ATHENS – After years of strained relations that raised tensions to alarming levels, longtime regional rivals Greece and Turkey made a significant step Thursday in mending ties during a visit to Athens by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
During a day of intense diplomacy, the two countries signed more than a dozen cooperation deals on trade, energy and education and announced a roadmap for future high-level consultations aimed at avoiding crises. “It is natural for there to be problems between two neighbors when there can be misunderstandings even among brothers,” Erdogan said during statements to the press after meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. “What is important is the determination to resolve them.”
With both leaders showing a marked departure from the testy, sometimes outright belligerent rhetoric of the last few years, Erdogan spoke of the two NATO members' shared border in the Aegean Sea.
“We want to convert the Aegean into a sea of peace and cooperation," he said. "We wish to be an example to the world with the joint steps we will take as Turkey and Greece.”
Erdogan had last week promised to adopt a “win-win” approach that could lay the foundation for broader cooperation, with hopes of also resetting his country’s ties with Western allies. On his one-day Athens visit on Thursday, he only briefly mentioned Turkey's points of contention with Greece.
“I say it openly,” Erdogan said. “There is no problem between us so great that it cannot be resolved, provided we move with good faith and we focus on the big picture.”
Over the last 50 years, longstanding disputes have led Athens and Ankara to the brink of war three times. Centering on maritime boundaries and exploration rights for resources in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean sea, the latest flare-up occurred in 2020, when Greek and Turkish navy ships shadowed each other in the eastern Mediterranean.
As relations deteriorated, Erdogan last year said he no longer had any interest in meeting with Mitsotakis — yet Thursday’s visit marked their third meeting this year.
“Our bilateral relations have experienced turbulence that at times have dangerously threatened ... security and peace in the eastern Mediterranean,” Mitsotakis said, addressing Erdogan as “my dear president,” and “Mr. President, dear Tayyip.”
Mitsotakis noted the importance of the “calmer path” their bilateral relations have been on over the past few months. “Greece and Turkey, Turkey and Greece should live in peace, express their known differences, discuss them honestly and keep looking for solutions," he said. "And if these are not resolved, however, they should not automatically produce tensions and crises.”
Erdogan and Mitsotakis clapped and smiled but took no questions from reporters in a tightly-scheduled encounter. The Greek prime minister said he would visit Ankara in the spring.
Erdogan was accompanied by several ministers who held joint Cabinet talks with Greek ministers, as well as one-to-one meetings that included the two ministers of defense.
The significance of improved relations extends beyond bilateral ties and could help Turkey mend rocky relationships with the European Union and other Western allies. One crucial improvement focuses on migration and establishing communication channels between Greek and Turkish coast guards.
Mitsotakis announced plans to provide holiday visas for Turks visiting Greek islands and expressed backing for Ankara’s request to ease travel restrictions for Turkish nationals in the European Union.
Other agreements include deals on trade, energy, education, agriculture, sports, technology and tourism. Mitsotakis said a “realistic target” over the next five years was for bilateral trade, which currently stands at over 5 billion euros ($5.4 billion), to increase to 10 billion euros ($10.8 billion).
Security was tight in the Greek capital, with major roads and some subway stations closed as Erdogan’s motorcade headed from the airport to central Athens.
Earlier, Erdogan met Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, whose role is largely ceremonial. She said disasters in both countries this year — a devastating earthquake in Turkey and deadly wildfires in Greece — had brought the neighbors closer.
“The tragic events ... were an occasion to prove once again that a sense of solidarity and the demonstration of humanity in difficult circumstances is a common characteristic that unites our two peoples,” Sakellaropoulou said, adding it was "a strong basis for building on the mutual political will to establish a atmosphere that will allow for deepening cooperation and avoiding tensions in our bilateral relations.”
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.