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  • Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reviews the Presidential Guard with Greece's President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, during the welcome ceremony in Athens, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Thursday, December 07, 2017 8:24 am

Tense start for Turkish leader Erdogan's visit to Greece

ELENA BECATOROS | Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece – The first official visit by a Turkish president to Greece in six decades got off to a tense start Thursday, with Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeating comments that have alarmed his Greek hosts about the need to "update" the 1923 treaty that delineated the borders of modern Turkey.

Erdogan's first meeting was with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, and the televised discussions between the two men were visibly awkward.

The presidents engaged in a thinly-veiled verbal spat over the treaty and the Muslim minority in northeastern Greece. Erdogan's two-day visit will include a trip Friday to meet with members of the community, who Greece recognizes only as a religious minority. The status of the Greece's Muslims, which Turkey considers a Turkish minority, was also determined by the Treaty of Lausanne.

Erdogan rattled Greek officials by telling Greece's Skai television in an interview Wednesday night that the 1923 treaty should be "updated."

"In fact, all agreements in the world should be updated with the passage of time," Erdogan said. "This update would be beneficial not only for Turkey but also for Greece."

His comment "raises serious concerns and questions," said government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos. "The Greek government and the prime minister want his visit to be a reason to build bridges, not to raise walls."

Respecting the treaty is "the exclusive and non-negotiable foundation on which the honest cooperation of the two countries can be built," Tzanakopoulos said.

But Erdogan reiterated his views on the treaty during his meeting Thursday with Pavlopoulos.

"This happened in Lausanne, that happened in Lausanne. I get that, but let's now quickly do what is necessary," he told the Greek president. "Many things have changed in 94 years. If we review these, I believe that all the sides will agree that so many things have to (change.)"

Pavlopoulos told Erdogan the treaty "doesn't need revision or updating. It is valid as is." He added the treaty didn't allow space for territorial disputes and clearly set out the status for Greece's Muslim minority.

"It is clear that to achieve our goals and to make this visit a historic one ... this requires the full respect of international law," Pavlopoulos said.

Erdogan's televised chat with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras immediately afterward was calmer.

"We have to put the 'empty' side of the glass to one side and focus on its full side. We have to build our negotiations on this," Erdogan told Tsipras. "We have no designs on neighboring countries' territories. But in the past, we were nations that lived one within the other."

He noted that "mistakes" had led to the dwindling of Turkey's Greek community, which largely fled the country after decades of persecution, leaving a very small minority still in Istanbul.

"We are leaving such mistakes to history. We have to build the future on stronger ground... If we manage to form a shared wisdom we can resolve (issues)," he said.

Tsipras, for his part, noted that Greece and Turkey had long had differences.

"What matters is that beyond those differences, we look for common ground and that the differences are addressed in a constructive way, with respect to the other's opinion and without provocations and exaggeration," he said.

The refugee crisis will be high on the agenda, as Greek islands have been the gateway into Europe for migrants crossing from Turkey. Regional relations, energy and business ties, Turkey's stalled bid to join the EU and longstanding differences such as territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea separating the two countries are also likely to be discussed.

One thorny issue likely to be raised will be the case of eight Turkish servicemen who requested asylum in Greece following last year's failed coup in Turkey. Ankara has demanded their extradition, a request rejected by Greek courts on the grounds they could not be guaranteed a fair trial in Turkey.

The move infuriated Erdogan, who declared Wednesday that his country's judicial system is "the best in Europe," adding that the servicemen should have been handed over before Greek courts became involved.

Erdogan's visit comes as his country finds itself increasingly isolated on the international stage.

Turkey's ties with the EU and several European countries deteriorated significantly following Erdogan's post-coup crackdown. Tens of thousands of Turks have been fired from their jobs, and tens of thousands more have been imprisoned on accusations of being linked, however tenuously, with Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based Islamic cleric Erdogan blames for masterminding the coup. Gulen denies the claim.

Other than Greece, Poland is the only other EU country to have invited Erdogan to visit since mid-2016.

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Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed.