ATHENS — Turkey’s president made a landmark visit to Greece on Thursday, but any expectation for diplomacy was quickly deflated by his call for changes to an international treaty that defined the borders between the rivals, and by suggestions that Greek authorities were discriminating against their Muslim population.
The visit by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not his first — he had visited Greece twice before as prime minister — but it was the first by a Turkish president in 65 years.
With Turkey’s relations with Europe and the United States deteriorating, there had been hopes that Erdogan’s visit might portend closer ties with Greece and greater stability in the region. It had been touted on both sides of the Aegean as aimed at improving ties.
Instead, Erdogan managed to provoke his hosts even before arriving.
In an interview published in the Greek daily Kathimerini on Thursday, he suggested an update of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which defined Turkey’s borders following World War I. He repeated the demand at a tense news conference with his Greek counterpart, President Prokopis Pavlopoulos.
“There are outstanding issues with the Treaty of Lausanne and matters that have not been addressed correctly,” Erdogan said. “It should be updated.”
Pavlopoulos, clearly uncomfortable, immediately countered that the treaty was non-negotiable.
Greek news media condemned the Turkish leader’s stance as provocative and unprecedented.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece later told Erdogan that he was eager to build bridges, not raise walls, and he underlined the need for respect for international law and of the territorial integrity of countries.
Erdogan indicated that border changes were not what he had in mind, declaring that Turkey “never covets the territory of another country.”
He also called on Greek authorities to drop ideological fixations and to expand the rights of Muslims living in Thrace, in northern Greece, which he is to visit Friday. Muslims there, he said, should be able to elect their own religious leaders, rather than have them appointed by the Greek state. Denying Muslims the right to appoint their own muftis is a violation of the Lausanne Treaty, he said.
Erdogan insisted on calling the Muslim minority in Greece a “Turkish minority,” as Turkish officials have done for years, a point Greece regards as suggesting territorial aspirations and, as such, unacceptable.