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Erdogan's Greece visit descends into verbal sparring

December 7, 2017

Turkey and Greece's leaders have publicly aired their grievances at an unusually candid press conference. The two NATO members are divided over a series of issues — some decades old, others much more recent.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend a press conference in Athens
Image: Reuters/C. Baltas

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's historic two-day visit to Athens was overshadowed by a heated news conference alongside Greece's Alexis Tsipras on Thursday, as Turkey and Greece's long-running divisions came to the fore.

Erdogan's visit to Greece, the first by a Turkish president in 65 years, had raised hopes of an improvement in the often frosty relations between the two countries. 

However, there appeared to be just a single issue the two leaders could agree on, and that was the significant burden each country had faced during the refugee crisis. 

Read more: Greek police arrest nine Turks ahead of Erdogan visit

Otherwise, the two leaders squared up to each other and vented their respective grievances in an unusually candid news conference. Decades of festering sores resurfaced in the 30-minute public exchange — from the divided island of Cyprus to the eight Turkish servicemen that have applied for asylum in Greece following Ankara's vast crackdown against the military (and many other segments of society) after a failed coup attempt.

Erdogan demands extradition of 'terrorists'

Certainly the most recent bone of contention between Turkey and Greece is Athens' refusal to extradite Turkish servicemen at Erdogan's request.

The eight men stand accused by Turkish authorities of helping instigate the failed 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan's government. However, the Greek Supreme Court has blocked the officers' extradition.

"Terrorists, when they are detained in Greece, they should be extradited to Turkey," Erdogan said. "Delayed justice is no justice."

Tsipras responded, saying the Greek state had to respect judicial rulings, adding that the suspects would receive a fair trial.

No closer to a Cyprus to deal

On Cyprus, whose northern section has been occupied by Turkey since 1974, the two leaders clearly demonstrated that they were no closer to finding a common solution, after internationally brokered peace talks to unify the island failed earlier this year.

Referring to the talks, Erdogan said: "Who left the table? Southern Cyprus [Greek Cyprus] did.... We want the issue to reach a fair and lasting solution but that is not southern Cyprus' concern."

The Turkish strongman's lambasting of Greek Cypriot officials prompted Tsipras to retort: "My dear friend, Mr. President, we must not forget that this issue remains unresolved because 43 years ago there was an illegal invasion and occupation of the northern part of Cyprus."

Cyprus: An island hoping for unity

NATO allies spat over military maneuvers

Erdogan and Tsipras also openly discussed tensions in the Aegean, where Greece has long complained of Turkish fighter jets violating Greek airspace. Greek authorities have often scrambled jets in response.

Read more: Greece fires at Turkish freighter in Aegean, Ankara protests

"The increasing violations of Greek airspace in the Aegean and particularly the simulated dogfights in the Aegean pose a threat to our relations, and particularly a threat to our pilots," Tsipras said.

Erdogan sets the tone with treaty debate

Erdogan set the tone of his testy visit earlier on Thursday when he suggested that the countries should "update" the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which established the borders of modern Turkey and dealt with minority issues.

"The truth is I'm a little confused regarding if what he is putting on the table is to modernize, to update, to comply with the Lausanne Treaty," Tsipras said at a news conference, standing alongside the Turkish leader. 

Erdogan, however, insisted that Greece was failing to adhere to the treaty by refusing to respect the country's Muslim minority. Ankara claims that Athens officials violate the treaty by appointing religious jurists known as muftis instead of allowing the local community to do so. "Protecting the rights of our fellow ethnic (Turks) is a top priority for us," Erdogan said.

The Turkish president is set to travel privately on Friday to the northeastern Greek region of Thrace, where the Muslim minority lives.

dm/msh (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)