Turkey, Greece to take concrete steps to improve economic ties

Photo: AP Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias (R) and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu leave the podium after a press conference after their meeting in Athens, 31 May 2021.

Turkey and Greece will start taking concrete steps and working on joint projects to improve economic and commercial ties, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Monday after talks Athens, as the NATO members seek to repair ties.

"We reached an understanding on 25 articles to improve commercial ties, and both countries will recognise each other's COVID-19 vaccinations, in a move to help tourism," Cavusoglu said in his remarks while speaking at a news conference with his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias.

Greece and Turkey have been divided for decades over a series of disputes, including territorial rights in the Aegean. Last summer, tension between them rose dramatically, with disagreements over maritime boundaries and energy exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean leading to the two countries’ warships facing off.

Cavusoglu said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis were planning to meet at the NATO summit in Brussels on 14 June.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias pledged to work to overcome the "serious differences" that remain with Turkey following a meeting with his counterpart Cavusoglu which aimed to reset relations after a public spat between the two.

"We are fully aware of the different, and in some very serious issues he diametrically opposed positions, that we have," he said in a brief statement following the meeting with Cavusoglu. "The purpose of today's meeting was to attempt an initial negotiation process and if possible, a gradual normalization of the situation over time."

Even before Cavusoglu’s arrival in Athens Sunday evening, it was clear tension between the countries remains. The Turkish minister preceded the official part of his visit with a private trip to the northeastern Greek region of Thrace to meet with members of the Muslim minority that resides there. He tweeted he was there “to meet members of the Turkish Minority,” and that Turkey would “always stand resolutely with the Turkish Minority in their struggle for their rights.”

Referring to the minority as Turkish is diplomatically sensitive and highly contentious in Greece, which recognizes the minority only as a Muslim one. Greece has tried to promote the ethnic diversity of the minority, highlighting its Roma and Pomak components, in an effort to contain Turkish influence and possible secessionist sentiment.

Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexandros Papaioannou responded that Greece “steadily adheres to international law and the protection of human rights. It fully implements the obligations stemming from the Treaty of Lausanne, which explicitly and clearly refers to a Muslim minority in Thrace.” He said that “Turkey’s constant attempts to distort this reality, as well as the allegations of supposed non-protection of the rights of these citizens, or of alleged discrimination, are unfounded and are rejected in their entirety.”

The 1923 Lausanne treaty handled the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey in the aftermath of war, uprooting around 2 million people: approximately 1.5 million Orthodox Christians living in Turkey and half a million Muslims living in Greece.

The Muslim community in Thrace and the Greek community of Istanbul were exempt. However, the Greek minority in Istanbul has dwindled to a fraction of the estimated 200,000 people, with many fleeing persecution in the 1950s.

Papaioannou said that “Greece desires the improvement of relations with Turkey. A necessary condition is the respect of international law.”

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