Both in the recent statements by Nikos Dendias and Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara, and in the previous rather eventful meeting between Prokopis Pavlopoulos and Tayyip Erdogan at the Presidential Palace in Athens, the minority in Thrace was the trigger for the confrontation.
The minority in Thrace is at a crossroads. On the one hand, many measures that were implemented against it have been lifted by the Greek governments since 1990, but there has been no substantial self-criticism on the part of the Greek state for the unacceptable, for a modern European state, policies that were exercised in the past. On the other hand, there are still remnants of prejudice, discrimination and negative practices which prevent the full and equal integration of the minority into political and social life.
The emancipation of the minority from being a hostage of the developments in Greek-Turkish relations is the most important priority today, as it will contribute to harmonisation with modern standards and help to remove many difficulties and hangups.
The problems of the minority are not issues of foreign policy but – through the international treaties to which Greece is a signatory – a matter of internal legal order, which must ensure the equality of rights and obligations of all Greek citizens, regardless of their different national identity, religion and language.
Respect for human rights is not subject to the principle of reciprocity, ie it does not depend on whether a neighbouring country protects the same rights of its own citizens.
Contemporary international concepts of human and minority rights enshrine the right to ethnic or national self-determination for those citizens who wish to declare an ethnic identity that is the same as or different from that of the majority. Important instruments are the CSCE – now known as OSCE – and the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention on National Minorities. It is obvious that newer treaties and conventions take precedence over older ones, such as the Treaty of Lausanne.
With particular emphasis, the modern treaties lay down respect for the borders of states, opposition to secessionist tendencies and, in general, the “legitimacy” of minorities in the state in which they are citizens, as the basis for the enjoyment of minority rights.
But also vice versa: the free enjoyment of minority rights helps minorities to integrate more fully into the country of which they are citizens and does not encourage them to seek external support or separatist movements.
At the same time, these conditions do not deny the existence of special links between minorities and members of the same ethnic group living in other states. In particular, with states in which the majority are citizens with the same ethnic identity (a similar example is the links between the Greek minority in Turkey or in Albania, and Greece).
The Treaty of Lausanne itself does not prohibit self-identification. No one can exclude, under the general umbrella of the Muslim minority, the right and possibility for some to self-identify, for example, as ethnic Turks or Pomaks.
In any case, the constitutionally enshrined rights of freedom of expression, assembly and association (which includes the names of minority associations, such as the issue of the Turkish Association of Xanthi, etc) must guide any policy. The violation of these rights by the Greek state in various aspects of the Thrace minority has led to many convictions of Greece by the European Court for Human Rights.
It is a misconception that the different ethnic self-identification of a group of citizens means that they follow the laws of the state in which their ethnic group is in the majority (eg Turkey). After all, the Treaty of Lausanne legitimises the interest of the “motherland” for their minorities living in the respective neighbouring states, eg on the issue of education.
The right to national self-determination is a central issue for the Thracian minority. Suspicions – sometimes justified and sometimes not – about attempts to alter the national consciousness of minority citizens or to degrade and eliminate elements of their national identity create a climate of aggravation, entrenchment and defensive attitudes. But they also provide the grounds for all kinds of exploitation from many sides.