At the end there is applause, and it is the Turkish president who claps first. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who traveled to Athens for a state visit, applauds Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. He does the same as the guest from Ankara. This is how the performance of two men comes to an end, whose countries were anything but friendly until recently. Mitsotakis and Erdoğan, who for years seemed to dislike each other personally, applaud each other.
Two hours earlier, the Greek had met the Turk, he walked down the steps of his official residence in Athens and warmly greeted Erdoğan, with the prime minister’s dog running through the picture in the background. Mitsotakis obviously wanted pictures of that day to remain. The day when two met to let bygones be bygones.
Erdoğan had already made it known before the trip how he would like the visit to be understood. He wanted to turn over a “new page,” Erdoğan told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini. He told his “friend Kyriakos”: “If you don’t threaten us, we won’t threaten you.” According to Erdoğan, Turks and Greeks have lived together for centuries, and the Greeks certainly know “how loving we can be when we extend our hand in friendship.” A columnist Kathimerini later wrote that he was not sure how fond he should be of Erdoğan’s claims to Greek maritime territory.
It’s a special visit. Not just because no Turkish president came to Athens for decades. After the Cyprus crisis in 1974, when Turkish troops occupied the north of the island and the Greek residents had to flee, there was an ice age between Ankara and Athens. Erdoğan himself was last in the Greek capital in 2017. After that, the conflicts between the two countries really began.
There had been bellicose rhetoric on both sides
Back then, in 2017, Erdoğan had the Kathimerini given an interview – a less friendly one. He called for the Lausanne Treaty, which regulates the border between Turkey and Greece, to be reconsidered. In the years that followed, Turkish ones flew F-16-Jets again and again over Greek territory in the Aegean that Turkey claims. In the summer of 2020, Erdoğan had a drill ship explore for gas south of Rhodes, escorted by navy ships. The Greek navy also left. For days, the countries faced a military escalation.
In Greece, people have not forgotten how Erdoğan had buses full of refugees brought to the Greek border. There was talk in Athens of “hybrid warfare”. Erdoğan also indulged in rhetoric: The Greeks were probably nervous because of the new Turkish Tayfunmissile could also hit Athens. Or the sentence that they will “come one night” – a threat against the Greek islands off the Turkish coast. During a visit to the USA, Mitsotakis asked that the US government deny Turkey the fighter jets it was hoping for. Whereupon Erdoğan made it known that Mitsotakis no longer existed for him and that he “never wanted to meet him again.”
Now, before the visit to Athens, the Turkish president didn’t want to know anything more about it. His threat to the island was directed against terrorists “who endanger our security”, not against Greece itself. The neighbor is “a valued member of our alliance”, i.e. NATO.
“Athens Declaration” on future cooperation
The Greek side was happy to join in with the new tone. They said they wanted to focus on a positive agenda. Erdoğan traveled with a large delegation, and he and Mitsotakis even signed an “Athens Declaration” on how they wanted to work together in the future. In trade, in tourism, on the subject of migration. The border dispute was left out, as was the question of the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus, which always dominated Athens when it came to Turkey. Nothing should disturb the festival of harmony.
And then they stood in front of the press, the Turkish president and the Greek prime minister, both confirmed in office this year. The journalists were not allowed to ask questions; the day was supposed to remain trouble-free. Mitsotakis said he felt “a historic debt to bring the two countries together.” Erdoğan and he must behave like “captains who lead their ships into calmer waters.”
Erdoğan also came up with a metaphor. Greeks and Turks are “like siblings” and conflicts sometimes arise, which is completely normal. But Turks and Greeks have “a culture” in common; he sees nothing “that cannot be solved as long as we are of good will.” The aim is to double the trading volume, said Erdoğan. And Mitsotakis accommodated him on a point that Erdoğan can sell at home: Turkish citizens should be allowed to travel to Greek islands off Turkey for seven days without a visa.
Those islands that Erdoğan had threatened with the navy at the time. Turks will soon conquer Rhodes and Kos, but as tourists, not as soldiers.