On the 99th anniversary of Lausanne, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused the Greek government of failing to honour treaty clauses which committed it to protect the rights of the Turkish-Muslim minority resident in Thrace. These allegations refer to the closing down of four elementary schools and the refusal to permit the community to elect their own muftis. It would be hard to see the former as targeting a particular minority: Greek law mandates closure where the population served by any given school falls below a certain threshold. As for the muftis, in that case Erdoğan’s remarks were responding to legislation under which the Minister of Education and Religious Affairs appointed three muftis. This legislation did not represent a new departure, but rather codified practices which had been observed under legislation dating back to 1990.
The treaty’s minority clauses provided both Greece and Turkey with opportunities to exercise a watching brief with regard to their respective minorities resident within the other state’s borders. Far from representing a new démarche, Erdoğan’s speech is the latest in a century of interventions in which Greek and Turkish governments have responded to alleged breaches of the minority clauses by imposing counter-measures on their own citizens: a tit-for-tat response breaking fundamental principles of international human rights law. Such interventions instrumentalize the Lausanne Treaty even as they confuse real issues that merit serious bilateral discussion.
Such instrumentalisation minimises opportunities to broker solutions and discuss amendments to the legal framework. This was certainly true after 1955, when the underlying issue was the Cyprus question, right up until the late 1990s, by which time the Greek minority in Turkey had dropped below 3,000. As the Greek Orthodox population of Istanbul, Gökçeada and Bozcaada shrank, so Greece largely abandoned demands for reciprocity, insisting instead that the minority of Thrace was a matter of internal policy only.
The Turkish minority in Greece is much larger, around 110-120,000 today, and takes a commensurately higher position on the Turkish state’s agenda, alongside disputes over the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and continental shelf, for example.
Behind all the rhetoric, minority protections are actually deficient, in both countries. Under the old millet system underpinning Lausanne’s legal framework both minorities are defined solely on the basis of religion, making other types of affiliation invisible. Both countries have used the Treaty to direct the organizational structures of “their” minority inside the other country, in some cases trading minority liberties for political or diplomatic gains.
A raft of issues remain unresolved: the legal position of the Greek-Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul, the opening of a seminary at Halki/Heybeliada, the regularization of community properties and the election of the members of Management Committees in both minorities. There is also the implementation of sharia law in Greece. The quality of minority education on both sides would benefit from more bilateral cooperation. In short, a solid dialogue with all involved parties is needed to make minority protection fit for purpose, fit to handle modern challenges, in a form which might emerge outside the Treaty itself. Modern minority protection instruments are offered by the Council of Europe, yet both Greece and Turkey choose to keep their distance. For both sides, it seems Lausanne remains too useful – as an opportunity for posturing – to imagine living without.
Opinion pieces are published by TLP for the purpose of encouraging informed debate on the legacies of the events surrounding the Lausanne conference. The views expressed by authors do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of TLP, its partners, convenors or members.
FEATURE IMAGE: ECUMENICAL PATRIARCH BARTHOLOMEW I AND GREEK PRIME MINISTER MITSOTAKIS IN ISTANBUL, MARCH 2022.