IZMIR, Turkey — Aegean frenemies Turkey and Greece continue their post-disaster de-escalation of tensions with a diplomatic gesture from Ankara by allowing the transfer of a Greek national from a Turkish prison to a Greek one.
Dimitris Nalbantis is the father of the conductor, 28-year-old Nikos Nalbantis, who died when the passenger train he conducted crashed into a freight train south of the Tempe Valley in northern Greece on Feb. 28. Following the accident, Greek authorities have asked Turkey to temporarily release him so he can attend his son's funeral.
The issue was first discussed among the two countries' top diplomats and then taken before President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who agreed to his temporary release and a transfer that would enable Nalbantis to serve the rest of his sentence in his country, a Turkish diplomatic source told Al-Monitor. Nalbantis was convicted of drug smuggling.
Greek sources confirmed that the transfer was underway and that Nikos’s burial would likely occur once his father was in Greece. Then Dimitris would serve the rest of his sentence in his country.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called his Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias to inform him of the news Tuesday. Dendias posted his thanks on Twitter.
I received a phone call from #Türkiye FM, @MevlutCavusoglu who informed me on the positive outcome of 🇬🇷’s request for the extradition to #Greece of a Greek citizen, father of one of the victims of the accident in Tempi. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/JvHLVsdvT4— Nikos Dendias (@NikosDendias) March 14, 2023
The move, which made headlines in the Greek newspapers, shows a softening between the two NATO allies, whose belligerent rhetoric and threats fueled global fears of a military confrontation in the Aegean Sea throughout 2022. But two disasters — Turkey’s earthquake that killed more than 48,000 and the Greek train crash that claimed 57 lives — brought Athens and Ankara together.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis acknowledged Monday that the earthquake and rail disaster in northern Greece three weeks later had led to a “more positive attitude and behavior” in the bilateral ties.
“It brought the two peoples closer together on a human level,” Mitsotakis said after his talks with the newly elected Greek Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides, who has sought to re-start talks on Cyprus, the Mediterranean island split between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots.
Similarly, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar signaled Sunday that Turkey was ready to open a channel for dialogue to solve its problems with Greece through negotiations.
“We have problems with Greece. However, we favor solving these problems peacefully, through negotiations in the spirit of alliance and good neighborly relations,” Akar said in an interview published by the Anadolu Agency.
Nilgun Arisan Eralp, the director of the Center of European Union Studies at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey, told Al-Monitor that the disasters softened relations considerably. He said, “It is impossible to know for certain whether a new clash may occur, but the fact that the two sides, Turkey and Greek, have refrained from escalation as they headed for elections is positive itself. In Cyprus, the newly elected Christodoulides also seems keen to give new momentum to Cyprus talks, but it is unlikely that Turkey would be eager to take this on before the elections.”
The latest attempt to lay the ground for the resumption of talks to reunite Cyprus failed after a three-day summit in April 2021. Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders had gathered with the foreign ministers of Turkey, Greece and the United Kingdom — the guarantors of the island’s unity and integrity under a 1960 accord — to end a four-year pause in negotiations. The east Mediterranean island has been divided since 1974, when Turkish forces invaded the northern third of the island to torpedo a Greek Cypriot attempt to annex it to Greece.
Despite the hiatus in unification efforts, the Turkish and Greek Cypriot mayors of Cyprus’ divided capital Nicosia organized a joint event on March 20 for the Turkish and Greek disaster victims. The bilingual concert and poetry reading, with artists from both sides, was organized under the slogan, “Together in Pain, Together in the Future.”
As for Turkey and Greece, the present tone strongly contrasts with the atmosphere before the quake, when politicians of both sides pointed an accusing finger at each other over a long list of issues including clashing claims on sea and airspace, militarizing Greek islands close to the Turkish coastline, drilling rights in the eastern Mediterranean, conflicting loyalties on the divided island of Cyprus and clashing alliances in Libya.
Furious with Mitsotakis for lobbying the US Congress against military sales to Turkey, Erdogan declared last May that he had “written him off.” Dendias compared Turkey to North Korea after Erdogan boasted that the newly developed Turkish missiles could go as far as Athens. Rival tweets in each other's languages, military maneuvers that excluded each other and confrontations at NATO gatherings became common as Ankara and Athens tried to drag international institutions such as the United Nations, European Union and NATO into the conflict.
But political tensions were brushed aside as Greece became one of the first countries to rush to Turkey’s aid when killer earthquakes razed one-seventh of Turkey. Athens sent two groups of rescuers to Turkey's disaster zone in addition to several shipments of humanitarian assistance. When Dendias visited Turkey a week after the quake, Cavusoglu pointed out the quake diplomacy of 1999 (when Greece aided Turkey, whose industrial heartland near Istanbul had been destroyed) and pledged efforts to mend ties.
“I want to sign on to what Mevlut said: that we should not wait for natural disasters to improve our relations,” Dendias retorted. US State Secretary Antony Blinken, who visited both countries in February, lauded the rapprochement.