Greek premier to visit Turkiye in quest for better relations

Greek premier to visit Turkiye in quest for better relations

ISTANBUL (AFP): Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will be received on Monday in Ankara by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the latest sign of warming relations between the NATO neighbors.

Diplomats said the day-long visit marks a new phase in their relations after decades of tensions, occasionally broken by brief reconciliation periods.

It follows Erdogan’s trip to Greece in December.

In an interview published on Sunday in the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, Erdogan said talks would focus on “resolving problems” between the two neighbors.

“It falls to us to calm relations between the two countries and ensure that peace and tranquility reign forever on both sides of the Aegean Sea,” the Turkish leader said.

He added he wished to “raise the level of bilateral relations to a new level.”

In December, the regional rivals — divided over the island of Cyprus and dealing with migration through their respective waters — signed a declaration calling for “friendly and good neighborly relations, recognizing the importance of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence.”

But this appeasement, also helped by solidarity after an earthquake killed more than 50,000 in southeastern Turkiye in February 2023, has been undermined by Turkiye converting another former Byzantine church into a mosque.

After four years of restoration, the former Kariye Orthodox church in Istanbul reopened as a mosque on May 6.

The 2020 decision to convert the church came after Muslim services resumed at the 6th-century former Byzantine cathedral of Hagia Sophia. The landmark building has been a museum since 1935.

The changes were part of Erdogan’s efforts to galvanize his more conservative and nationalist supporters.

“There’s no shortage of mosques in the city. That is no way to treat cultural patrimony,” Mitsotakis said a week ago, although he has also said that “channels of conversation must remain open.”

Mitsotakis told Greek television station Alpha TV on Saturday that he will use Monday’s talks to push Erdogan to “reverse” Kariye’s conversion.

Last Monday, Greek Foreign Minister Giorgos Gerapetritis called the move a “provocation” but reiterated that “Athens is seeking as long a period of calm as possible in Greek-Turkish relations.”

Last December’s meeting did lead to some breakthroughs, such as new special visas for Turks to visit Greek islands near the Turkish coast. That has led to a tripling of Turkish visitors.

And Erdogan has not repeated any of his earlier threats to invade Greek islands to prevent their supposed militarization — threats that led the US Congress to block deliveries of F-16 fighters to Turkiye.

That veto was lifted in January, while the US approved the delivery of F-35s to Greece.

Since Turkiye’s military moves in 1974, disagreements remain over Cyprus, which is divided into the internationally recognized state of Cyprus in the south and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is recognized only by Turkiye.

Turkiye and Greece have also struggled to cooperate on migration.

Migrants from Asia and Africa use the seas around both countries to reach Europe.