Greece and Turkey, Long at Odds, Vow to Work Together Peacefully

After years of tensions between Greece and Turkey, the countries’ leaders signed a “declaration on friendly relations and good neighborliness” on Thursday, in what they described as a bid to set the two neighboring, rival nations on a more constructive path. The eventual goal, they said, was to resolve longstanding differences, which in recent decades have brought them to the brink of the military conflict.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey signed the declaration as Mr. Erdogan made his first visit to Athens in six years. Although the pact is not legally binding, it is historically significant — previous Greek leaders have tried but failed to achieve it — and carries strong symbolism.

Top officials from both countries were also engaged in talks on issues including migration, energy, tourism and trade. The two leaders said their aim was to double annual trade between their countries, to $10 billion.

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Mr. Erdogan appeared relaxed and smiling in a televised exchange with his Greek counterpart, President Katerina Sakellaropoulou. Greek television also showed Mr. Mitsotakis and Mr. Erdogan engaged in an unusually cordial handshake before ascending the steps of the prime minister’s mansion for talks.

“There is no problem between us so large that it can’t be resolved,” Mr. Erdogan said later in televised remarks with the Greek leader, “as long as we focus on the big picture.” “We want to make the Aegean a sea of peace and cooperation.”

Mr. Mitsotakis said, “Geography and history have ensured that we live together, and I feel a historic duty to bring the two states side by side, like our borders. We owe it to the next generations to build a tomorrow with calm waters where a tailwind blows.”

The countries signed a total of 15 agreements in areas including education, exports and agriculture, according to the Greek prime minister’s office. They vowed to hold continuing talks on political and economic issues like energy and tourism, and they agreed on confidence-building measures to eliminate unwarranted sources of tension.

They pledged to keep communication channels open and to refrain from any act or statement that might undermine the friendly spirit of the pact. If any dispute emerges, they vowed, both countries will try to solve it by peaceful means.

Mr. Mitsotakis said that resolutions to longstanding disputes over the so-called continental shelf and mineral rights in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean would be explored as a “next step” once high-level talks had progressed.

The shows of warmth were a departure from the norm. Last year, Mr. Erdogan declared that Mr. Mitsotakis “does not exist” for him after accusing the Greek premier of lobbying the United States Congress to bar arms sales to Turkey. And on Mr. Erdogan’s last trip to Greece, in 2017, he stunned his Greek counterpart by suggesting that an international treaty defining the two countries’ modern borders should be revised.

On Thursday, Mr. Erdogan said he expected such high-level talks to be held at least once a year, and he invited Mr. Mitsotakis to Turkey’s capital, Ankara, for the next one.

The only moment of slight unease was when Mr. Mitsotakis responded to Mr. Erdogan’s reference to a “Turkish minority” in Greece, noting that the international treaty that set the countries’ modern borders refers to a “Muslim” minority in Greece rather than a Turkish one, as the latter is perceived in Greece as implying territorial aspirations.

For Turkey, improving ties with Greece is also a way to fix relations with the West, according to Ahmet Kasim Han, a professor of international relations at Beykoz University in Istanbul. “Turkey basically cannot afford to have a further point of tension with the West” because of its domestic economic difficulties, he said. “And Greece is presenting a great window of opportunity in that sense.”

Turkey also wants to protect its interests in the eastern Mediterranean, an important route for natural gas to Europe that borders other important regional players like Israel and Egypt. That is particularly critical given Turkey’s strained relations with Israel over the war in Gaza.

More broadly, Turkey needs to show the West that its foreign policy is not all about protesting, Mr. Han said. “You have to show them you can do real business, too.”

A lowering of tensions in the Aegean Sea — periodically expressed in mock dogfights by Greek and Turkish jets and in navy frigates’ shadowing each other — could reduce the possibility of an accident that could escalate into a military confrontation. That could potentially lead to a reduction in Greece’s high military spending over time.

Migration could also be appeased significantly through closer cooperation between the countries’ coast guards. Although arrivals from Turkey into Greece have decreased significantly, Greece is still mindful of the 2015-2016 crisis that overwhelmed its resources, particularly on a handful of Greek islands near the Turkish coast, when more than one million migrants streamed into the country.

Greek analysts broadly welcomed the pact as a potential boon for Greece.

Constantinos Filis, the director of the Institute of Global Affairs at the American College of Greece, said it was noteworthy in providing a road map not just for actions to be taken, but also for those to be avoided.

“It is clear that both sides are willing to put behind them the bad moments of the recent past but also to set aside, for the time being, what separates them,” he said.

The antagonism stretches back centuries to Ottoman Turkey’s reign over Greece, which ended in the early 19th century. In more recent decades, Greece and Turkey have been at loggerheads over issues like territorial rights in the Aegean Sea, and over exploration of undersea energy resources, as well as Turkey’s longstanding occupation of northern Cyprus.

In 1996, the two countries almost went to war over a pair of rocky uninhabited Aegean islets known as Imia in Greece and Kardak in Turkey. Turkey has occasionally disputed the international treaty laying out the countries’ modern boundaries. And in August 2020, a pair of Greek and Turkish warships were involved in a minor collision in the Mediterranean at a time when tensions were flaring over drilling rights there.

Migration has also been a point of contention. Greece has accused Turkey, which hosts the world’s largest refugee population, of exploiting migration to wrest concessions from the European Union, a bloc that Turkey has been a candidate to join for over two decades.

Greece is one of Europe’s biggest gateways for migrants arriving through Turkey, and in March 2020, Mr. Erdogan provoked a crisis at the countries’ shared land border by declaring that the gateway to Europe was open for migrants. Greece has also accused Turkey of turning a blind eye to smuggling boats leaving its shores, while Turkey has condemned Greece for illegal pushbacks of migrants, which Greece denies.

In recent months, relations had improved after Greece leaped to Turkey’s aid following a major earthquake there in February.

Niki Kitsantonis reported from Athens, and Safak Timur from Istanbul.