Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is beginning a visit to Greece on December 7 — the first by a Turkish head of state in 65 years — amid concerns about relations between the two uneasy NATO allies.
Ahead of Erdogan’s arrival, Greek government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos said Erdogan’s visit was “of exceptionally great significance and importance,” and that Athens was looking forward to “exceptionally constructive discussions.”
But Tzanakopoulos also said the Greek government was “worried” about the revival of a territorial dispute demonstrated by Erdogan’s call for “improvements” to how airspace and waters are delineated in the Aegean Sea.
In Ankara, Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told reporters that Turkey hoped the visit would “develop and deepen” ties. He noted that both countries “have shouldered great responsibilities in resolving the issue” of migration.
The talks were expected to focus on the refugee crisis. Greek islands in the Aegean Sea have been the gateway into the European Union for migrants crossing from the Turkish coast.
Also on the agenda are regional relations, energy and business deals, Ankara’s stalled bid to join the EU, and longstanding disputes over competing territorial claims in the Aegean Sea.
Erdogan was expected to raise the issue of eight Turkish soldiers who fled to Greece after the July 2016 failed military coup against Erdogan.
The soldiers have requested political asylum in Greece, and Greece’s Supreme Court has rejected a Turkish extradition request on the grounds that the men could not be guaranteed a fair trial in Turkey.
Turkey’s ties with several EU countries — notably Germany — have deteriorated since Erdogan launched a crackdown against tens of thousands of Turks in the aftermath of the failed coup.
Increasingly isolated on the international stage, some analysts say Erdogan could use his Athens visit to try to improve relations with the EU.
Many sources of tension remain between Greece and Turkey. With historically fragile relations, the two countries have come to the brink of war three times since the 1970s.
Decades-old issues of confrontation include their territorial disputes in the Aegean, the Muslim minority in northeastern Greece, and the continued occupation by Turkish troops of northern Cyprus.
Erdogan visited Greece as prime minister in 2004 and in 2010.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP