Diplomatic efforts to thaw frosty relations between Aegean neighbours Greece and Turkey didn’t go quite to plan when a press conference between Turkish Foreign Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias descended into a war of words.
Greece’s Foreign Minister had travelled to Ankara on Thursday, 15 April, to discuss a host of tricky issues with Çavuşoğlu, including maritime disputes and Cyprus. After their meeting, the two men held a joint press conference.
The host set an ostensibly pleasant atmosphere by praising “the very positive dialogue” between himself and Dendias.
The Greek Foreign Minister initially seemed to reciprocate, extending the hand of friendship by offering Greece’s support of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union and claiming he wanted to reset relations with a fresh agenda.
The atmosphere quickly soured after Dendias started to accuse Turkey of violating its air space and territorial waters. He also complained about the treatment of Turkey’s Greek minority and the flow of migrants to Greece, prompting Çavuşoğlu to counter.
“Greece’s position is clear. Turkey has violated international law and maritime law in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean,” Dendias said.
“Turkey does not violate Greek sovereignty, that is unacceptable,” Çavuşoğlu retorted, going on to reject the Greek minister’s other accusations while making several of his own.
“Besides, we recognise our Greek minority as ‘Greek Orthodox’, but Greece fails to recognise Turkic Muslims as Turkic Muslims,” Çavuşoğlu said.
The Turkish Foreign Minister then spelt out the discrimination the Turkish minority in Western Thrace face over the denial of their cultural identity by the Greek authorities, telling Dendias:
“If they say they are Turkish, they are Turkish. You have to accept it.”
In relation to charges about Turkish actions in the Eastern Mediterranean, Çavuşoğlu stated that:
“Turkey has continued its activities in the Eastern Mediterranean according to the continental shelf map it has submitted to the [United Nations],” while noting that, “Greece keeps military forces on islands that, according to international law, should be demilitarised.”
The unusually frank exchange ended on a positive note, with both men smiling and pledging to resolve their differences through dialogue before going off to enjoy an iftar dinner.
Joint press conference (in Turkish)
— Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu (@MevlutCavusoglu) April 15, 2021
The heated press conference suggests there is still much work to do in alleviating current tensions and historic differences that run deep between the two NATO allies.
The navies of Greece and Turkey came close to blows several times last summer over a Turkish drilling ship exploring for hydrocarbons in the contested waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
With frantic diplomatic efforts by mutual allies, Ankara decided to withdraw the vessel, helping to calm the explosive situation, which in turn opened up the way for these bilateral talks.