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15 June, 2024
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Erdogan: ''My friend Kyriakos, we will not threaten you if you do not threaten us''

In an unprecedented interview with Kathimerini, Turkish President Erdogan delves into the prospects of a ''new page'' in Greek-Turkish relations, focusing on a ''win-win'' approach

Kathimerini Greece Newsroom

By Alexis Papachelas and Manolis Kostidis

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talks about all issues concerning Greek-Turkish relations in an exclusive interview with K, twenty-four hours before he arrives in Athens, stressing that he is looking forward to "a new page" based on the "win-win principle". "Kyriakos my friend, we don't threaten you if you don't threaten us," Erdogan said he would tell the Greek prime minister, adding that "there is no problem that we cannot solve through dialogue, based on mutual goodwill."

Referring to whether it is possible to reach an agreement to refer the continental shelf issue to the International Court of Justice, Erdogan in his interview, which was conducted through written questions and answers, expressed the view that more issues should be included in a possible appeal. "There are many interrelated problems that need to be solved in addition to the continental shelf. When we appeal to international justice, we should leave no problem behind," he says.

Erdogan also says his statement "we may come overnight suddenly" was about "terrorist elements that threaten the security of our country" and stresses that "the structural integrity of Hagia Sophia will not be damaged both materially and spiritually, and the iconography will not be reduced and will be protected."

It is noted that the interview text is reproduced exactly as sent by the office of the President of the Republic of Turkey.

- Mr. President, you recently spoke about a "new page" in Turkish-Greek relations and a "win-win" formula to resolve the differences. What exactly do you mean by this?

- Greece is our neighbouring country and we will always remain neighbours. We share the same geography, the same sea. We breathe the same air. We are interconnected by our past. There are many issues that we have not yet managed to resolve between us. This the two countries know. However, it is up to us whether we allow these problems to cause tensions and disagreements between our governments and our people. In this sense, I have spoken of a "new page" in our relations and the principle of "win-win". The "win-win" concept is already at the core of Turkey's approach to international relations and diplomacy. If differences are gently addressed through dialogue and common ground is found, it is to the benefit of all. Recently, we have gained good momentum in shaping our relations with Greece within the framework of this concept. We have revived bilateral mechanisms that had been dormant for a long time. Our channels of dialogue are open and functioning at all levels. Reciprocal visits are frequent. We have the will, on the basis of mutual trust, to develop our cooperation in many areas of importance for our countries and our region. Now, it is the responsibility of both parties to consolidate, institutionalize and promote this understanding. I think that Mr Mitsotakis has the same will. The Declaration of Friendly Relations and Good Neighbourhood, which we hope to sign in Athens on 7 December, will also clearly record this common intention.

- The two countries have gone through a very tense period, even coming to the brink of military conflict in 2020. You and Prime Minister Mitsotakis were in power then and you are in power now. What has changed? What will you say to Mr Mitsotakis when you meet him in Athens?

- You asked what has changed. Nothing has really changed on our side. We have never seen neighbouring Greece as an enemy or a rival. Like all countries, we need friends, not enemies. I often say that we believe that we have no problems with our neighbours, and especially with Greece, that cannot be overcome. I think what has changed recently is that the Greek side has revised its view of us and has begun to understand that we are a nation that will never refuse the hand of friendship extended to us. Thus, as we have always responded appropriately, without hesitation, to those who covet the security of our people, our territorial integrity and our national interests, so we are and always will be open to promoting cooperation and friendship. I believe that Mr Mitsotakis understands this and sees that we sincerely wish to overcome the problems between Greece and Turkey and to further advance our relations. I also notice in him an approach similar to ours and that is pleasing. You asked what I would say to Mr Mitsotakis. I will tell him this: Kyriakos my friend, we do not threaten you if you do not threaten us. Let us strengthen the trust between our two countries. Let us increase bilateral cooperation in every sector, in the economy, trade, transport, energy, health, technology, education, and youth issues. Let us show mutual care and concern for the historical and cultural heritage of our countries. Whether it is the issues in the Aegean, the joint fight against illegal immigration, or the ongoing problems of the Turkish minority in Greece, there is no problem that we cannot solve through dialogue on the basis of mutual goodwill. First of all, our people gave strong support to both governments in the elections held this year in both countries. With this support, both we and Mr Mitsotakis are in a position to take strong and constructive steps.

