The post-World War I peace deal is contentious for a significant number of Turks, including President Erdogan, who seeks to amend it for various security and historical reasons.
In early December last year, when Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Greece, he spoke out about one of the controversial issues dogging the two nations.
A day before meeting his Greek counterpart Prokopis Pavlopoulos, Erdogan appeared on a Greek TV channel for an interview. The host brought up the Treaty of Lausanne, an-elephant-in-the-room issue for Athens and Ankara.
Instead of walking a tightrope on this historic visit to Greece, Erdogan was blunt.
"First and foremost, the Lausanne Treaty does not only encompass Greece but the entire region," Erdogan said."And because of that alone – I think that over time all treaties need a revision – the Lausanne Treaty, in the face of the recent developments, needs a revision if you will."
Erdogan's statement ruffled feathers, as the welcoming smiles of Greek leaders turned into glares.
The next day, as Pavlopoulos and Erdogan appeared before journalists at a joint press conference, the Greek president rebutted Erdogan.
“The Treaty of Lausanne defines the territory and the sovereignty of Greece and of the European Union, and this treaty is non-negotiable," Pavlopoulos said, avoiding eye contact with Erdogan.
The exchange signalled that the future of Greek-Turkish relations would be shaped by a long-standing question – could the Treaty of Lausanne be amended?
“Treaties can be changed. The Treaty of Lausanne has been changed twice,” said Halil Rahman Basaran, a Turkish law professor at Istanbul Sehir University, who is writing a book on modern Turkish-Greek relations.
The Great War
Ninety-four years ago, six years after World War I ended, Turkey became the direct successor of the former Ottoman Empire. It traded the vast swathes of the Ottoman territories for what we know as modern-day Turkey.
Although the deal secured peace in Europe and the Middle East, it did not go down well with a significant number of people, who had a strong sense of belonging to the former Ottoman state. They felt the treaty was used as a tool to shortchange them.
This sentiment was passed down through succeeding generations, splitting Turkish society. Some Turks believed Turkey's founding fathers, especially Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the country’s secular founder, signed the treaty to appease Western powers. Others thought differently, believing that the treaty was necessary for the world to recognise the creation of the modern Turkish republic.
“In Turkey, the Treaty of Lausanne is being discussed either as a decisive triumph or a catastrophic blunder which is obviously a counterproductive approach [to the issue],” said Sukru Hanioglu, a Turkish professor in Foreign Affairs and in the Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Hanioglu has written extensively on Ottoman modernisation and the politics of why there was opposition to it during the waning years of the empire.
“Lausanne marked the legal demise of the Ottoman state; its estate in 1914 [before the war started] was distributed with respect to developments during and after WWI, its debts shared, and a new status quo was established,” Hanioglu told TRT World.
In Turkey today, Kemalists, Turkey’s hardline secularists, support the treaty while the country's religiously inspired political movements perceive it differently.
Erdogan is a byproduct of Milli Gorus, a political movement inspired by progressive Muslim values that has strongly influenced Turkish politics since the late 1960s. For most of his political career, Erdogan's position on the Lausanne Treaty has remained consistent. After his rise to power, his views on reviewing and updating the treaty gradually influenced the country's foreign policy agenda.
Is it possible to amend such a historic peace agreement as the Treaty of Lausanne?
Firstly, when the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits was signed in 1936, Basaran said, the Treaty of Lausanne was altered. Prior to the Montreux Convention, according to the Treaty of Lausanne, control of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus straits was handed to an international commission. It was at the Montreux Convention that the Treaty of Lausanne was amended and the ownership of the straits returned to Turkey.
“We were able to change it again by successfully debating the status quo of the Sancak of Iskenderun,” Basaran said.
Similarly, Iskenderun, a historic district along the Mediterranean coast south of Turkey, was part of French-controlled Syria until 1938.
After months of deliberation, Turkey and France agreed to hold a referendum commissioned by the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations. The people of Iskenderun were asked to choose between French-controlled Syria and Turkey. They chose Turkey. By 1939, Iskenderun was recognised as one of the Turkish provinces and was given a new name, Hatay.
But that wasn't enough to placate some Turks who felt let down by how World War I ended. A significant number of Turks were still frustrated with the outcome of the Lausanne treaty. They couldn't reconcile the loss of vast territories ranging from North Africa to the Middle East to Europe and being just left with what we know as present-day Turkey.
The founding fathers of Turkish republic had to fight several military and diplomatic battles for every inch of land. The allied powers in the Great War occupied Istanbul, the capital of the former Ottoman state, in 1918, forcing the imperial leadership to sign a highly dishonourable peace treaty, the Treaty of Sevres.
The Sevres Treaty divided the Ottoman Empire into several regions and handed administrative control to the British, French, Italians, Greeks, Armenians and Kurds. The Turks were left with a small piece of territory which was geographically one-fourth in size compared to the present map of Turkey.
