When leaders meet during official state visits, the international diplomatic custom is for them to focus in public statements almost exclusively on common positions and objectives. But that is the opposite of what happened when President Prokopis Pavlopoulos this morning received Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the presidential mansion.

Pavlopoulos greeted his guest by responding one-by-one to the claims against Greece that Erdogan raised in an interview with a Greek private TV station that was broadcast last night, from the Lausanne Treaty provisions regarding the Muslim minority in Thrace to the Turkish claims against Greek sovereign rights in the Aegean.

That opening, which according to protocol could only have been made at the bequest of the government, as the president has no political authority under the Greek Constitution, opened the door for Erdogan to pose the entire gamut of his claims against Greece, with the main demand concerning changes in the status of Muslim Greek citizens in Thrace with a mutual revision of the Treaty of Lausanne, which for Greece and under international law is the sole framework for the regional geopolitical balances between the two countries.

Milder remarks with Tsipras

It was only a bit later that Erdogan tempered his remarks in brief joint remarks when Alexis Tsipras received the Turkish president for talks in the prime minister’s office.

“We as a country, as Republic of Turkey, never covet the territory of another country. We are two peoples that have lived very close to one another. We have citizens of Turkish descent that live on Greek territory and vice versa,” Erdogan said.

“I wish the errors that led to the departure of members of the [Greek, as defined in the Lausanne Treaty] minority in Turkey had not been committed, as we would not have been in the situation we are in today,” Erdogan said, alluding to the 1955 Turkish state-sponsored pogrom against Istanbul Greeks that led to the virtual extinction of the Greek minority there.

Tsipras stressed his determination to find common ground between the two countries.

Tsipras stresses need for common ground

“At a critical moment for the region, with tensions and a migration crisis, with Syria and EU-Turkey ties, it is our duty to construct a dialogue so as to find a solution to complex problems and challenges,” he said.

“Bridges must be built on solid foundations. Stable foundations are none other than mutual respect, and respect for international law and international treaties,” Tsipras said. “There were always differences between us and there still are today. It is important, beyond the disagreements to find points of convergence and to respect the other side’s views. If we manage that today, your visit could open an essential chapter in our bilateral relations.”

Pavlopoulos reads Erdogan the riot act

In welcoming Erdogan, Pavlopoulos noted this is the first trip to Greece of a sitting Turkish President in 65 years, since the visit of Celal Bayar, and said that, “it can and should remain historic for our bilateral relations, for security in the broader region, and for Turkey’s European path, which we Greeks support as favourable for both our peoples”.

“We are here to shake your hand and create bridges of friendship, and we are ready to be Turkey’s door and window to the EU,” Pavlopouls said.

Recalling the complete respect of Kemal Ataturk and Greek statesman Eleftherios Venizelos [who signed a bilateral friendship agreement] for the Lausanne Treaty, Pavlopoulos underlined that, “For us Greeks this treaty is non-negotiable. It requires neither revision nor updating. It leaves no room for grey zones [Turkey’s theory since the 1970s that many uninhabited Aegean islands belong to her] and it regulates the issues that pertain to minorities.

Erdogan’s frontal attack on Lausanne Treaty

In his response, Erdogan expressed wholesale doubts about the Lausanne Treaty, particularly as regards the Muslim minority of Thrace.

“You expressed truths and realities openly and clearly, and I shall do the same. Mainly regarding the Treaty of Lausanne, there are some unresolved issues and issues that are not comprehended properly. This is an agreement that was signed 94 years ago…You said that the Treaty of Lausanne characterises the minority in Greece as Muslim, but at the same time the European Court of Human Rights makes reference to the word Turkish. We must evaluate the living conditions. Can we answer if they can practice their religion based on the Lausanne Treaty?” Erdogan said.

“In Turkey, the [Ecumenical] Patriarch is not appointed by the government, he is elected by the Synod, which according to the Lausanne Treaty has a specific number of members who must have Turkish citizenship. In Western Thrace, the imams cannot elect their chief mufti [legal scholar who applies Muslim sharia law], so the Treaty of Lausanne is not being enforced,” Erdogan said.

It should be noted that in 1972, the Turkish government blocked the leading candidate, Metropolitan bishop Meliton Hatzis, from becoming Ecumenical Patriarch. The Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary remains shut since that period, with Ankara steadfastly refusing to allow its re-opening, despite strong international pressures.

Tsipras recently abolished the forced implementation of sharia in Thrace on issues of family and inheritance law.
“When I speak of updating the treaty I am referring to precisely these issues, although there are certain problems with military issues [a reference to the treaty’s provision that the eastern Aegean islands must remain demilitarised]. When you left [the military branch of] NATO, we supported your return as a [full] member,” Erdogan said, referring to Greece’s temporary departure decided by then PM Constantine Karamanlis after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.

“In Western Thrace the per capita income is much lower than the Greek average. There is no support for businesses. In Turkey you will not see such treatment of Rum [Greek] citizens. There are no distinctions,” Erdogan said, though elsewhere he essentially admitted indirectly the ethnic cleansing of the Greeks of Istanbul with the September, 1955 pogrom.

George Gilson