Greek PM Alexis Tsipras speaks on Turkey-Greece ties, refugee crisis, Cyprus dispute, and issues of Muslim Turks in Western Thrace, ahead of a two-day visit to Turkey.

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras says conditions must be created in Greek-Turkish relations for
Greek PM Alexis Tsipras says conditions must be created in Greek-Turkish relations for "historic steps to take place." (AA)

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who is visiting Turkey on Tuesday, has called on the EU to "do all it can to support" Turkey, which is currently hosting four million refugees.

"I believe that Turkey has taken over the great burden of hosting four million refugees. That should always be recognised by the international community and the EU should do all it can to support our neighbour," said the Greek premier, whose visit will focus on steps to improve bilateral cooperation with Turkey. 

A Turkey-EU refugee deal reached in March 2016 aims to discourage irregular migration to Europe through the Aegean Sea.

"As a result [of the deal], illegal flows and especially deaths in the Aegean, drastically decreased," Tsipras said to Anadolu Agency ahead of his visit.

The deal included a $6.8 billion aid package to help Turkey care for millions of refugees in the country. 

However, Turkey has so far received only a part of the committed amount. The agreement also allowed for the acceleration of Turkey’s EU membership bid and visa-free travel for Turkish nationals within the Schengen area.

Tsipras also said Turkey and Greece should "intensify" their cooperation regarding the refugee flow since "the Greek islands have been overburdened in the last few years."

The prime minister also said his country has one of the fastest asylum procedures and they are "working hard" to make it more effective. Some European leaders, such as Angela Merkel, blamed the Greek side for the deal not "working properly."

"The EU, for its part, has to find a way to strengthen the support it shows to countries that are the most affected from the flow and to reject agendas that are not compatible with European law or humanitarian principles," Tsipras said.

Cyprus talks

Asked whether there is a possibility of new talks on the Cyprus issue, Tsipras said the sides should keep working for "a fair and viable solution based on UN Security Council decisions" despite the elections in both countries scheduled for this year.

The Eastern Mediterranean island has been divided since 1974, when a Greek Cypriot coup was followed by violence against the island's Turks, and Ankara's intervention as a guarantor power.

"The reunification of the island on this basis, is the only possible solution," he said, calling for "effective preparatory meetings" on the security issue with the Turkish side.

There has been on-and-off peace process over recent years. 

The Crans-Montana talks in 2017, which has been the latest initiative, under the auspices of guarantor countries Turkey, Greece, and the UK – ended in failure.

'Historic steps in Greek-Turkish relations'

Regarding bilateral relations of the two neighbouring countries, he said, "The conditions must be created in Greek-Turkish relations for historic steps to take place."

On his personal relationship with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Greek leader said it is based on "respect, honesty and directness" although it was "challenged in very difficult moments."

"During my visit I believe we will have the chance to continue the difficult, but frank dialogue we started in December 2017 and to pick up our positive agenda from where we left it," he added, recalling the Turkish president's visit to Athens, which was the first at the presidential level after 65 years.

Tsipras also talked on the developments regarding the Muslim Turkish minority's religious freedom in Greece, an issue which was raised by Erdogan in his 2017 Athens visit.

"The Treaty of Lausanne is the applicable international convention regarding minorities, so we inform each other on relevant developments on this basis," Tsipras said, branding the issue as an internal one rather than bilateral.

"We have made important steps until now on the implementation of Sharia law, the structure and function of the Mufti offices and educational issues. We will continue in this direction," the Greek leader said.

The election of religious leaders or muftis has been a key problem of Greece’s Muslim Turkish minority of some 150,000 – concentrated in the Western Thrace region – since 1991.

The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne also guarantees the religious freedom of the Muslim minority in Greece. However, Greece annulled the Greek Act in 1991 and started appointing the muftis itself.

Review of ties

On Monday, Turkey's presidential press office said ties between Ankara and Athens will be comprehensively reviewed during the visit of Tsipras at the invitation of President Erdogan.

Erdogan and Tsipras are also expected to exchange views on regional and international developments.

Following their meeting in the capital Ankara on Tuesday, Tsipras is scheduled to visit Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul on Wednesday.

He is also expected to be the first Greek leader to visit Halki Seminary, a former Christian Orthodox school located on one of Istanbul’s Princes' Islands.

In recent years Erdogan has suggested that the seminary could be reopened if steps are taken by Athens to improve conditions for the Muslim community in Western Thrace.

Source: AA