Recep Tayyip Erdogan Turkish President launches landmark Greek visit on the wrong foot

There are often confrontations when Turkish warplanes enter airspace that Greece claims as its own, prompting Greek authorities to scramble jets in response.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ruffled feathers in Greece at the start of a two-day state visit play

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ruffled feathers in Greece at the start of a two-day state visit

(AFP)
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President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday began a first visit to Greece by a Turkish head of state in 65 years, hours after alarming his hosts with revisionist comments about the two nations' territorial disputes.

In a televised interview, Erdogan suggested that airspace and territorial borders could "be improved" and called for the revision of the peace treaty which defined the borders of the two states in 1923 -- souring the mood at the start of the historic two-day trip.

Athens reacted with barely contained anger, with Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos noting that Erdogan's comments raise "serious worries and questions".

"The Greek government and the Prime Minister hope the visit is an opportunity to build bridges, not walls," Tzanakopoulos said.

Relations between Turkey and Greece have been fraught with territorial disputes in the Aegean, with the two NATO allies nearly going to war in 1996 over uninhabited islands.

There are often confrontations when Turkish warplanes enter airspace that Greece claims as its own, prompting Greek authorities to scramble jets in response.

"Airspace and territorial waters and the different measurements can be improved," Erdogan told Greece's Skai TV on Wednesday.

Erdogan, who visited Greece twice as prime minister in 2004 and 2010, is to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Greece's foremost military monument which includes mentions to victories over Turkey in the 1912-13 Balkan War.

He will hold talks with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. On Friday he will travel privately to the northeastern region of Thrace, where a sizeable Greek Muslim minority of Turkish origin lives.

'Delayed justice'

Athens is unhappy over Turkey's upkeep of Byzantine heritage in Istanbul, including at the Hagia Sophia (in the background), which is officially a museum but has seen an uptick in Muslim worship play

Athens is unhappy over Turkey's upkeep of Byzantine heritage in Istanbul, including at the Hagia Sophia (in the background), which is officially a museum but has seen an uptick in Muslim worship

(AFP/File)

Erdogan actually has a relatively warm relationship with Tsipras, the leftist politician who became Greek prime minister in 2015 and generally eschews nationalist rhetoric against Turkey.

But a recent bone of contention is Greece's failure to extradite eight Turkish officers who fled to its territory last year after allegedly participating in the attempted coup against Erdogan.

"(Tsipras) said he was going to follow up the situation, and not later than a fortnight they shall be extradited to Turkey. That was what he said. But, unfortunately, right now, they are still in Greece," Erdogan said in Wednesday's interview.

The Greek Supreme Court has blocked the extradition of the officers, and Erdogan lamented that taking the legal route "takes longer".

"Terrorists, when they are detained in Greece, they should be extradited to Turkey. If you leave it in the hands of the judiciary no outcome can ever be cultivated and you won't be able to cultivate any results," he said.

"Delayed justice is no justice."

Tsipras appeared to try to smooth over any tensions ahead of Erdogan's visit, telling Turkey's state-run Anadolu news agency that suspected coup plotters "were not welcome" in Greece and emphasised the importance of dialogue between Turkey and the EU.

'A wide divide'

The uneasy relations between Turkey and Greece date back to the creation of the modern Turkish Republic out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

But Erdogan's Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), which came to power in 2002, sought a more pragmatic relationship based on trade and tourism, and Greece became a key backer of the Turkish bid to join the EU.

"Erdogan's visit can be seen as part of the long phase of rapprochement between the two countries that began in 1999," Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, director of the Centre for International and European Studies at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, told AFP.

But he added that while Greek-Turkish relations can be seen as "relatively robust", none of a whole range of outstanding issues between the two sides have been resolved.

"Beyond the pragmatism, a wide divide exists between the two countries," he said.

Athens is unhappy over Turkey's upkeep of Byzantine heritage in Istanbul, the former Constantinople, including the Hagia Sophia, which is officially a museum but has seen an uptick in Muslim worship in the last few years.

Another festering sore is Cyprus, where the northern portion of the island is still occupied by Turkish troops following the 1974 invasion in response to an Athens-inspired coup aimed at uniting it with Greece.

Much-touted peace talks this year to reunify the island ended without a breakthrough.

In a move seen by Turkish commentators as a gesture to Ankara ahead of Erdogan's visit, nine suspected members of the Marxist Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), branded a terrorist organisation by Turkey, were last week charged by a Greek prosecutor.

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