Turkey’s opposition triggering tension with Greece
The year 1996 revealed another problem, among the many complex and interrelated disputes in the Aegean Sea, including the breadth of the territorial sea, the delimitation of the continental shelf, the demilitarization of certain islands, and the passage rights of ships and planes.
With the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, Turkey had renounced in favor of Italy all rights and titles over certain named islands and over “dependent islets.” According to the Peace Treaty with Italy, Rome ceded to Greece the same islands and “adjacent islets,” (the term “dependent” in Lausanne being replaced by “adjacent”).
From Turkey’s perspective, there is no clarity in terms of which islets and rocky formations are “adjacent /dependent,” so there is ambiguity in terms of the sovereignty of these islets. This view is not accepted by Greece, and this divergence of views brought the two countries to the brink of war over the Imia/Kardak islets in 1996. Those islets are basically two rocky formations that together occupy a total area of just 40,000 square meters.
Until 1996, few people even knew of their existence. But following the intervention of the United States, Turkey and Greece decided to go back to status quo ante, which as far as Turkey is concerned means avoiding any move for territorial claims over the islets.
While Turkey came short of claiming sovereignty, it defined certain adjacent islets as “gray zones.” Even if Greece disagreed and continued to see it its right to exert sovereignty over any of the islets in question, it largely refrained from what could be seen as provocative acts. Whenever it took steps to exert sovereignty - by constructing a fishermen shelter or watch tower, for example - Turkey preferred to stick to its statements that it did “not recognize” any such move over the gray zones.
These disputes were largely off the public agenda until Panos Kammenos became Greece’s defense minister in the Alexis Tsipras government and Öztürk Yılmaz became deputy chairman of the Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Whether one approves of Turkey’s foreign policies or not, Turkish diplomats have long been highly regarded by their interlocutors for their skills. But although he is a former diplomat, Yılmaz was not exactly among the brightest, so many were surprised to see CHP head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu choose him as one of his deputies in January 2016. It is hard to say that Yılmaz has shown effective opposition in terms of highlighting the government’s foreign policy errors and inconsistencies. On Aegean issues, it has been rather shortsighted for Yılmaz to resort to populist-nationalist rhetoric, picking a subject he saw as a soft spot of the government. Currently the last thing Turkey needs is to pick another (stupid) fight with an additional neighbor.
It was doubly unfortunate for Öztürk’s moves to come at a time when hardliners like Kammenos are waiting for opportunities to pick fights with Turkey. The recent war of words between CHP officials and the Greek defense minister – in which Kammenos challenged the former to “come and get it if you dare,” to which the CHP answered “we will do in 2019 [after the election]” has been ridiculous. Such episodes do not contribute to reversing the CHP’s stagnating support levels.
There is another political point we should recognize: The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) could easily step into the debate by noting that the islands in question (and therefore the adjacent islets) were given to Greece by the Lausanne Treaty, negotiated and signed by the CHP leadership of the time. In other words, the CHP risks being hit by its own weapon.
Ultimately, the CHP’s targeting of the government over the Aegean has only strengthened the hands of hardliners in Athens, prompting the further flaring up of tension between Turkey and Greece.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras spoke on the phone and decided to try to diffuse the tension by instructing their chiefs of general staff to have a bilateral meeting.
The two generals are apparently expected to talk to each other at an upcoming NATO meeting in Brussels, and they may well find a common language. But the real challenge in the issue remains domestic factors: For Athens that means those hardliners in the government and for Ankara it means those opportunists in the opposition.