Short-lived honeymoon between Athens and Ankara

Short-lived honeymoon between Athens and Ankara

For a moment or two, we thought it was real. The election last Sunday of a new government in Greece under Kyriakos Mitsotakis was interpreted as a very positive development for Ankara. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the first foreign leader who called the new Greek prime minister shortly after the results were announced last Sunday evening. Erdogan’s call to wish every success was a chance for Mitsotakis to state that he is looking forward to a “re-start” of Turkish-Greek relations “on the basis of respect to international law and an honest dialogue beneficial to both peoples.” 

Soon, afterwards, came a friendly post on the Twitter account of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu in a tri-lingual version: Turkish, Greek and English. Çavuşoğlu declared that he was “confident that Turkish-Greek friendship and bilateral relations will further strengthen during Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s leadership.” Çavuşoğlu went even further when the name of his counterpart was announced. Posting a message in Greek, Çavuşoğlu reminded his Greek-speaking followers that he had worked together with Mr. Nikos Dendias for many years in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. “Now, we will work together again for promoting our cooperation even further.”

Alas, this warm start of “sincerity and confidence” did not last long. These are difficult times. The change of leadership in Greece could not have come at a more critical moment than an accelerated escalation of tension in the eastern Mediterranean involving not just Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, but regional powers like Egypt, Israel, Libya and France, the EU, Russia and the U.S. Energy exploration in the Mediterranean and the prospect of significant findings has pushed interested countries into forming alliances and leaving Turkey out in the cold. Ankara, on the other hand, refusing to accept her exclusion from a future share of the profits, is fighting back on the side of its Turkish Cypriot “brothers’” claims of “sovereign rights” to explore and drill around Cyprus.

So, it was no surprise that the diplomatic niceties of the first two days following the election of Mitsotakis government had to end abruptly when geopolitical realities butted in.

The moment came when the Turkish drilling ship “Yavuz” departed from the southern province of Mersin and headed towards the Karpas peninsula of Cyprus to start drilling work in an area considered as part of the Exclusive Economic Zone of Greek Cyprus. Tensions rose dramatically. The new foreign minister, Dendias, hours after taking over his post, had to act quickly. He chose to be tough and delivered his first “damning” message against Turkey. He accused the Turks for “the attempted illegal drilling inside the territorial waters of the Cyprus Republic.” He said that the actions of “Yavuz” are “counter to international law, the Law of the Sea and constitutes defiance against the international community.” He even claimed that Turkey’s actions are “undermining the stability and security of the eastern Mediterranean region.” Inevitably, he brought in the EU factor of which both Greece and Cyprus are full members while Turkey just a candidate member: “The provocative behavior of Turkey at the expense of the sovereign rights of an EU member state is incompatible with the position of a candidate member of the EU and confirms the correctness of the decision of the European Council of June 20 for taking specific measures against Turkey.”

Dendias launched his term as foreign minister with an unusually harsh attack against Turkey. His announcement was in stark contrast with friendly exchanges with Çavuşoğlu a day earlier.

Was it intentional by Mitsotakis and his team to send a message that Greece under his leadership intends to “play tough” on matters related to Turkey. Was it an indirect criticism of Tsipras’ government for acting too soft towards Ankara? Maybe both.

After the defeat of Alexis Tsipras, many analysts have brought up the argument that the impressive victory of New Democracy party in all three major elections (European, local and general) had a lot to do with a very successful political marketing consisting of attacking the opponents and making business-like promises seemingly in favor of the general public.  Interestingly, the head of the campaign team is now the new interior minister in Mitsotakis’ cabinet. 

Dendias’ first announcement managed to cause an even tougher counter-reaction from Ankara with a barrage of statements by Çavuşoğlu and Ömer Çelik. They all condemned the “inappropriate style” of the Greek foreign minister.

We need more time to see whether the new Greek government intends to keep its tough style in its dealings with Turkey.

I think it may be interesting to look also at Dendias’ second in command, Deputy Foreign Minister Angelos Syrigos, a professor of international law and foreign policy. A well-known figure among the conservative academia with deep knowledge on foreign policy matters, particularly on the Balkans and Turkey. In his last newspaper article just before becoming a member of Mitsotakis’ cabinet, he wrote about the state of Turkish-Greek relations in 2019. Discussing the likelihood of an incident between the two neighboring countries, due to recent tensions, he suggests that “the clearer the rules and the red lines are, the less likely a hot incident may occur. Clarification of limits acts as a deterrent,” he wrote. And another interesting point: “On the Greek side, there is the perception that it is possible to engage in a fictitious dialogue [with Turkey] to avoid negotiation. This perception is wrong. The policy of dialogue does not exclude that at some point it has to lead to negotiations. On the contrary, it makes sure that Greece will be under strong pressure for negotiations. This means that the Greek side should take the initiative to define the scope of negotiations…”

Ariana Ferentinou, Turkey, Greece