- Do you think Turkey and Greece can agree to refer the continental shelf issue to the International Court of Justice? How can we ensure that the existing "calm waters" in the Aegean will continue, even if the fundamental problems are not resolved in the near future?

- As I said, I believe that the problems will be resolved in the context of dialogue and goodwill. Of course, there are many interrelated problems that need to be solved in addition to the continental shelf. We have to look at them as a whole. A selective approach is not right. Talking about some issues and not talking about others. Because they are all interconnected. When we go to international justice, we should not leave any problem behind. Above all, we must talk about all our problems bravely and direct public opinion correctly. Here our will to solve the problems will be extremely decisive. Our will is strong. Looking at our efforts to resolve conflicts in our environment and our ability to keep our distance, you can see Turkey's perception and its capabilities to resolve issues peacefully. Our sincerity and our call is clear. I believe that if Greece adopts a similar approach, closed to external interference, we can make a good start towards building a peaceful future for our countries.

- The statement you made, more than once, "We may come suddenly one night," caused many Greeks to feel threatened. How would you respond to them as to whether that statement is still valid?

- As I just mentioned, only those who threaten us should fear us. We said that we would suddenly come overnight to the terrorist elements that threaten the security of our country and we did what we had to do. We destroyed and will destroy the hotbeds of terrorism. That has always been the response we have always received from those who question our territorial integrity, unity and unity, and that will not change from now on. Defending our homeland and maintaining the peace of our nation is our most natural right and no one should have any doubt that we will continue to use this right to the fullest against all terrorist centres.

Greece is not our enemy, but a valuable member of the Alliance of which we are a part. Moreover, we are neighbours, we will remain neighbours, and we must mutually respect each other's rights and vital interests. The Greek people, with whom we have lived together for centuries, know well how caring we are when we extend the hand of friendship. It is well aware of the tolerance and sincerity in our culture. We want to strengthen our relations on the basis of mutual understanding and live peacefully in this geography. We are a country that has proven many times that when we say this we are not just saying it to say something. The Western media are trying to twist my words.

There are opportunities for cooperation in the Mediterranean

- Do you think there are energy reserves in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean? How can these explorations be carried out if the two countries cannot agree on the delimitation of the continental shelf?

- Whether or not there are reserves is a question that can be established as a result of scientific research and not as a result of my personal opinion. As far as we can see, promising studies have been and are being carried out on this issue. The Mediterranean and the Aegean are basins rich in natural resources. In the current international context, ensuring and maintaining energy security from a strategic point of view has become a key issue. In this sense, especially in the Mediterranean, there are possibilities and opportunities for cooperation. Assessing the potential of such cooperation can contribute both to the energy security of the countries in the region and to the resolution of political issues. On the other hand, attempts to exploit these potentials politically also entail the risk of not being able to use these resources. We believe that energy is an element of cooperation and mutual benefit between all countries and societies and we want to resolve differences through dialogue. We prefer cooperation and we are ready for it. That is why I have twice proposed the organisation of a comprehensive conference on the opportunities in the Eastern Mediterranean. Unfortunately, at first, the EU remained silent on this proposal. Silence does not solve problems. Similarly, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus had proposed a joint processing of reserves and revenue sharing until a comprehensive solution is reached on the island. We support this proposal. While other countries in the region are also moving in this direction, why should the two sides of the island not be able to work together? There are many issues on which we can also cooperate in the Aegean. Everything is for the peace and prosperity of our people, but also for our future generations.

- The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque came as a shock to many in Greece and the West. Why did you take this decision? Is the Halki School of Theology going to reopen soon?

- I would like to express that the Republic of Turkey, which was founded on the basis of tolerance and embracing different cultures, is essentially maintaining a system that carries both the institutions of the 'waqf' and the rights and legislation concerning them into the future. The status of the 'waqf' to which the Hagia Sofia Mosque of Kebir belongs is still maintained and is still in force today. The property of the Hagia Sophia, owned by the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Foundation, by a decision of the State Council, is used in accordance with the purpose for which it was dedicated. In the Founding Act, which is the statute of the Hagia Sophia Foundation, which, like any foundation, has the privilege of immunity, guarantees that the structural integrity of the Hagia Sophia Mosque will not be damaged both materially and spiritually and that the iconography and all kinds of artwork will not be diminished and will be protected. We protect this distinguished temple with a meticulousness and respect rarely seen in human history and enable all of humanity to benefit materially and spiritually from this magnificent monument. The implementation and preservation efforts of the last 570 years are evidence of our state's meticulous approach to the subject at every period of history. Now, we have begun the largest, since the conservation work carried out during the time of Mimar Sinan, holistic work on the Hagia Sophia Mosque of Kebir. As a symbol of peace and tolerance, the Hagia Sophia Mosque will continue to be open to visitors of all religions and beliefs.

