x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 December 2017

Visit to Greece by Turkish president off to tense start

Televised discussions between Erdogan of Turkey and Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, were visibly awkward

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) shakes hands with Greece's President Prokopis Pavlopoulos at an official dinner in Athens on December 7, 2017, during a two day visit to Greece. Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) shakes hands with Greece's President Prokopis Pavlopoulos at an official dinner in Athens on December 7, 2017, during a two day visit to Greece. Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP

The first official visit by a Turkish president to Greece for six decades got off to a tense start on Thursday, with Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeating comments that have alarmed his Greek hosts about the need to "update" the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that delineated the borders of modern Turkey, among other issues.

Mr Erdogan's first meeting was with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, and the televised discussions between the two men — usually reserved for pleasantries and formalities before closed-door talks - were visibly awkward.

The presidents engaged in a thinly-veiled verbal spat over the Muslim minority in northeastern Greece and the treaty. Mr Pavlopoulos, whose role is mainly ceremonial, reminded Mr Erdogan that unlike his visitor, he was not head of government and therefore did not have the same powers as president Erdogan.

Mr Erdogan's two-day visit to Greece will include a trip to northeastern Greece on Friday to meet the country's Muslim minority. The status of the community, which Greece recognizes only as a religious minority, was also determined by the Treaty of Lausanne. Turkey considers it to be a Turkish minority.

On the eve of his arrival, Mr Erdogan alarmed Greek officials by saying the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which determined current Greek-Turkish borders, should be "updated."

"In fact, all agreements (pacts) in the world should be updated with the passage of time,"Mr Erdogan said in an interview with Greece's Skai television. "Lausanne too, in the face of all these developments, is in need of an update. This update would be beneficial not only for Turkey but also for Greece."

Mr Erdogan has made similar comments in the past about the peace treaty, which set the borders of modern Turkey, but his repetition on the eve of his Greek visit alarmed his hosts.

His comments "raises serious concerns and questions," said Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos. "The Greek government and the prime minister want his visit to be a reason to build bridges, not to raise walls."

Respecting the treaty is "the exclusive and non-negotiable foundation on which the honest co-operation of the two countries can be built," Mr Tzanakopoulos said. "Comments regarding its revision do not contribute to the climate we are trying to build in our relations and in the region."

But Mr Erdogan reiterated his views on the historic treaty during his meeting with Mr Pavlopoulos.

"This happened in Lausanne, that happened in Lausanne. I get that, but let's now quickly do what is necessary," he told the Greek president. "It's not easy, 94 years have passed, and many things have changed in 94 years. If we review these, I believe that all the sides will agree that so many things have to (change.)"

For his part, Mr Pavlopoulos told the Turkish president the treaty did not need any revision. "It is valid as is." The treaty did not allow for territorial disputes and clearly set the status for the Muslim minority in Greece, he added.

"It is clear that to achieve our goals and to make this visit a historic one … as Greece is a member of the EU … this requires the full respect of international law."

Mr Erdogan then held more substantial talks with Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras.

The refugee crisis will be high on the agenda, as Greek islands have been the gateway into Europe for migrants crossing from the Turkish coast. Regional relations, energy and business ties, Turkey's stalled bid to join the European Union and longstanding disputes such as Turkey's territorial claims in the Greek Aegean will also be discussed.

One of the current thorny issues to be raised will be the case of eight Turkish servicemen who have requested asylum in Greece following last year's failed coup in Turkey. Ankara has demanded their extradition, a request rejected by Greek courts on the grounds they could not be guaranteed a fair trial in Turkey.

The move infuriated Mr Erdogan, who said in his Wednesday interview that his country's judicial system is "the best in Europe," adding 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."

His visit comes as his country finds itself increasingly isolated on the international stage.Turkey's ties with the EU and several European countries deteriorated significantly following Mr Erdogan's post-coup crackdown. Tens of thousands of Turks have been fired from their jobs, and tens of thousands more have been imprisoned on accusations of being linked, however tenuously, with Fethullah Gulen, the US-based Islamic cleric Mr Erdogan accuses of masterminding the coup.

Other than Greece, Poland is the only other EU country to have invited Mr Erdogan to visit since mid-2016.

Historical tensions between Greece and Turkey, which have brought the two to the brink of war three times since the 1970s, remain. Decades-old thorny issues include territorial disputes in the Aegean, the Muslim minority and the continued occupation by Turkish troops of northern Cyprus.

Tension between Ankara and Washington has also increased recently, particularly over the New York trial of a Turkish banker over alleged transactions with Iran. Earlier in the week, Mr Erdogan described the trial of Mehmet Hakan Atilla as an American conspiracy to blackmail and blemish his country.