When Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was received by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Istanbul in mid-March earlier this year, a sense of "diplomatic hope" had appeared on the political agenda of the two countries.
At the time, pundits were exploring ideas of whether leaders of the two countries, which not only share a common territorial border but also a common history with many cultural similarities, could establish a ground for dialogue and open diplomatic channels to discuss disagreements.
The disagreements, which have been part of the two states’ foreign policies for a long time, have long been part of the tensions along NATO’s eastern flank and the Mediterranean region. From the problematic status of the Aegean islands to the deadlock on the island of Cyprus and the dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean, there stands a long list of obstacles the two neighbors have been working on trying to overcome. The list has been exacerbated by Greece’s aggressive military spending, militarization in the islands as well as Greece using its territory as a large military base for the United States, not to mention Athens’ and the Greek Cypriot administration’s maximalist maritime claims in the Eastern Mediterranean violating Turkey’s and Turkish Cypriots' sovereign rights.
While the tensions have always been present, the will to overcome these obstacles in establishing a working relationship has fluctuated over time depending on the regional and international developments, as well as domestic politics in both countries. The role of political leadership, however, has indeed been one of the most important determinants of the will and power to establish a ground where the parties at the very least could communicate.
“It’s our longstanding position that the door to dialogue must remain open, just as the door to threats must remain closed,” Mitsotakis said at the time ahead of his visit to Istanbul and his meeting with Erdoğan. Following the two leaders’ meeting, a statement was released by the Turkish Presidency’s communications directorate highlighting the positive tone and approach to improving bilateral ties and keeping communication channels open.
As a strong and experienced political figure of the past two decades in Turkish as well as global politics, Erdoğan has been able to overcome bilateral tensions through a leader-to-leader communication channel. Russia is a good example of such achievement given Ankara’s pragmatic relationship with Russia where the two countries are able to compartmentalize issues despite disagreements on several issues.
Following the Erdoğan-Mitsotakis meeting, the positive atmosphere had risen hopes that the leader-to-leader meeting could be fruitful. Yet so far, unfortunately, time has proven otherwise as Mitsotakis’ exploited the diplomatic moment during his speech at the U.S. Congress, asking the U.S. not to sell Turkey F-16 fighter jets.
Erdoğan has responded harshly to Mitsotakis’ remarks. In a way, he has treated Mitsotakis’ speech as a "diplomatic betrayal." In fact, Erdoğan has so strongly responded to Mitsotakis that he said the Greek prime minister "no longer exists for him."
"Let him pull himself together. As long as he doesn't pull himself together, it is not possible for us to meet," Erdoğan said recently on several occasions. The recent tension has also been embellished with the blame game and accusations over airspace violations.
Turkey "doesn't intend to wage war against Greece. However, Greece does not keep its promises. They made 147 air violations. If we are neighbors if we are friends, why are you violating our airspace 147 times?" Erdoğan said last Friday.
"If those violations of our airspace continue, then we will continue to do what is incumbent upon us," the president added.
It should not be expected for Turkey to back down from its justified claims, supported by international agreements as in the demilitarization of the Aegean islands. Yet there has always been an unconditional willingness to establish diplomatic communication channels to discuss the ties. The Erdoğan-Mitsotakis meeting was a strong example of that and an opportunity for the Greek side to show their willingness in meeting with a common denominator of "a win for both sides."
Mitsotakis’ strong and effective leadership is important, not only in Greece’s domestic politics but also in the international arena. This strong leadership, however, has not been realized at home nor has it been effective in the international arena. In fact, severely damaging ties with a neighbor like Turkey and exploiting a moment where there were hopes for reestablishing communication channels is a good example of that.
Imagine for a moment a Mitsotakis who was not spending big bulks of his budget on an aggressive defense shopping spree from the U.S. and France, a leader who did not turn his country into a U.S. air base, or stood against the EU’s big players’ demands. In addition, imagine a Mitsotakis who was successful in establishing a channel with Turkey through leader-to-leader diplomacy with Erdogan.
The disagreements are many, but “where there is a will” there would have existed a way to establish a ground for talks if Mitsotakis could stand strong. Establishing good ties with Turkey would not only serve Greece’s long-term goals but it would also help Mitsotakis repair his reputation at home.
At a time when the Greek opposition accuses Mitsotakis' government of diplomatic incapability, Syriza leader and former-Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras accused him of "engaging in a dangerous foreign policy" that is leading “from defeat to defeat."
Could Athens’ aggressive and provocative moves lead to a war between the two countries? Very unlikely. Does Mitsotakis want a war with Turkey? Hopefully, that is also very unlikely.
Conversely, at a time when NATO is reshaping its future, alliances are reorganizing in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and Europe is questioning its future amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Mitsotakis’ openness to fixing ties with Turkey through leader-to-leader diplomacy would not only be good for his political future at home but would also elevate his political leadership in the region and Europe.