On June 20 Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cancelled a planned trip to Athens. Although his health condition was offered as the reason for the last-minute cancellation, it did not prevent speculation that Erdogan sought to use the pretext of his health concern to protest about recent Greek diplomatic initiatives against Turkey.
Erdogan was scheduled to visit Athens to attend the opening the new Acropolis Museum. Prior to the opening ceremony, Erdogan was expected to meet Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, and both were to address bilateral issues including the conditions of minorities, as well as recent developments regarding the Cyprus dispute (Cihan Haber Ajansi, June 19). On the morning of June 20, Erdogan attended some meetings in the Aegean town of Izmir. He was expected to fly to Athens later that afternoon and return to Turkey that night. It was later announced that Erdogan had telephoned Karamanlis and informed him of his cancellation. He told Karamanlis that he would like to visit Athens at the earliest opportunity. A statement from Erdogan’s office explained that due to sunstroke, which Erdogan experienced during his visit to Edirne on June 19, his doctors had recommended rest. On June 21 he also cancelled the rest of his program in Izmir and his trips inside Turkey, and returned to Istanbul to rest over the weekend (ANKA, June 20).
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc told reporters on June 21 that Erdogan was in good condition, and would resume his functions the following day. Arinc added that Erdogan had experienced temporary hypertension related to weariness, but this was not a serious problem. After resting in Istanbul, Erdogan was expected in Ankara on June 23, to attend an AKP party meeting and also have a working lunch with E.U. ambassadors (Anadolu Ajansi, June 21).
However, the official statement did not satisfy some diplomatic observers who believe that political motives were behind Erdogan’s last-minute decision. They suggested two issues which might have influenced Erdogan’s decision: Karamanlis’ public complaints about the Turkish Air Force allegedly violating Greek airspace in the Aegean Sea and the E.U. Presidency’s latest conclusions which referred to Turkey as a country of origin and transit in illegal immigration, at Greece’s urging (Radikal, Hurriyet Daily News, June 21). The Greek media also speculated that Erdogan might have cancelled his trip to express his displeasure over these developments. They argued that Erdogan might have wanted to avoid confronting Karamanlis on the Aegean and illegal immigrants’ issues (Anadolu Ajansi, June 20).
An interrelated set of disputed claims by Ankara and Athens in the Aegean Sea has proved a major long-standing bilateral source of tension between the two countries. Due to the ongoing controversy over the delimitation of national airspace, Flight Information Regions (FIR) and military over-flight rights, Turkish and Greek fighters engage each other in tactical military provocations (so-called "dog-fights"), which frequently heighten tensions between the two countries. Greece considers the flights of Turkish jets in the disputed zones as violations of its national airspace or transgressions of the FIR. During his contacts in Brussels in the context of the E.U. Summit, Karamanlis reiterated Athens’s complaints concerning Turkish jets’ "violations of Greek airspace," and added that he "discussed this issue with Obama and would raise it during [his] meeting with Erdogan" (www.cnnturk.com, June 19).
The Greek attempt to use the E.U. as leverage to pressure Turkey on a different issue also reportedly angered Ankara. Last week, the European Council discussed the challenge of illegal immigrants, and ways to improve cooperation with countries of origin and transit. The presidency conclusions issued at the end of the summit announced that, as part of its external policies, the E.U. will seek to sign readmission agreements with major countries of origin and transit. By the time such agreements are concluded, the E.U. will require the implementation of existing bilateral agreements (www.eu2009.cz, June 19). Greece reportedly threatened to veto the presidency conclusions, if the European Council did not specify Turkey, along with Libya, as a key country of origin and transit. Although Turkey was not mentioned in the draft document, following last-minute changes, the final communiqué made reference to it (www.abhaber.com, June 19).
Athens claims that a great majority of illegal immigrants arriving in Greece transit Turkey and it expects Ankara to be more cooperative in the readmission of those immigrants. Ankara claims that since the final destination of those immigrants are E.U. countries, Turkey cannot be expected to bear the heavy financial burden of readmitting them, which would cost over 1.2 million Euros and demands fairer burden-sharing (Hurriyet, June 20).
The declared justification for Erdogan’s cancellation of his trip is perhaps true; yet, the very fact that it resulted in such speculation indicates the level of tension between the two countries. Athens has long blocked the progress of Turkish-E.U. relations, and the two neighbors even came to the brink of war over the Aegean issues in the 1990’s. In the post-1999 period, when the Turkish-E.U. talks were revitalized following the Helsinki Summit, bilateral relations entered a new phase. The resulting normalization of the relationship produced concrete results; in addition to launching diplomatic talks to discuss a resolution to the bilateral issues, Athens removed its objections to Ankara’s entry into the European Union. During the rapid wave of domestic reforms following the AKP’s accession to power in 2002, which resulted in the launch of membership talks in 2005, Erdogan developed a close working relationship with his Greek counterpart and visited Athens twice in 2004. However, parallel to the stalling of Turkey’s E.U. accession process since 2005, Turkish-Greek relations also experienced a downturn, which largely resulted from Turkey’s inability to resolve its differences with Greek Cypriots. If he is serious about his claim to revive Turkey’s E.U. bid, Erdogan must talk to his Greek counterpart and reach a consensus on bilateral and E.U. related issues. In this context, he might soon visit Athens.