Greeks and Armenians, who had long been the Ottoman Empire’s Christian subjects, became the proxies of the Western powers, were out to occupy Anatolia, also known as Asia Minor. The Treaty of Sevres, signed in August 1920, was drafted in favour of the Allied forces and its proxies to erase the Ottoman identity. In order to do that, they needed to invade Anatolia, the traditional stronghold of the Ottoman State.
But an unanticipated armed resistance emerged in the empire's Anatolian heartland. Led by Mustafa Kemal, a young and dynamic Ottoman army general, who had participated in major battles of the World War I against the rivals of the imperial state. Between 1919 and 1922, Mustafa Kemal’s Kuvayi Milliye (National Forces), rounded up the soldiers of the fallen Ottoman army and deployed them in all the major battles that led to the defeat the Allied-backed Greek and Armenian forces.
The thinking behind the Turkish war for independence was opposed to the Treaty of Sevres' principles. As the Turkish forces defeated the Allied occupation in several territories, the Treaty of Lausanne was drawn up in the hope of finding a long-lasting solution.
“The victors of WWI viewed the Treaty of Lausanne as the final peace treaty that would help shape a new status quo based on their wishes, and assumed that across them sat a defeated nation,” Hanioglu said.
“Despite that belief, Turkey participated in the conference not as a defeated power but on the contrary, as a burgeoning state that had scored a major military victory and willing to continue fighting if need be.”
The antagonistic attitude toward the resurgent Turks is one of the main reasons why some modern-day Turks despise the treaty.
In Turkey today however, even those who aren't happy with the outcome of the treaty are pragmatic about its historical geopolitical realities. They are aware that they will have to abide by the larger framework of the Lausanne Treaty, which is to make peace with the fact that they cannot reclaim all the former Ottoman territories.
But there are certain lost territories – such as the islands in the Aegean Sea – that are at the heart of Turkey's foreign policy today.
Before the Great War, the Ottoman Empire legally owned a cluster of islands south of the Aegean Sea. The Dodecanese and Rhodes are strategic islands close to Turkey’s western shore. In north of the sea, the islands of Imbros, Tenedos and Kastellorizo are close to the Dardanelles Strait, a sea route that leads to Istanbul, the former Ottoman capital.
During the Lausanne negotiations, some historians including Hanioglu believed that the Turkish delegation led by the then-foreign minister Ismet Inonu did not come up with an effective strategy to hold on to crucial Aegean islands (with the exception of Imbros and Tenedos), which were key to the country’s security.
“While the subject was being discussed at Lausanne, it would make sense for Turkey to advance two theses. The first one would demand a status quo ante bellum [the state existing before the war] settlement in the same way that the victors of the WWI proposed for the Western boundaries of Turkey. It would restore Imbros (Gokceada), Tenedos (Bozcaada), Kastellorizo (Meis) and the Dodecanese to Turkey,” Hanioglu told TRT World.
“The second thesis would be handing over the Dodecanese – with the exception of Rhodes – to Greece after the Italian occupation ended, in exchange for some Northern Aegean islands to be handed over to Turkey,” Hanioglu added.
Such proposals had been suggested to the Greeks in 1914. Italians had occupied those islands in 1912 during the Italo-Ottoman War over Tripolitania, which is now Libya, an Ottoman province at the time.
But the Turkish delegation chose to pursue a different path, demanding “a special regime” for some of the northern Aegean islands and the return of Samothrace island, north of Aegean Sea, which was not important from the country's security perspective.
“The legal basis of this claim was relatively weak. As a result Turkey was compelled to accept a solution that is worse than the status quo at the beginning of WWI and abandoned Kastellorizo (Meis) which had been given to her by the Great Powers in 1914, and renounced all rights and title over the Dodecanese in favor of Italy,” Hanioglu said.
Ever since then, the question over the Aegean islands has always troubled Turkey and Greece, and has even brought the two countries to the brink of war a few times. Both countries have accused each other of border violations. In 1996, Turkish commandos entered an inhabited 40,000-square-metre island, located seven kilometres away from the Turkish coast. It was a show of strength to remind the Greek government that Turkey would not compromise on the islands.
“Look now to the Greek islands. We gave away these very near islands. Is it a victory? Those places were ours. Why? Those seated at the table were not up to challenge. Because they could not deliver, now we are having problems,” Erdogan said during a speech in Ankara in 2016.
Beyond the Aegean question, there were other issues rooted in the Lausanne treaty, marring their mutual relations. In Greece, there are around 150,000 Turks in the country’s eastern region called the Western Thracia, which abuts Turkey.
According to the treaty, any minority should have their own religious and educational institutions. But Greek authorities have repeatedly blocked the Turkish minority from electing their own religious leaders since the 1990s. Instead, Athens handpicks ethnic Turkish religious heads for the Muslim community, another point of contention between Erdogan and Greek leaders during his recent visit to the country.
“Ninety-four years have passed. We have previously stated that it is necessary to update the treaty,” Erdogan said while addressing the Turkish minority in Greece's Thrace region.
Additional reporting by Melis Alemdar