Top Turkish and Greek diplomats quarreled publicly on Thursday evening after a series of talks aimed at reducing tensions over neighboring territorial disputes and the divided island of Cyprus.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias visited Turkey for the first time since warships from both countries were taken in a dangerous confrontation in the eastern Mediterranean Sea last year on oil drilling in disputed waters, prompting threats of EU sanctions.
Turkey is a candidate for EU membership, but its poor relations with member states, Greece and Cyprus and an erosion of human rights at home blocked his offer.
In a joint televised statement, Dendias said Athens supported Turkey’s entry into the EU because it was in Greece’s interest to have its neighbor as an ally in the bloc – but Turkey had to first “to defuse and avoid statements likely to revitalize our relations”.
“Territorial violations have increased recently and these offenses are an obstacle to the creation of an environment of trust,” he said. “If Turkey continues to violate our sovereign rights, the sanctions, the measures that are on the table, will be put back on the agenda.”
His claims visibly angered Ankara Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who accused Dendias of shying away from the script of a “positive” message they had agreed to in the closed-door talks and of making statements. “Extremely unacceptable accusations” to appeal to Greek public opinion once in front of the cameras.
“We do not agree on these issues, and despite the consensus we reached on these issues at our meeting, if you come here and blame Turkey, I will respond,” Cavusoglu said. Turkey was not violating Greek sovereignty but was simply defending its own rights in the eastern Mediterranean and those of the Turkish Cypriots, he said.
Dendias retorted, “I would be surprised if you expected me to be here in Ankara and not voice these concerns, as if nothing had happened in the Aegean Sea or the Eastern Mediterranean.”
Turkey has said it wants to “turn a new leaf” with the EU, but its recent diplomatic approaches have been overshadowed by embarrassing blunders.
Last week, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, not having a chair next to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his visit to Ankara. Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, took the seat next to Erdogan, and the breach of protocol led to accusations of sexism against the two men.
NATO allies Greece and Turkey are at odds over the maritime borders of the Aegean and Mediterranean Sea and over Cyprus, which have been divided along ethnic lines since Turkey’s invasion in 1974 in response a short-lived Greco-Cypriot coup.
Cavusoglu and Dendias are due to meet again later this month when UN-brokered talks on Cyprus meet in Geneva.
Cavusoglu rejected Dendias’ suggestion that Ankara had exploited the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey as leverage against Greece and the EU. “In four years, you have driven back 80,000 people and thrown out those who did not want to go back to the sea,” he told Dendias.
Dendias, who also met Erdogan, called on Turkey to defend religious freedom for its dwindling population of 3,000 ethnic Greeks. He said Athens expects Turkey to turn two ancient Greek Orthodox monuments into museums. Erdogan converted last year the 6th century Hagia Sophia and the 1000-year-old Chora Church in mosques, defying the objections of Greece, the United States and Unesco.
Dendias had been in “full consultation” with Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek prime minister, an official in Mitsotakis’ office said on condition of anonymity. “The Minister of Foreign Affairs had an explicit order: if he is provoked, he must react accordingly,” he said.