Greece's PM in Turkey as regional rivals seek to improve relations


Greece's leader arrived in Turkey's capital on Monday for talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as both countries pursue a normalization program and seek to put aside decades-old disputes.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was welcomed by Erdogan and a military guard of honor at the presidential palace in Ankara before the leaders' fourth meeting over the past year. They are expected to hold two hours of discussions followed by a news conference.

Turkey and Greece, which are NATO members, have been at odds for decades over a series of issues, including territorial claims in the Aegean Sea and drilling rights in the Mediterranean, and have come to the brink of war three times in the last half-century. A dispute over energy exploration rights in 2020 led to the two countries' warships facing off in the Mediterranean.

They agreed last December to put their disputes aside and focus on areas where they can find consensus. The list of items on the so-called positive agenda includes trade, energy, education and cultural ties.

Since that summit in Athens, the regional rivals have maintained regular high-level contacts to promote fence-mending initiatives, such as allowing Turkish citizens to visit 10 Greek islands without cumbersome visa procedures.

The propensity for quarrels remains, however. The recent opening of a former Greek Orthodox church in Istanbul for use as a mosque led to Greece accusing Turkey of "insulting the character" of a World Heritage Site.

Turkey, meanwhile, criticized a Greek plan unveiled last month for "marine parks" in parts of the Ionian and Aegean Seas. Ankara said the one-sided declaration was "a step that sabotages the normalization process."

But such low-level disputes are far removed from relations a few years ago, when energy exploration in the eastern Mediterranean resulted in a naval confrontation and a vow by Erdogan to halt talks with Mitsotakis' government.

The two countries are also locked in a dispute over Cyprus, divided since 1974 between its ethnic Greek and Turkish populations. For the past seven years, Turkey has rejected a long-standing agreement for a reunified Cyprus under a federal system. Instead, Ankara and the Turkish Cypriot administration, which is only recognized by Turkey, have proposed a two-state solution.

Erdogan and Mitsotakis have sharp differences over the Israel-Hamas war, but are keen to hold back further instability in the Mediterranean as Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine grinds on.

The recent thaw in relations was partly helped by Greek solidarity after last year's devastating earthquake in southern Turkey. Erdogan has initiated a broader effort to reengage with Western countries following an election victory last year that saw him extend his two-decade rule by a further five years.

Speaking before the meeting, Greek government spokesman Pavlos Marinakis said that the leaders would review progress in bilateral relations and the agreed upon areas of cooperation.

"Our country seeks to maintain the climate of dialogue with the neighboring country," he said, adding that "we believe that dialogue is only positive for the two countries."