No change in Ankara relieves Athens

No change in Ankara relieves Athens

The anxiety of Greeks has been relieved after the conclusion of the presidential race in the first round and the relatively uncomplicated completion of the parliamentary elections.

There has been a sigh of relief. It is true that what we have heard from politicians, as well as academics and most of the Greek media has been very critical for the political situation in Turkey under the present leadership. They were very vocal, mainly on issues of democracy and saw Turkey as the biggest potential threat to Greece’s national security. But a deeper reading of Greece’s reactions during the recent elections in Turkey shows that for most, the possibility of Erdoğan’s defeat by the main opposition was not a favorable contingency.

I have had the chance to test that myself. Two days before the Turkish elections, I received a message on my phone from a Greek friend who is an important promoter in the music business. Despite the crisis that has hit the music sector in Greece, putting many out of business, my friend has survived. He has even expanded his reach to include events that take place on the Aegean islands opposite the Turkish shores. I understood from his message that he was anxious.

“Ten days ago, I was at the concert of […] On the island of […] We were speaking with locals who enjoy very good relations with the ‘opposite’ [Turks]. The kaymakam [district governor] and the [Turkish] mayor came to the concert. I understood they preferred Erdoğan’s re-election and said with Erdoğan, there will be no war. While with the ‘others,’ they are afraid. What do you think?”

What I wrote back to my friend is not important. Also, it may be that the Turkish officials were supporters of Erdoğan and his government. But what was interesting for me was that my friend, despite the relentless “Erdoğan-bashing” by the Greek media and an inherent negative perception of Turkey as the “arch national enemy,” he would simply make a choice that could be epitomized under the well-known idiom: Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

There may be a logical reason for that. After 16 years of a Turkey under the same powerful leader and the same party, despite serious ups-and-downs, several near-collisions in the Aegean, an escalating aggressive rhetoric on both sides, the threats, challenges, and insults, especially since July 15, 2016 and the escape of Turkish officers to Greece, there has not been a major incident that would permanently destabilize the relations of the two countries.

On the other hand, there has always been a suspicion of the policies of the main opposition in Turkey, which of course is linked with dark periods for the Greek-Orthodox community in Istanbul, the Ocalan affair and the Imia/Kardak crisis, to name a few. These dark memories were brought back to many Greek minds when the main opposition party of CHP, under Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, adopted the argument that 18 Aegean islands with Greek populations belonged to Turkey and that his party “would reclaim them” when it came to power.

On the Saturday of June 23, one day before the elections, there was a press conference for a major two-day event that takes place on the Greek island of Rhodes, just opposite the shores of Marmaris. Given the name “The Spirit of Rhodes: Shaping a Positive Agenda for Stability and Prosperity,” this was the international 3rd Rhodes Conference for Security and Stability under the auspices of the Greek Foreign Ministry. Foreign ministers from southeastern European countries, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East and observers from countries as far as Vietnam, Colombia, and Indonesia participated at the event.

During the press conference at the end of the event, the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, voiced some interesting comments, which were not reported in Turkey but seemed to justify my “the devil you know” argument.

Replying to journalists’ questions on what he expects after the elections regarding relations with Greece, Kotzias took a firm stance regarding the CHP:

“I do not expect things to improve if the opposition comes. The opposition in Turkey, the way they are handling issues regarding Greek-Turkish relations, at least as the opposition, I would say they tend to be worse than that of Mr. Erdoğan,” he said.

Now, more than a week later, we have a clear picture of the results. In Greece, they generally see it as a major victory for Erdoğan. Some hope this will make the Turkish president adopt a milder tone towards Greece. The scheduled lifting of the state of emergency (OHAL) in Turkey has given renewed hopes to the parents of the two detained Greek soldiers in the Edirne prison for illegally crossing into Turkish territory last March. Speaking to a Greek newspaper, the father of one of the soldiers hoped that the lifting of the OHAL may reactivate the European Convention of Human Rights, to which Turkey is also a signatory, which provides a short detention of a suspect, a release pending trial and a fast indictment.

For Kotzias, the big question now is what will the tone of Erdoğan’s rhetoric be? Will he be more aggressive or more polite?

Ariana Ferentinou, Turkey, Greece, Greek minister