Turkish, Greek foreign ministers trade barbs at live press event

Tensions quickly boiled over during Thursday’s joint press event Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu held with his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias following an accusation that Turkey had violated Greece’s rights.

Greece will “impose sanctions if Turkey violates our sovereign rights,” Dendias said as he wrapped up his speech at the press conference.

“I didn’t impune Greece in my speech,” Çavuşoğlu said in response, taking the microphone again. “But in his speech Nikos Dendias made some extremely unacceptable allegations against my country.”

Çavuşoğlu’s comments started a back-and-forth between the two ministers, with the Turkish minister saying the accusation of violating sovereign rights was unacceptable, and going on to accuse Greece of “denying the Turkishness” of the country’s Turkish Muslim minority.

Çavuşoğlu said Greece only recognised the Turkish Muslim minority as Muslim, and didn’t allow them to express their Turkish roots, including by giving their children Turkish names.

Greece pushed back into the Aegean Sea 80,000 migrants in four years, Çavuşoğlu said, “even pushing into the sea those who didn’t arrive (at the Greek coast) via Turkey”.

“We never spoke about these in front of the media,” Çavuşoğlu said, “but you attempt to accuse Turkey here in front of cameras, of course to give a message for your country.”

In response, Dendias said Greece handled minority rights in accordance with the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which determined most of the borders of modern-day Turkey and defined minorities in Greece and Turkey by their non-dominant religion in their respective countries, “whether Turkey likes it or not”.

“Turkey shouldn’t complain about Greece on the migration issue after what happened in February and March,” Dendias continued, alluding to Ankara announcing that its western borders with Europe would no longer be policed for unauthorised crossings.

Migrants were bussed to the Greek border by local and central Turkish authorities last year, with thousands attempting to cross into Greece on foot in the crisis that only subsided after the coronavirus pandemic took a more serious hold in both countries.

Dendias also accused Turkey of violating Greek air space more than 400 times, to which Çavuşoğlu responded by accusing Greece of militarising its Aegean islands.

“If you want to continue the tensions, you can, and we can as well,” Çavuşoğlu said. “But we have seen in this process we experienced that EU states you rely on would not be of any good.”

Dendias, in turn, said Greek soldiers were stationed on the islands due to present threats.

“Is there anybody who could say there is no threat across from the islands?” Dendias asked.

Both ministers called for dialogue between neighbours, and Çavuşoğlu concluded with saying:

“We can solve problems only via bilateral understanding. It can’t happen with a unilateral imposition. We as two neighbouring countries can solve our problems. Others can only sell weapons.”

After the conference concluded, the ministers left for an Iftar dinner, where Muslims break their fasts in Ramadan, that Çavuşoğlu organised in Dendias’s honour.

The press conference had begun amicably, with both ministers calling each other by their first names. As he opened the conference, Çavuşoğlu said, “We believe that problems can be resolved via constructive dialogue between two neighbours and allies. Seeking solutions via third parties is not a correct approach.”

Before tensions flared, Çavuşoğlu lauded flights between Greece and Turkey starting again following a suspension due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and said the land border between the two countries should follow suit.

Turkey values economic and trade relations with Greece, Çavuşoğlu said, adding that Ankara expected better cooperation from its neighbour regarding anti-terror efforts. The minister also expressed the government’s readiness to aid Greece in the restoration of Ottoman-era monuments, and proposed cooperation for the restoration of Greek-Orthodox heritage sites in Turkey.

Dendias and Çavuşoğlu had “met many years ago and became friends”, the Greek minister started his original comments with, as he relayed a message from Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis celebrating Ramadan for all Muslims.

“We had the opportunity to lay out on the table all matters that we could not come to an agreement on,” Dendias said about his meeting with Çavuşoğlu. “We agreed on many bilateral issues with my dear friend Mevlüt today.”

Dendias expressed hope for improved economic cooperation, and said Greece supported Turkey’s bid for EU accession.

“We believe that as neighbours both parties and we stand to gain a lot from Turkey,” the Greek minister said, while urging against “acts and actions violating the Republic of Cyprus’s sovereign rights.”

“We are ready to take on important matters like the visa exemption,” Dendias said, before uttering the comments that escalated the tension. He said:

“There is an undeniable rule. Principles must be respected, and that goes through respecting the territorial integrity and sovereign rights of member states. Greece is facing a threat of war for exercising a right that arises from international law. This, of course, does not comply with good neighbourly relations.”