The world was shocked Thursday as what was suppose to be a historic moment degraded into a battle of words everyone should have seen coming.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the first Turkish president to visit Greece in 65 years. The two day visit of the Turkish president was meant to be a turning point in the relationship between the two neighbors. Relations between the two nations have been historically tense, a fact the unpredictable Turkish leader seemed determined to highlight in his joint press conference with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, bring up perceived historical injustices from nearly a century ago.
Erdogan specifically mentioned the Treaty of Lausanne which ended hostilities between the Republic of Turkey and the Allies, while concluding the Greco-Turkish War. Although the treaty recognized the sovereignty of Turkey, it also stripped away the majority of remaining Ottoman territory, delineating the boundaries of modern Turkey and Greece. The Treaty of Lausanne was actually a second attempt at peace. The first, the Treaty of Sevres, was rejected by the Kingdom of Greece as well as by the Turkish National Movement.
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Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, who is also one of Greece’s leading legal experts strongly rejected Erdogan’s statements saying, “This treaty, to us, is not negotiable, this treaty does not have any gaps, does not need a review nor an update. This treaty is valid as it is."
What’s the History?
Tensions between Greeks and Turks date back hundreds of years. Beginning in the 15th century, the majority of Greeks found themselves under Ottoman rule. In 1821, the Greeks rebelled against the Ottomans, resulting in a violent 8 year long revolution, which eventually ended with a Greek victory following the intervention of Russia, Great Britain, and France. Both the Greeks and the Turks claim to have suffered massacres and atrocities during the war.
Relations between Greece and Turkey have almost escalated to violence a number of times since Greece won its independence. In 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus following a Greek orchestrated coup d'etat on the island. Today Turkey still occupies the northern third of Cyprus, having expelled the Greek Cypriots from the region that was formerly 80% Greek. The international community views the Turkish presence in Cyprus as an illegal occupation of territory within the EU.
In 1996, Greece and Turkey once again faced the possibility of hostilities. The two countries had long disputed the sovereignty of two uninhabited islands in the Aegean. The pair of islands, known as Imia/Kardak, were part of a larger dispute over national airspace, territorial waters, and sovereignty. The EU sided with Greece, issuing a warning to EU-candidate Turkey. This year, the Greek defense ministry has reported over 3,000 airspace violations by Turkey.
During the joint press conference that quickly devolved into a tense exchange. Erdogan argued that the Treaty of Lausanne needs to be updated on the grounds that the Muslim minority in Thrace is being discriminated against. Erdogan pointed to the fact that the Muslim minority in Thrace makes an average of €2,200 a year, while the median income for Greek citizens is €15,000. The Turkish leader went on to say, "You cannot find any discrimination against Turkish citizens of Greek origin in Turkey. However, in the Western Thrace, even writing the word 'Turkish' is not allowed." Regardless, it must be pointed out that few Greecitizensss are not prospering with the country in recession for over 10 years!
This year, the International Institute of Religious Freedom (IIRF) ranked Turkey at #37 on their World Watch List that monitors religious persecution against Christians. This is a drastic increase from the #45 position Turkey had previously occupied. This list now positions Turkey as more oppressive that communist China.
After the Lausanne Convention in January of 1923, also known as the Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations, the majority of Turks in Greece moved to Turkey, while Greek Christians returned to Greece, seeing a population exchange of some 2 million people. The Convention is seen as an early experiment in ethnic cleansing.
Some Turks were, however, left behind in Greece, although their rights were enshrined in the Treaty of Lausanne. Erdogan went on to point out that there are no functioning mosques in Athens although half a million Muslims reside there, "There is a mosque problem in Athens. But in my country, in Turkey, we did not experience any problem with the churches for Christians."
Erdogan’s comments seem to overlook the fact that there are plans to build a mosque in Athens, a plan supported by Prime Minister Tsipras who has said the government would carry out the plan, “out of respect for the Muslim residents in our capital, but also because we are obliged to actively defend our values.” The mosque is currently under construction. On the other hand, Turkey is not the best place to be a Christian, to say the least.
Power & Money
President Erdogan, who put down a coup last summer that nearly saw him removed from power, also reiterated his call for the extradition of eight conspirators who escaped to Greece. The Greek judicial system has rejected the extradition request, claiming the former Turkish officers would not face a fair trial. Erdogan highlighted the fact that Turkey does not practice torture and has abolished the death penalty, but Greek leaders were unmoved. Prime Minister Tsipras reminded that a separation of powers exists in the Greek legal system, requiring the Executive branch to respect the decisions of the Judicial branch. Turkey has likewise sent extradition requests to the US, the UK, and Germany.
The Turkish Central Bank reports that between 2002 and August 2017, Greek investments to Turkey came to $6.9 billion, while Turkish investments into the Greek economy totaled to $200 million. In October, Turkey’s trade deficit widened by 74% to $7.4 billion. Turkey is the 12th largest importer on the Greek market, while it is Greece’s fourth largest export destination, making trade relations an important issue between the two neighboring countries.
The agenda for the two day meeting includes discussions on counter-terrorism, migration, tourism, trade, transport, culture, and Cyprus.
Citizens of Greece, recognizing the importance of peace between the neighboring countries and continued economic collaboration, expressed dismay at Erdogan’s bombastic comments.