ATHENS, Greece -- Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis sought to reassure his compatriots late Tuesday that despite strong rhetoric from Turkey, relations are not at the low of 2020 when the neighbors' warships were shadowing each other in the eastern Mediterranean.
In an interview with state broadcaster ERT, Mitsotakis dismissed Turkey's questioning of Greek sovereignty over many of the eastern Greek islands, including the popular resorts of Rhodes, Kos and Samos just off western Turkey, as “completely irrational.”
The two NATO allies have long been at odds over offshore rights, ownership of uninhabited islets and the war-divided island nation of Cyprus, and have come close to war three times in the past half century.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised the stakes last week, warning Greece to demilitarize its Aegean islands and saying he was “not joking.” He spoke during Turkish wargames near the Greek islands that included an amphibious landing scenario.
Ankara says Athens has been building a military presence on the islands in violation of treaties under which they were ceded to Greece in the 20th century after a long period of occupation by the Turks — or by Italy in the case of Rhodes and Kos.
Greece counters that the islands need defenses given threats of war from Turkey, which has NATO's second-biggest military and maintains a large landing fleet on its Aegean coast.
“Turkey's complaints ... are completely irrational to the extent that they question Greek sovereignty over the eastern Aegean islands,” Mitsotakis said Tuesday. “I don't think a single thinking human being — including in Turkey — believes that nowadays Greece can threaten Turkey.”
Mitsotakis said that “if basic sense prevails” relations will not deteriorate further. Otherwise, he added, “we will do what is necessary.”
Concern has increased that tensions could boil over into some form of a military confrontation this year, even as both Greece and Turkey look to boost their vital tourism revenues this summer after two years of pandemic-induced losses.
Mitsotakis said, however, that relations were not yet at the point where both countries sent warships to the eastern Mediterranean in a dispute over gas and oil exploration rights in 2020.
“There is high verbal tension, but we don't yet have — and I hope we don't reach that point — tension in the field,” he said.
“Turkey often adopts precisely such rhetoric,” he added, voicing hope that Erdogan will backtrack from a decision this month to break off high-level talks with Greece, when the Turkish leader also stated that for him, Mitsotakis “no longer exists.”
“We must meet, and we must talk,” Mitsotakis told ERT.