Earthquake Diplomacy: Another casualty last week?

Earthquake Diplomacy: Another casualty last week?

It was in the middle of a summer night too, it caught people in bed. The date was August 17 and the time was 3:02 a.m. A massive earthquake that registered 7.6 struck the Marmara Sea centered in the city of Izmit causing thousands of deaths and huge damage to all the densely populated coastal areas, including Istanbul. The year was 1999. Until today, we have no clear picture of the number of deaths. The official figure given was 17,000.

It was an unprecedented catastrophic blow and too big of a problem for Turkey to manage. NGOs took a lot of the burden from the exhausted rescue services. The horrible images of dead or near-dead people being pulled under huge blocks of cement, covered in dust and blood, flooded TV screens all over the world.

The rest of the story, I picked up from the speech of former Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, exactly two years ago, on July 23, 2015 at the Symi Symposium, an intellectual think-tank on global challenges.

“When I was nominated Foreign Minister of Greece, in 1999, it was almost three years after the Imia/Kardak crisis that nearly brought Greece and Turkey to the brink of a violent confrontation. These events were the culmination of mistrust between our two countries: a mistrust that in recent history had its roots in the Cyprus problem but also the issue of the Continental Shelf in the Aegean. These conflicts had created years of frozen, tense and even dangerously volatile relations between the two countries.

I was convinced that this impasse—or even worse—a war between Greece and Turkey could be catastrophic and certainly undermined the true potential of both our peoples; as well as the potential for Cyprus. We needed to find new ways to look at our relationship.

Upon İsmail Cem’s suggestion, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey at the time, we decided rather than fight about our differences, to begin a dialogue on areas of possible cooperation. When the earthquakes first struck in Turkey, in August 1999, the time seemed ripe to call on the Greek people to show solidarity with the Turkish victims.

The response was incredible, civil society in Greece seemed to have thirsted for this opportunity—that there was a different way. And the most moving moment was when a Greek fireman, after hours of digging, pulled out a young Turkish boy, alive from the concrete rubble.

When less than a month later, in September 1999, Athens was hit by an earthquake of 5.9 costing the lives of 143 people and injuring thousands, Turkish officials reciprocated with rescue teams and massive public support.

Certainly, the advances in live TV technology have played a significant role in bringing the tragedy of one into the television screens of the other. But, Nicholas Burns, the then Ambassador of the U.S. to Greece, called it a new phenomenon that you could call seismic diplomacy or earthquake diplomacy. Images that people saw on TV had tremendous political symbolism and there was an opportunity for both sides to build on that,” Papandreou said.

Last Friday on July 21, the two countries were also hit by a huge earthquake with a 6.6 magnitude, which simultaneously struck the coastal areas of Muğla-Bodrum and the neighboring Greek island of Kos 12 miles away. Hundreds of Turks were holidaying in Kos when the disaster hit. Fortunately this time, there was a limited loss of life and limited damage although several people are still being treated for injuries on both sides. And this time, of the two victims in Kos, one was a Turkish man who lost his life after being struck by a collapsing old wall. His bereaved family accompanied his coffin by boat from Kos to Bodrum.

But this time the spirit of camaraderie was incomparable to the one eighteen years ago. Both countries’ media covered the event almost “unilaterally,” saving the emotional emphasis for their own people and spending efforts not to scare the foreign tourists rather than caring about each other.

An exception was the Turkish prime minister’s press conference in Muğla last Saturday, that somewhat did echo the spirit of ‘99. “Neighbors experience joys and sorrows together. Sharing the pain of the neighbor is something that happens among neighbors, I send my sympathies to the Greek people and their administration,” he said. 

But let’s face it. The spirit of “earthquake diplomacy”—a phrase that was established since then as a diplomatic term, is no longer here.  The opportunity for both parties to “build upon” permanent peace and cooperation was lost. But let’s not say “forever,” let’s just say “for the time being” and keep hoping.