The foreign ministers of Greece and Turkey on Thursday (15 April) clashed on a wide range of issues during a heated news conference that underscored the trouble the two historic rivals will have at mending their broken ties.
The talks between Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias were ostensibly meant to show the two NATO neighbours trying to put aside their differences after a year of complex disputes.
The two countries teetered on the edge of all-out war when their gunboats collided while shadowing each other during a Turkish push into disputed eastern Mediterranean waters last August.
The news conference opened with conciliatory remarks from Çavuşoğlu in which he praised “the very positive dialogue” they just held in the Turkish capital.
But Dendias used his opening remarks to rattle off a series of longstanding complaints about Turkey — from its search for natural gas in contested waters to its treatment of the Greek Orthodox minority and the sides’ ongoing dispute about migrants.
“Greece’s position is clear and this is not the first time you have heard it,” Dendias told Çavuşoğlu during a particularly heated moment in the 35-minute news conference.
“If you heavily accuse my country and people before the press, I have to be in a position to respond to that,” Çavuşoğlu replied.
“If you want to continue our tensions, we can,” Çavuşoğlu said. “If we go into mutual recriminations here, we have a lot to tell each other.”
‘No more lessons’
Turkey had said last month that Dendias was coming to prepare what could have been a groundbreaking summit between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
None was announced.
Dendias did offer Çavuşoğlu an invitation to visit him in Athens and the two ministers walked away from their respective lecturns after exchanging a few pleasantries and smiles.
But the heated exchanges that preceded them underscored the difficulty both the European Union and NATO will have in calming the centuries-old Greek-Turkish rivalry.
“Turkey should not teach Greece any lessons,” Dendias said after accusing Turkey of not sticking by its 2016 agreement with Brussels to accept migrants seeking refuge in Europe.
EU leaders say that Turkey generally implement its obligation under the deal under which it has been granted two tranches of three billion euro to stop the flow of refugees from Turkish territory to the nearby Greek islands.
“Greece is ready to move forward and (adopt) a new agenda. But this does not mean that Greece will change its position on foreign policy or that it will abandon its European obligations,” Dendias said.
“You always try to teach us about democracy and law,” Çavuşoğlu retorted during an argument about Turkey’s treatment of its Greek Orthodox minority.
Dendias had said moments earlier that he relayed Greece’s profound displeasure with Turkey’s conversion last year of the Hagia Sophia cathedral from a museum into a mosque.
“You don’t allow the Turkish minority (in Greece) to call themselves Turkish. You call them Muslims,” Çavuşoğlu objected.
“If they call themselves Turkish, they are Turkish — you have to recognise this.”
The news conference wound down with both men trying to laugh off their unusually public spat and agreeing to continue their debate over a private dinner.
Dendias had earlier in the day met Erdoğan for what he described as “extraordinary” talks.
“Let’s move past this endless dialogue about our disputes because then we will destroy what we tried to create during the extraordinary meeting with President Erdoğan,” Dendias told Çavuşoğlu.