ANKARA – A meeting aimed to improve fraught ties between NATO allies Greece and Turkey quickly descended into a tense exchange of accusations between the two neighbors' foreign ministers on Thursday.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias traveled to Ankara to discuss ties with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, following a slight easing of tensions. Appearing before the cameras to deliver their press statements, the two men initially spoke about keeping the channels of dialogue open and increasing economic cooperation in an effort to improve relations.
But their meeting soon turned sour after Dendias accused Turkey of violating Greece's sovereign rights in the eastern Mediterranean and warned that Ankara would face European Union sanctions if the violations continue. Cavusoglu retorted calling Dendias' remarks “unacceptable.”
The two ministers then proceeded to list grievances against each other's country.
The visit was the first by a Greek minister following a tumultuous year. Angered by what it perceived to be a lack of support for its policies in Syria, Turkey announced last year that it was opening its western borders, prompting thousands of migrants to gather at entry points to Greece, which promptly closed them down. This led to chaotic scenes at the frontier.
Tension flared again in the summer over maritime boundaries and energy exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean, leading to a military buildup that featured warships from the two countries facing off. The dispute strained Ankara’s relations with the whole European Union.
Tensions eased after Turkey pulled back its energy research vessel and adopted a more conciliatory tone toward Greece and other EU nations.
“First of all, we should move away from the discourse and actions which are provocative and which raise tensions, which is a condition for our relations to improve,” Dendias said. “Breaches have increased recently and such infringements are an obstacle to creating an environment of trust.”
He added: “If Turkey continues violating our sovereign rights, then sanctions, measures that are on the table, will be put back on the agenda.”
Cavuoslugu responded: “Nikos Dendias unfortunately made some extremely unacceptable accusations against my country ... He said ‘Turkey violated Greece’s sovereign rights.’ It is not possible for us to accept this.”
“Turkey is obliged to protect its own rights, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean, and those of Cypriot Turks; all the steps we take are aimed at protecting our rights,” Cavusoglu said.
“We’re not a country that (is afraid of) the European Union," he continued.
Dendias' visit was also meant to pave the way for a meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. In an indication of the meeting's importance, Dendias met with Erdogan as well as Cavusoglu.
His visit follows talks between Turkish and Greek diplomats who have met in Istanbul and Athens, resuming a series of meetings designed to build trust between the historic regional rivals. The two have been at odds over decades-old issues including the extent of air and maritime boundaries in the Aegean Sea and the future of ethnically split Cyprus. They have come to the brink of war three times since the 1970s.
Turkey and Greece have also traded accusations over unauthorized migration. The Turkish coast guard, as well as numerous refugee rights organizations, have accused the Greek coast guard of conducting pushbacks — illegal summary deportations — by returning their boats to Turkey without allowing them to apply for asylum in Greece.
Greece denies it carries out pushbacks and accuses Turkey of failing to crack down on migrant smugglers operating from its shores.
There were also some lighter moments Thursday between the two ministers, who despite the friction between their countries, refer to each other as a “friend.”
“By the way, I hope our disagreement hasn’t led you to cancel the dinner invitation. Because I’m exceptionally hungry,” Dendias said, in reference to the Iftar, the Ramadan fast-breaking meal the two were scheduled to have together.
Associated Press writers Elena Becatoros and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens and Ayse Wieting in Istanbul contributed.