Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras made a two-day official visit to Turkey. In terms of its content, the visit did not have any significant agenda items. The two leaders did not sign any noteworthy agreement or reach a consensus on any controversial issues that have generated tensions between the two neighbors. Tsipras' visit can be considered a confidence-building step at a time when the two countries have had significant disagreements, hence it was important for the Greek prime minister to take a chance and keep dialogue channels open with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Tsipras' step was bestowed by a unique gesture by Turkish authorities. Tsipras became the first Greek prime minister to visit the Halki seminary, which is located in Heybeliada on the Princes' Islands. The Halki seminary was an essential training center for Orthodox Christians, which was closed in 1971 under the law that placed religious and military training under state control. The position of the Halki seminary is one of the key controversial issues between the two countries. The Turkish authorities' decision to let Tsipras visit the seminary can be considered as an essential conciliatory gesture in relations of the two countries. Turkish authorities also expect Greek authorities to show a similar gesture by improving the conditions of the Muslim minority in Western Thrace. President Erdoğan mentioned that the Halki seminary could be reopened if the Greek authorities improve the conditions of Muslim minorities in Thrace.
Tsipras' Halki seminary visit is probably the most significant highlight of current diplomatic contacts in the history of relations between the two countries. It was crucial for the improvement of confidence between the leaders of the two countries at a critical juncture. This confidence may be key in future engagements by the two countries on more controversial issues including the military tensions in the Aegean Sea; controversy over the zones of natural gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean; tensions related to the failure of the Cyprus peace negotiations in July 2017 and the Greek courts' decision to grant asylum to eight Turkish officials who had essential roles in the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016.
Current tensions between Turkey and Greece
One of the emphases of President Erdoğan's speech during the press conference was the statement on Turkey's expectations from Greek authorities on not making Greece a safe haven for the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ), the PKK, or the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) terrorists.
Tsipras responded to Erdoğan about the terrorists that have sought asylum in Greece by holding the Greek courts responsible for such decisions. The most significant outcome of the meeting was the statement that emphasized that Turkey and Greece agreed to decrease tensions in the Aegean Sea and to take confidence-building steps. The two leaders reached a consensus that the best way to deal with the problems between the two countries is to improve diplomatic contacts. However, there are considerable impediments in the improvement of the relations between the two countries.
Rising tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean due to the competition over the exploration and extraction of hydrocarbon resources is a sensitive issue. Turkey's exclusive economic zones overlap with the exclusive economic zones declared by the Greek Cypriots. Turkey argues that the hydrocarbon resources around Cyprus belongs to both communities on the island and cannot be explored without the consent of Turkish Cypriots. The Turkish navy warned ExxonMobil and other energy companies for offshore drilling around Cyprus.
The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum is also considered by the Turkish authorities as part of a geopolitical plan to encircle the country. The energy ministers of seven countries in the Eastern Mediterranean including Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority formed the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. The organization excludes Turkey explicitly, which is one of the most crucial players in the region, and will have its headquarter in Cairo. Those efforts to ban Turkey from the Eastern Mediterranean are seen as a part of geopolitical plans of isolating and encircling Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey's seismic research vessel Barbaros Hayreddin Paşa conducts explorations in the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkey's first offshore drilling vessel Fatih started work in the region. Disagreements on the drilling zones and exclusive economic zones can create tensions between the actors in the region. The energy projects can be more feasible and efficient if Turkey was also included in the energy game in the Eastern Mediterranean. Energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean should bridge and bring countries together around mutual gains, rather than dividing and further polarizing them. Turkish and Greek authorities' coordination in the Eastern Mediterranean can play a significant role in ascertaining better cooperation of the players in the region. The most efficient way to operationalize energy resources in the region is to reduce tensions, encourage joint ventures and work on collaborative pipeline projects. Energy companies may be willing to invest more in the region if political actors came to a shared understanding rather than being involved in malignant competition.
Tsipras' Ankara visit happened at a critical moment where the course of bilateral relations between the two countries may either generate new tensions or produce new economic opportunities, not only for the two countries, but also other actors in the region. Improving economic collaboration between the two neighbors may help to ease the current financial difficulties of both countries.