Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, at the European People’s Party (EPP) meeting in Strasbourg, threatened Turkey with European Union (EU) sanctions if the country becomes “more aggressive”.
The two countries’ squabbles over pushbacks of illegal migrants and maritime border claims in the eastern Mediterranean are well known.
The memory wars that are part of the conflict are less discussed: last Thursday, Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou said that Turkey is “distorting reality” regarding what Athens describes as the genocide of Pontian Greeks.
These past events still resonate amid the narrative wars that stand in the way of reconciliation.
READ MORE: Ministry rebukes Turkey for attack on Greek president over Pontian center.
Turkish authorities in Ankara have criticized Greece’s handling of illegal migration, describing it as a human rights issue, and Mitsotakis’ statements were a reaction.
He noted that “we are accused of alleged human rights abuses and these accusations come from a country that is not known for its outstanding human rights record.”
Moreover, he condemned the Turkish provocations in Cyprus. The issue of migrants is now a hot topic across Europe, as the continent is going through a migration crisis.
Earlier, Mitsotakis had already claimed that Athens had prepared a set of sanctions to be implemented against Ankara in case it does not change its “policy towards Greece”, as quoted by the Greek City Times.
Greek-Turkish tensions have been on the rise since the 2019 dispute between the two countries over maritime rights and jurisdiction over significant offshore mineral energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean.
Athens’ decision to sign a maritime delimitation agreement with Cairo has angered Ankara, which claims to violate its territorial rights. The talks have not progressed much so far.
READ MORE: Turkish FM Çavuşoğlu: Egypt will get bigger EEZ if they agree with us and not with Greece.
One factor that certainly does not help the dialogue is related to the politics of memory.
Last week, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement regretting remarks by Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou describing the killings of Pontic Greeks (an ethno-religious group) as “genocide”.
These massacres, together with expulsions, destruction of religious monuments, forced deportations were part of a systematic persecution of Christian Anatolian Greeks carried out by the Ottoman Empire during World War I and its aftermath.
Sakellaropoulou did not back down from his words and instead asserted that “the safeguarding of historical memory is not just about looking at the past. It holds an important symbolic function for the present and it teaches us.
A sign that great importance is placed on historical memory is the fact that it announced last week its intention to create the Hall for the Global Pontian Greeks of Sourmena, an impressive 9 billion dollar project commemorating the centenary of the arrival of Pontic Greek refugees from Turkey in the aftermath of the 1922 Greco-Turkish War.
READ MORE: Greek President announces the creation of a major cultural center in Athens for the world’s Pontian Greeks.
In April 2021, Sakellaropoulou honored the memory of the 106th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, as most historians call it, also committed by the Ottoman Empire during World War I (1915) and part of the same policies of Ottoman persecution against some Christian groups. within the Empire.
She went on to describe it as a “tragedy” that “crushed a thriving Christian core in the southern Caucasus and nearly wiped out an ancient people”.
Ankara’s position on the so-called Armenian Genocide is that the deaths of Armenians took place when some of them sided with the Russians, then at war with the Ottomans, and revolted against the forces Turkish. He opposes the description of the deaths as “genocide” and instead promotes the idea that it was a tragedy in which both sides suffered losses.
The United States House of Representatives recognizes Turkey’s massacres of Armenians as genocide (since 2019), as do the national legislatures of Greece, Cyprus, Armenia, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic.
In December 2007, the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) passed a resolution that asserted that the Ottoman persecution of Greeks was genocide “qualitatively similar” to the Armenian genocide.
The Turkish ministry statement released last week described Sakellaropoulou’s aforementioned remarks on the Greek genocide as “baseless allegations”, and added that his allegations do not change the fact that “it was Greece that tried to ‘to invade and occupy Anatolia, and that the Greek army has committed barbaric acts’. crimes against humanity, especially against innocent civilians in the Western Anatolia region”.
He also said that Greece should then pay compensation for such “atrocities”.
These exchanges are quite frequent and sometimes relate to events that go even further.
For example, in 2019 Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hami Aksoy said that Turkey had never forgotten the “atrocities” committed by the Greeks against the Turks during their independence from the Empire. Ottoman Empire, and added that “we see that Greece continues to side with hostile circles against Turkey and support their position and baseless allegations”.
In September last year, Turkey remembered the Tripoli massacre in Greece in 1821, when thousands of Muslims were killed in the central Peloponnese. The Turkish Foreign Ministry said such atrocities can “never be forgotten”.
More than once, Ankara has proposed the creation of a joint commission of historians from Turkey and Armenia as well as international experts to examine the issues described as genocide by the Armenians and the Greeks (as well as most of the historians), but while aggressive rhetoric is employed – amid current territorial disputes – it is highly unlikely that such a move will follow.
It may seem a little strange that events that took place more than 100 years ago (or even further) are still the subject of heated exchanges between Greek, Armenian and, on the other side, Turkish authorities. , but such narrative wars and the politics of memory in general should never be underestimated.
Collective memory, particularly with regard to specific sites and historical traumas, shapes both national and ethnic identity.
Similarly, disagreements over the events of World War II Polish-Ukrainian relations, and similarly different views on the role of historical figures such as Stepan Bandera divided Ukraine, the historic Greek-Turkish disputes have real and serious geopolitical implications.
This is so because the way a state chooses to interpret history shapes the very way it views its own country and its historical mission.
The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne was the peace treaty that settled the conflict between the Ottoman Empire and Greece (as well as the other allied players).
READ MORE: Turkish Claims to Demilitarize Aegean Islands via the Lausanne Treaty Are False: Here’s Why.
It led to the international recognition of the Turkish republic as a successor state to the Ottoman Empire and established the now disputed Greek and Turkish borders.
The truth is that many issues relating to the Treaty of Lausanne remain a point of contention to this day – and the memory of past massacres plays a big part in this.
Uriel Araujo is a researcher specializing in international and ethnic conflicts.