As for the Halki School of Theology, all private higher educational institutions in our country were nationalized in 1971 by a decision of our Constitutional Court. This decision does not only apply to the Theological School, but to all private higher educational institutions in our country. Since there is no official institution of higher education to which the Theological School can be transferred, it has no legal status and its activities have ceased. In fact, today the reopening of the Halki Theological School is possible only as a result of comprehensive legislative changes. On the other hand, the Patriarchate of Fener was not in favour of reopening the School's education under the auspices of a state university subject to the legislation of the Council of Higher Education.

- Migration flows in the Aegean have been a controversial issue for many years. Can the two countries cooperate directly to address and control this problem? Can the EU play a role?

- We are witnessing a significant increase in migration movements around the world due to both political instability and different concerns. Unfortunately, there is also a rapid increase in criminal structures that profit from people's quests and earn serious incomes. As we have always said, this situation is not an issue that states can overcome on their own. After all, illegal immigration is a common challenge and requires joint efforts.

Naturally, as a country, we are continuing our intensive efforts in our fight against irregular migration. It is important that the EU supports our country in this matter. As a result, it is necessary to take common measures which provide for an equal sharing of burdens and responsibilities to prevent migration at its source. This should not be limited to Turkey-Greece cooperation or to migration movements in the Aegean; it is an extremely large-scale struggle that requires the participation of the entire international community. We have always been open to sincere cooperation on this issue and we continue to be. Moreover, the issue of migration is a problem that will not disappear from the global agenda even if the wars end. One of the negative consequences of global climate change is climate migration and there are predictions that this will increase in the future. Therefore, in the face of this problem, we must produce permanent solutions and functional mechanisms. We must consider this issue with a holistic approach and discuss problem-solving formulas.

- You have been very critical of the West and Israel on the Gaza issue. Turkey is also a member of NATO and a strategic partner of many Western countries. Many people ask, "Does Turkey belong to the West?" How do you answer this question?

- Turkey joined NATO together with Greece 71 years ago. As you know, the criterion for being Western or European is not membership of the European Union. Moreover, in the context of relations with the EU, which date back to 1963, we are a country that is in the same Customs Union and has candidate status. In this respect, Turkey, with its democratic structure and the values it upholds, has an extremely broad common ground with the EU and NATO member countries. It is also a founding member of many so-called Western international organisations, particularly the UN and the Council of Europe. We have always been the voice of fairness, justice and conscience in international relations. In line with this understanding, as we move forward in international developments, our main objective is to be on the right side of history. Turkey's reaction to the injustice and inhuman treatment suffered by the Palestinian people, and the fact that we do not shy away from criticising Israel for its actions, which clearly violate international law, international humanitarian law and human rights law, are the natural requirements of this objective. Considering that many Western countries are increasingly holding similar positions today, the fulfilment of such a moral obligation on the part of Turkey on the issue of Palestine cannot call into question whether it "belongs to the West" or not. Instead of discussing Turkey's orientation and position, what needs to be considered is the fact that some Western countries may sometimes ignore the values they strongly uphold. The silence on the brutality in Gaza is the most vivid example of this. In fact, by opposing the genocide in Gaza we are also defending the fundamental values of Western society. In Gaza, the fundamental rights of people of all ages, even babies in cribs, are being violated. Silence in the face of the blatant violation of human rights, the systematic occupation of people's land and homes, the disregard for people's property rights and the removal of the Palestinians' right to determine their own future, where are these things in the values of Western civilisation? Is bombing hospitals, hitting schools, refugee camps, markets and killing civilians compatible with Western values? Telling people in Gaza to "go south" and dropping bombs on those heading that way is an attitude adopted by the West? Now I ask, is Turkey or the countries that are purposefully silent about all this belong to the West?

[This interview was translated from its Greek original]

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