Greek and Turkish leaders seek to stress thawing relations but tensions remain under the surface

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (left) and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan shake hands in front of two lecterns and a row of Turkish and Greek flags after a press conference at the Presidential Palace, Ankara, Turkey, 13 May 2024
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (left) and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agreed last December to put their disputes aside and focus on areas where they can find consensus (image: Umit Bektas/REUTERS)

The leaders of Greece and Turkey met on Monday for talks aimed at underlining their efforts to put aside decades-old disputes, but they also revealed deep divisions over the Israel-Hamas war. Speaking at a news conference in Ankara following the two-hour face-to-face summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan jumped on comments by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in which he described Hamas as a terrorist organisation.

"I do not see Hamas as a terror group," Erdoğan said. "I see it as a group of people trying to protect their own land." He also revealed that Turkey was currently treating "more than 1,000 Hamas members" in its hospitals.

Greece, like most Western states, considers Hamas a terrorist organisation but Erdoğan repeated his reference to the group as a "resistance organisation".

The leaders were meeting for the fourth time in the past year in a bid to strengthen a normalisation process.

Turkey and Greece, which are NATO members, have been at odds for decades over a series of issues, including territorial claims in the Aegean Sea and drilling rights in the Mediterranean, and have come to the brink of war three times in the last half-century. A dispute over energy exploration rights in 2020 led to the two countries' warships facing off in the Mediterranean.

They agreed last December to put their disputes aside and focus on areas where they can find consensus. The list of items on the so-called positive agenda includes trade, energy, education and cultural ties.

Since that summit in Athens, the regional rivals have maintained regular high-level contacts to promote fence-mending initiatives, such as allowing Turkish citizens to visit ten Greek islands without cumbersome visa procedures.

Stressing the ties between the two countries, Mitsotakis said the deal allowed Turks and Greeks to "get to know each other, which is an important step."

Similarly, Erdoğan referred to the Turkish-Muslim minority in Greece's Thrace region as a "friendship bridge between the two communities".

Earlier, he described the normalisation process as beneficial to both countries and the region. "The channels of dialogue are being kept open and we are focusing on the positive agenda," Erdoğan said, adding that they were trying to increase trade volumes from $6 billion to $10 billion.

The propensity for quarrels remains, however. The recent opening of a former Greek Orthodox church in Istanbul for use as a mosque led to Greece accusing Turkey of "insulting the character" of a World Heritage Site.

Turkey, meanwhile, criticised a Greek plan unveiled last month for "marine parks" in parts of the Ionian and Aegean Seas. Ankara said the one-sided declaration was "a step that sabotages the normalisation process".

But such low-level disputes are far removed from relations a few years ago, when energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean resulted in a naval confrontation and a vow by Erdoğan to halt talks with Mitsotakis' government.

The two countries are also locked in a dispute over Cyprus, divided since 1974 between its ethnic Greek and Turkish populations. For the past seven years, Turkey has rejected a long-standing agreement for a reunified Cyprus under a federal system. Instead, Ankara and the Turkish Cypriot administration, which is only recognised by Turkey, have proposed a two-state solution.

Despite sharp differences over the Israel-Hamas war, Erdoğan and Mitsotakis are keen to hold back further instability in the Mediterranean as Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine grinds on.

The recent thaw in relations was partly helped by Greek solidarity after last year's devastating earthquake in southern Turkey. Erdoğan has initiated a broader effort to re-engage with Western countries following an election victory last year that saw him extend his two-decade rule by a further five years.

Speaking before the meeting, Greek government spokesman Pavlos Marinakis said that the leaders would review progress in bilateral relations and the agreed upon areas of cooperation. "Our country seeks to maintain the climate of dialogue with the neighbouring country," he said, adding that "we believe that dialogue is only positive for the two countries." (AP)