Aegean heats up once again

Aegean heats up once again

One month after the restart of exploratory talks between Turkey and Greece, nothing is certain about the next step. In theory, the next step was to be the 62nd meeting in Athens.

Yet during this month and particularly during the last two weeks, we have been observing an increased hostile rhetoric by both sides against each other, reminiscent of the bitter exchanges we witnessed last August and September.

So, are we detecting a decreased appetite by both sides to continue their efforts in finding a solution to their bilateral issues in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean? Are they perhaps preparing the ground for pulling out of the process, altogether, each for their own reasons?

The arrival of the Turkish hydrographic vessel Çesme in the Aegean to conduct “research” in the international waters 10 days ago was enough to cool off any warming effect that was created in the 61st round of talks in Istanbul a month ago.

Greeks reacted strongly to the presence of the vessel. Turks claimed that the presence of Çesme was legitimate according to international agreements, that it is not conducting any underwater research, and that there is no violation of the 1976 Bern Agreement between Turkey and Greece. At the same time, they accused Greece of carrying out underwater work between Crete and Peloponnese and blamed Athens for increasing the tension in the Aegean.

Two days ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan while speaking to his party members in Istanbul assured them that Turkey would secure its rights on “all the seas around us, from the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea till the Sea of the Islands, [i.e., the Aegean Sea].” His choice of not using the term “Aegean” was enough to infuriate the Greeks and attribute expansionist plans to Ankara to claim sovereignty in the Aegean.

The presence of Çesme in the Aegean - it will remain there until March 2 - as well as the start yesterday of the massive “Blue Homeland” drill of the Turkish naval forces with 87 warships, aircraft, helicopters and drones in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean contribute to a climate of tension and uncertainty. A large area between the two countries will remain on military alert until March 7 while both sides are accusing each other of aggression and provocative attitude.

According to the information we have, the date for the 62nd round of the exploratory talks in Athens between the Turkish and Greek teams has been set around March 3. If true, then the meeting in Athens will take place one day after Çesme leaves the Aegean while the “Blue Homeland” drill will still have five more days to go.
Does Turkey really want to carry on with these talks? Or does Greece?

The Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, although he retains high popularity among the public and enjoys a comfortable majority in the Parliament, is being criticized by the opposition for his insistence of “keep talking to Turkey.”

There is also criticism towards the Greek prime minister for having counted too much on the likelihood of sanctions against Turkey by the EU, something that has not really happened so far nor is likely to occur in the future. The EU Summit at the end of March, they say, is not going to punish Ankara.

If that is so, then Ankara may feel comfortable continuing the talks and not appear as the one who leaves the table while increasing its pressure on Greece. Unlike Greece, Turkey’s list of demands from these talks is long and keeps expanding.

Will Greece leave the table? Some say it is not impossible, even if the pressure becomes unbearable. Some also do not exclude the possibility of another incident, this time more serious.

Everybody, though, points out that the stance of the new American administration will be decisive for the progress of the relations between Athens and Ankara.

Right now, Athens appears to have lots of friends in the Biden administration and Ankara is in the process of shaping up its strategic framework in its relationship with the new staff of the White House.

The person who said, “America has no permanent friends or enemies, just interests,” is still alive. Let us see how this will apply now.