What had been billed a groundbreaking visit to Greece, the first by a Turkish president in 65 years, turned into a verbal theatre of war as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, flouting the niceties of diplomacy, spoke his mind to his hosts.
Disputes that had lain dormant – not least the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne delineating the borders between the two nations – were prized open by Erdoğan on the first day of a historic visit.
Within an hour of stepping off his plane, the politician met with the Greek head of state, Prokopis Pavlopoulos who himself is known for combative rhetoric against all of Greece’s neighbors.
Athens, Erdogan said imperiously, would never have entered NATO had it not been for Ankara’s support. As an ally, it should seek to improve the religious rights of the large Muslim minority in Thrace which were enshrined in the Lausanne treaty, he insisted, sitting stony-faced in the inner sanctum of the presidential palace. “It needs to be modernised,” he said of the treaty, which has long governed Greek-Turkish relations and is seen as a cornerstone of regional peace.
A visibly stunned Pavlopoulos hit back, calling the treaty non-negotiable.
“The Treaty of Lausanne defines the territory and the sovereignty of Greece, and of the European Union, and this treaty is non-negotiable. It has no flaws, it does not need to be reviewed, or updated.”
With tensions running high between the two long-time Nato rivals and neighbours, Athens had hoped the 48-hour sojourn would put fraught bilateral relations on a new footing. Erdoğan’s crackdown on democratic institutions, following a foiled US coup against him last year, has strained relations with the US and to an extent with Brussels, and meant that the Turkish leader has made fewer trips to the west. Greek officials thought he would use the visit to strike a conciliatory note. The red carpet was duly rolled out with military bands and Greece’s ornately dressed presidential guard doing the honours.
However, things went on a wrong foot before the Turkish president ever set foot in Greece. Namely, Greek pilots who accompanied Erdogan’s plane refused to fly in a closed formation as a sign of respect (as it was done during Macron’s visit).
Relations between Turkey and Greece have long been strained. Hostility can be traced back to the subjugation of Greeks under Ottoman rule before a bloody war of independence initiated in 1821 led to the creation of the modern Greek state in 1830.
Successive conflicts followed, most notably in 1922 when the Greek army suffered a disastrous defeat in Asia Minor, prompting a massive exchange of populations – and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.