The Erdogan – Mitsotakis routine: it takes two to tango, but also to brawl

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

The 77th UN Assembly General (September 20-26, in New York) was the venue for quite peculiar an interaction between Turkish President Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis. Already, the bets are on over what kind of climate will prevail until the two are present at the launch/full-dress rehearsal of the – little commented, so far – European Political Community, proposed by Emmanuel Macron but already materializing in Prague (October 6, with an EU “27” Summit the next day). Speaking before the General Assembly – so, supposedly, before the international community – Recep Tayyip Erdogan escalated Turkish rhetoric against neighbouring Greece, to the point of showing from the podium photos of drowned babies alleging they perished because of Greek pushbacks at the Aegean. This came as the cumulation of Turkish revisionist/aggressive enunciations over relations with Greece, the refugee/migrant issue at the borders and the status of Greek islands at the Aegean Sea.

Following Erdogan on the same 77th UNGA podium, Kyriakos Mitsotakis rebuffed in his address “the baseless and unacceptable claims” over Greek islands, explaining to the same international community that disputing the territorial integrity of Greece constitutes “an absolute red line” . Mitsotakis then changed tack, to remind all and sundry that Greeks and Turks – in their great majority – do not entertain feelings of enmity; also to call upon memories of the “courage” of the two countries historical leaders, Eleftherios Venizelos, namely (whose Mitsotakis is a distant descendant) and Kemal Ataturk to enter into a friendship agreement less than 10 years after their two countries were in real war (ending with the Asia Minor disaster in 1922).

Mitsotakis also hinted at the challenge for the present Greek-Turkish leadership  to seize the opportunity and re-open communication channels through a meeting Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been fending off as of lately. Shortly afterwards, Erdogan’s closest aide Ibrahim Kalin hinted that “various messages are coming”, that made of an Erdogan-Mitsotakis face-to-face meeting in Prague a possibility. (In quite flowery language, Kalin said in an interview: “Our President does not exclude anyone. If on step is taken, [he] takes two steps”).

Given the way tempers flare anytime at the Eastern Med/South-Eastern Europe, it is too risky to tell whether something positive might result from fermentation (Prague proposes excellent beer) across the Charles Bridge and Hradcany Castle. But as was the case some months ago by the banks of the Bosphorus Straights with an earlier Erdogan-Mitsotakis meeting, there are indications that the international system does not want yet another situation turn explosive so close to the Ukraine front: so, the temptation to put the Prague event to use so as to bring back some measure of calm to Greek-Turkish relations looms large.