to have invited Erdogan to visit.
Tension has also risen recently between Ankara and Washington, particularly concerning the New York trial of a Turkish banker over alleged transactions with Iran. Erdogan lashed out Tuesday over the trial of Mehmet Hakan Atilla, describing it as an American conspiracy to blackmail and blemish his country.
“I think that he will take the opportunity and try to show a more moderate face, at least in Turkey’s relations with the EU,” Filis said. “If he decides to attack the EU and the US from a European capital — that is, Athens — then this will create a very serious problem for the Greek government, because the Greek government will have to respond.”
But many sources of tension remain between Greece and Turkey, neighbours with historically fragile relations who have come to the brink of war three times since the 1970s. Decades-old thorny issues include territorial disputes in the Aegean, the Muslim minority in northeastern Greece and the continued occupation by Turkish troops of northern Cyprus.
Some of these issues “will probably be hidden under the carpet,” said Filis. “I don’t think that Erdogan in the few hours that he will spend in Athens has the luxury, and neither Greece has the luxury, to discuss with Erdogan about the historic difficulties and differences in the Aegean, for instance.”
In Ankara, Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told reporters on Wednesday that Turkey hoped the visit would “develop and deepen” ties between the two neighbours, noting that both countries “have shouldered great responsibilities in resolving the issue” of migration.
He accused the EU of failing to fulfil its obligations in a March 2016 EU-Turkey deal, saying it had yet to disburse funds earmarked for Syrian refugees in Turkey, allow Turkish citizens visa-free travel or open new negotiation “chapters” to advance Turkey’s EU membership bid.
Kalin said, however, that Ankara is pleased with Greece’s support for Turkey’s membership bid.