President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stirred up controversy over the treaty that almost a century ago set the borders of modern Turkey, alarming both neighbouring Greece and secular opposition at home. In a speech Thursday, Erdogan for the first time rejected the notion that the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne was a “victory” for Turkey and wistfully lamented the loss of Aegean islands which are now Greek territory.
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The treaty — the founding basis of the modern Turkish state out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire — has usually been seen inside the country as a triumph of its secular leadership led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. For the secular opposition in Turkey, Erdogan’s comments have represented another dangerous lapse into neo-Ottomanism, signalling his regret that Ankara does not control territory stretching from Balkans to Africa as Constantinople did in Ottoman times. But for pro-Erdogan commentators his remarks were a timely reminder that modern Turkey has just a fraction of the territory controlled by the Ottoman Empire.
“You see the Aegean, don’t you?” Erdogan told local officials in the speech at his presidential palace. “In Lausanne, we gave away islands (so near that) your voice can be heard if you shout across to them. Is this a victory?” he asked. “They were ours. There are our mosques, our shrines there.”
Erdogan rounded on those who negotiated the treaty who included Ismet Inonu, Ataturk’s right-hand-man who would later succeed him as president and still a hero for secularists. “Those who sat at that table could not make the best of the agreement. Today we are suffering the consequences.”
After the Ottoman defeat in World War I, the existence of any future Turkish state had been in question. However thanks to the strategic brilliance of Ataturk and victory in the War of Independence against Greece, modern Turkey was founded in 1923 as a state stretching from the Mediterranean to Persia. The military victory and Lausanne Treaty reversed the outcome of the 1919 Treaty of Sevres which, if implemented, would have seen modern Turkey reduced to a rump around Istanbul and Anatolia.
Under the new borders enshrined in Lausanne, all the Aegean islands went to Greece, with the exception of Gokceada (Imroz) and Bozcaada (Tenedos). Several islands however had already been captured from the Ottoman Empire in a 1912 war.