Turkish-Greek ties thrive as legacy of young republic
As Türkiye prepares to mark the centenary of the republic, its ties with Greece, which have been lukewarm for decades, are upgraded to a more friendly level, something built upon the relations a young republic under the leadership of Atatürk managed to sustain despite a recent war.
Since it severed ties with the Ottoman Empire with a 19th-century rebellion, Greece has been at odds with Türkiye. For about a century, it fought at multiple fronts against the Turks, in the Balkan wars, in World War I, and finally, in the Turkish War of Independence. So close in their culture, yet so distant in their political relations, Greece found a friendly Türkiye not long after Turkish troops defeated them in the War of Independence.
Today, Türkiye marks the centenary of its republic with a new era in Turkish-Greek relations. Just as the republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk did, the new Türkiye extended an olive branch to its neighbor recently. Leaders of the two countries are expected to attend a major summit in December for further improvement of ties strained by a number of issues.
Atatürk, who adhered to the principle of “Peace At Home, Peace In The World” was quick to establish himself as a diplomat as skilled as he was in the wars he fought for Türkiye’s independence. Less than a decade after the great War of Independence against the Greeks he commanded, Atatürk took steps to build new bridges with Greece for friendship. Putting behind their years of hostilities, the two countries upgraded their relations so much that it led to former Greek leader Eleftheros Venizelos to nominate Atatürk for the Nobel Peace Prize. Before their relations soured over the Cyprus issue decades later, the two neighbors enjoyed friendly ties.
Professor Dimitrios Stamatopoulos, an expert on Balkan and Late Ottoman History at the University of Macedonia said the two countries’ history of becoming states took place at around the same time. Speaking to Anadolu Agency (AA) on Tuesday, Stamatopoulous said Türkiye abandoned monarchy while Greece gave up the “Megali Idea” concept (of annexing present-day Türkiye’s west) after the Turkish War of Independence.
He says both Atatürk and Greek leader Venizelos were visionary leaders who knew the necessity of initiating peace by putting conflict behind them. “The Balkan countries back then were looking for alliances. Greece signed a peace agreement with old Yugoslavia but failed to sign one with Bulgaria. Similarly, Atatürk was trying to establish alliances with neighboring countries, including Iraq, Iran and Yugoslavia. It was only natural that the two countries agreed upon peace,” he said. Another factor in building the alliance was the prevention of Soviet influence in the Balkans, according to Stamatopoulos, along with the issue of assets belonging to people of both countries who were subject to a “population exchange” after the war.
Seven years after the foundation of the Republic of Türkiye, the two countries signed a comprehensive peace agreement, launching a new era in relations. Long after Venizelos’ era ended, Greece adhered to the agreement. “Venizelos and Atatürk respected each other throughout their lives. Venizelos was genuinely sincere in his friendly approach to Türkiye,” he said.
Last week, Türkiye and Greece announced they will be building on a positive atmosphere that flourished since earlier this year in their bilateral relations. "The two sides agreed to build on the already existing positive atmosphere in order to identify areas of agreement and cooperation at the bilateral and international level," the two countries said in a joint statement released after consultations between their deputy foreign ministers in the Greek capital Athens.
There has been a rapprochement in Turkish-Greek relations in recent months, encouraged by the goodwill and humanitarian assistance shown on both sides earlier this year when southeastern Türkiye was rocked by two deadly earthquakes and Greece suffered a tragic train incident.
Both sides have warned against steps and statements that could damage the current environment of trust as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis pledged to maintain the positive atmosphere after holding two rare face-to-face meetings.
The sides have also revived their high-level strategic peace talks with an upcoming summit in Thessaloniki in December, which is expected to be an important leap in bilateral ties as Erdoğan will be making the trip over the Aegean Sea and meet Mitsotakis in person.
Relations between the neighbors have been strained for decades over several longstanding issues, particularly competing claims to jurisdiction in the Eastern Mediterranean, overlapping claims over their continental shelves, maritime boundaries, airspace, energy, the ethnically split island of Cyprus, the status of the islands in the Aegean Sea and migrants.
Athens, however, has claimed the only problem they are willing to discuss with Türkiye is the delimitation of maritime borders, dismissing all other concerns.
Issues of sovereignty will not be topics of negotiation, nor issues concerning the islands of the Eastern Aegean, Mitsotakis recently argued.
Tensions flared in 2020 over exploratory drilling rights in areas of the Mediterranean Sea – where Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration claim exclusive economic zones – leading to a naval standoff.
Athens has also been carrying out an ambitious rearmament program, building a military presence on the disputed Aegean islands in violation of postwar treaties, something Ankara has warned against, arguing that the continued militarization could lead to Türkiye questioning their ownership.
Turkish officials have said dialogue must be maintained “without preconditions.”
The sides have traded accusations over airspace violations but there have not been any skirmishes in the past three years.
Pundits argue, that despite the severity and longevity of their troubles, the lack of a hot conflict in the Aegean highlights success for the neighbors in their mutual willingness to bury the hatchet.