Athens concerned about Turkish electioneering might increase tensions

Athens concerned about Turkish electioneering might increase tensions

The announcement of early double elections in Turkey last week sent loud alarm calls to Athens, where government circles fear that increasing tensions between Turkey and Greece could become part of campaigning across the Aegean. But there are already more than enough reasons to worry about relations between Athens and Ankara.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s official visit to Greece at the start of December 2017 had been hailed by both Turkey and Greece as a ground-breaking occasion: The first visit by a Turkish president in 65 years. However, it ultimately turned into more of a “verbal theater of war,” as the British daily Guardian described it, with both sides “outing the niceties of diplomacy and crossing an array of red lines.” Indeed, shortly after that visit Ankara stepped up its rhetoric against Greece. Interestingly, Ankara gradually put the controversial issue of “updating” of the Lausanne Treaty (a proposal made by Erdoğan during his Athens visit) on the back-burner and instead focused on the Aegean.

Several minor incidents have added to the unease between Greece and Turkey. On the Greek side these were handled mainly by Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, the leader of the minor government coalition partner. That is because Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias has been immersed in a maze of talks with his Former Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) counterpart, tasked with solving the age-old dispute with Skopje over the official name of the tiny Balkan state.

Not surprisingly, Kammenos, the leader of a newly formed right-wing party with fiery nationalistic rhetoric, has become the focus of Ankara’s attacks. Greek Prime Minister Alexi Tsipras has remained more or less in the background, trying to boost his party’s popularity at the end of a long period of bail-out agreements.

The arrest and jailing of two Greek soldiers at the start of March by the Turkish authorities for “illegally crossing” the border with Turkey was the first serious incident between the two countries in recent years. It showed to many Greeks that their European and NATO allies may only be able to help through tough rhetoric and nothing more, leaving Athens alone to find ways to settle its problems with Turkey.

So the announcement of early elections in Turkey has increased anxiety in Greece that a more severe incident, even a military confrontation, could occur with Turkey. Several opinion polls conducted last week showed a significant increase in voters’ mistrust toward the Greek government to manage relations with Turkey. Polls also show that the jailing of two Greek soldiers in Edirne was a turning point in the way Greek society sees its immediate future. Until last January “national issues” were not included in Greeks’ list of priorities, the latest polls show that such issues now come third after the economy and unemployment.

This makes things even more difficult for the Tsipras government. With just two months to go until a hasty, tense and polarized election in Turkey, one can almost assume that Ankara will step up its demands for the eight Turkish officers who fled to Greece just after July 2016 coup attempt and who Turkey accuses as being members of the movement of U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen.

Erdoğan’s April 21 interview on private broadcaster NTV made things clearer and tougher for Athens. He juxtaposed the case of the two Greek soldiers in custody in Edirne prison with a Turkish soldier who “in the past also illegally crossed the border into Greece and who was given a six-month sentence.” He also added the following: “If you ask us to give them back, there are members of the Gülen organization who attempted a coup against our state. They are also soldiers and should be given to us. If you do that, we will also take the necessary steps concerning the judiciary.”

The offer is clear and poses Tsipras with an impossible dilemma. His country, as a member of the EU, must abide with the EU’s acquis, especially Chapters 23 and 24 on justice, the judiciary and fundamental rights.

It seems clear that a tough time is ahead for Greece, at least until Turkey casts its vote.

Ariana Ferentinou, hdn,