VOLOS, Greece (AP) — Greece’s prime minister says he will extend “a hand of friendship” to the winner of upcoming elections in the country's neighbor and longtime regional rival Turkey — but adds that he hopes the next government will "reconsider its approach toward the West.”
Kyriakos Mitsotakis, himself facing an election in just over a week, said he is willing to speak to whomever emerges victorious from Sunday's polls in Turkey.
“But I’m not naive,” he told The Associated Press in a wide-ranging interview while on the campaign trail in central Greece on Thursday evening. “I know that foreign policies of countries don’t change from one day to the next.”
Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has led his country as prime minister and president since 2003, faces his most challenging election. Amid a faltering economy, Erdogan has lost some ground to his main rival, the secular, center-left Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Although not to the same level as with Greece, a fellow NATO member, Turkey’s relations with the United States and several European countries have seen strain. Turkey is blocking Sweden’s request to join NATO, pressing the country to crack down on Kurdish militants and other groups that Turkey regards as terrorist threats.
“I would hope that the next Turkish government would overall reconsider its approach towards the West, not just towards Greece, towards Europe, towards NATO, and towards the United States,” Mitsotakis said. “But again, I have to be a realist and not be too naive, and that is why we will continue with ... our firm foreign policy. That means we will continue to strengthen our deterrence capabilities and our defense capabilities.”
Greece and Turkey have been at odds for decades over issues including their maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean. But bilateral relations in recent years plummeted to new lows that saw the two countries’ warships shadowing each other and Turkish officials suggesting they could invade Greek islands.
In response, Greece has embarked on an extensive military procurement program to modernize its armed forces, including purchasing advanced French-built fighter jets.
“I wish I did not have to spend much more than 2% of my GDP on defense. But unfortunately, we live in a precarious neighborhood with ... a much larger country than us that’s also been behaving aggressively,” Mitsotakis said.
The prime minister said that he hopes to build on a reduction of rhetoric following devastating earthquakes in Turkey in February that killed tens of thousands. Similarly improved ties after earthquakes struck both Turkey and Greece in 1999 lasted for several years.
“It is a pity. We don’t have to wait for a catastrophe to strike, nor are we destined to live in a state of permanent tension,” Mitsotakis said. But, he stressed, better ties require an end to bellicose rhetoric from Turkey. “If the Turkish government every other day talks about coming at night to invade our islands, obviously that is not very conducive towards building a climate of trust and goodwill,” he said.
Mitsotakis, a Harvard-educated 55-year-old, has headed the center-right New Democracy party since 2016 and became prime minister in 2019. He has been leading his main opposition rival, left-wing former prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party, in opinion polls as he seeks a second four-year term in office in a May 21 election.
Born into a political family, Mitsotakis is the son of the late prime minister Constantine Mitsotakis, a political heavyweight of the late 1980s and early 1990s. His sister, Dora Bakogiannis, is a former foreign minister, and his nephew is the current mayor of Athens.
Because of a change in Greece’s electoral law, the winner of the ballot is unlikely to garner enough votes to be able to form a government without seeking coalition partners. If no party can form a government, a second election will be held roughly a month later, when the electoral law will give the winning party bonus parliamentary seats.
“I’ve made it very clear I don’t believe in this electoral system. What we need is ... a stable government, and preferably we need a single-party government,” Mitsotakis said.
On an often brutal campaign schedule, Mitsotakis toured parts of central Greece on Thursday, delivering a speech in the seaside city of Volos before heading east on Friday to the islands of Lesbos and Rhodes.
Lesbos was home for several years to the notoriously overcrowded Moria migrant camp, which grew to become Europe’s largest until it burnt down in 2020. The island and several others in the eastern Aegean Sea became flashpoints in a refugee crisis in 2015 that saw hundreds of thousands of people arriving from Turkey and heading into Europe through Greece.
Mitsotakis’ government has cracked down on immigration, seeking to prevent migrants and asylum-seekers from entering the country by increasing land and sea border patrols and vastly expanding a fence along the land border with Turkey.
But Greek authorities have also been accused by rights organizations and migrants themselves of carrying out summary — and illegal —- deportations without allowing migrants to apply for asylum. Greece has strenuously denied it engages in the practice known as pushbacks.
Mitsotakis vowed to maintain the policy if he wins a second term. The current border fence spans just under 40 kilometers (25 miles) and the government plans to extend it by 35 kilometers (22 miles) over the next 12 months. Officials have said more than 100 kilometers (160 miles) of wall will be added to that by 2026.
“I want to make it very clear I’m unapologetic about that," he said. "We have reversed the policy of the previous government, which had an open door policy which ended up allowing more than a million people to cross into Greece in 2015. That’s not going to happen again.”
When Mitsotakis first came to power, Greece was barely emerging from a brutal decade-long financial crisis that saw it lose access to international bond markets and put the country’s finances under the strict supervision of international creditors in return for billions of euros in bailout loans.
Although Greece has regained market access, international rating agencies still rank its bonds just below investment grade. Mitsotakis has said that he expects Greek bonds to be lifted out of junk status this year — if he wins reelection. Tsipras’ government often clashed with Greece’s bailout creditors, who set strict fiscal policies in return for emergency funds.
“I’ll be very, very blunt,” Mitsotakis said. “If Syriza tries to implement even a fraction of what they have said," it will lead to “a certain downgrade of our economy.”
Theodora Tongas contributed to this story.