Anniversary of a crisis
For the last 24 years, Jan. 31 has been a day of remembrance, negative anticipation, reflection or, for some, even fear for the worst.
It is the anniversary of a three-day crisis which brought Turkey and Greece nearly to war with each other, over the sovereignty of two small uninhabited islets in the Aegean, the Imia/Kardak Islets. War was avoided in the end but there were victims. Three Greek officers died in a so far not fully explained incident, when their helicopter took off at dawn of Jan. 30 from a Greek frigate for a reconnaissance mission over the islets, but crashed in the sea.
At that time, nobody would have thought that such a minor incident involving the salvage of a Turkish cargo shop which had run aground on one of the Imia/Kardak islets, could unleash such a pent-up tension between Turkey and Greece. But the incident did escalate rapidly, it became an issue of national sovereignty and involved the navies of the two countries. In the end, a full confrontation was avoided through NATO and U.S. mediation and frantic telephone diplomacy by the late U.S. envoy Richard Holbrook. His famous phrase “no ships, no troops, no flags,” addressed to both sides, is what epitomized the end of the crisis.
Then, the crisis was averted but the issues which were put at stake are still keeping Greece and Turkey in a permanent state of tension. Issues like continental shelf, territorial waters, air space, demilitarization of the Aegean Islands have become almost a daily bone of contention between the two countries. During the last few years, the Syria war and the exploding number of refugees trapped on the islands opposite the Turkish coast have added to the already packed narrative of mutual claims, as did the energy exploration frenzy in the eastern Mediterranean, the delineation of the Exclusive Economic Zone among the countries in the area which now include Cyprus and Libya.
This year - 24 years this year - the islanders of Kalymnos attended a moving ceremony in the church of St Nicholas, in the memory of the three Greek officers lost at sea the night of Jan. 31, 1996. It was attended by the Commander of the Aegean Navy Command, Captain Elias Raptis and other senior navy officers. Everybody remembers still.
But there was also another reason which brought back those tense moments 24 years ago: The presence of the Turkish exploration vessel Oruç Reis, which on the day of the Imia/Kardak anniversary was found according to the Greek side, “inside the Greek continental shelf” on a spot between Cyprus and Crete, where the continental shelves of Cyprus and Greece intersect with the EEZ declared recently by Turkey and Libya. Its presence caused general alarm that a repeat of the Imia/Kardak crisis was about to occur. A Greek frigate rushed to the site and Oruc Reis left the area. The official explanation by the Greek defense minister was that the Turkish vessel was found there due to “adverse weather conditions” an explanation that was not found convincing by many in Greece who believe that Ankara is enlarging its claims against Greece by carefully planned steps in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean.
Last Tuesday, in the midst of the crisis in Syria, the catastrophe in Van, and in the aftermath of the Elazığ disaster, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, speaking to journalists after his speech in his parliamentary group in a completely different tone, spoke of this year’s anniversary of Kardak crisis. He said that there was no crisis this year around the islets because “of the attitude we displayed.” Because “we said, look, if there is even the slightest move in Kardak, as before, our response will be different. But if nothing happens on the part of Greece in Kardak, as before, then you will see that we, too, will not do anything. That is why our defense minister will probably call the Greek defense minister today to thank him and to tell him to continue with the other islands like it happened with Kardak.”
I wonder what President Erdoğan meant with “the other islands,” the inhabited or the uninhabited? Whatever he meant, my feeling is that some kind of de-escalation dialogue is in the making between Turkey and Greece of which we are now seeing the first faint and confusing signs. There is strong opposition in Greece about that, but the present Greek government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis may see it as an option.