First serious crisis for Greek government involves Turkey

First serious crisis for Greek government involves Turkey

Nobody could argue that the general elections in Greece last July gave Kyriakos Mitsotakis a significant victory, and he was credited with reversing the mood of the society to a more optimistic one. Most polls conducted during the last three months showed a constant degree of satisfaction towards the new government and personally to the new prime minister. The opposition is currently keeping a low profile. They have their own problems to solve, issues of ideological definition after a humiliating defeat.

At any rate, the main opposition of the leftist Syriza, which held power for almost five years, wants to think it is only a matter of time before the Greek people realize that Mitsotakis government’s agenda is really against the interest of the many while it supports the interests of the few. So far, though, the Greeks, especially the younger ones, seem willing to show more patience with the new liberal government. They believe that Mitsotakis will eventually deliver what he promised: lower taxes, greater privatization of public services and the creation of “better” jobs through growth and investment. Whether the government of New Democracy, a mixture of politicians, technocrats and academics; will keep their promises remains to be seen. That may take time. In the meantime, the new government has to deal with more pressing affairs.

The deadly blaze that broke out suddenly last Sunday in the Moria refugee camp in the Aegean island of Lesbos, leaving one woman dead and 17 people injured, was the last thing Prime Minister Mitsotakis wanted. The fire and the revolt that followed in the most crowded refugee site in Europe brought a well-known but ill-managed problem to the foreground. It demonstrated the inability of any Greek government to manage a hugely unpredictable problem unless it cooperates with the European Union and Turkey in a reliable, organized and effective way. Everybody knew of the difficulties, but nobody has dealt with it. Everybody was aware of the appalling conditions in the camp, which was housing around 5,000 refugees though designed for just 3,000.

The previous government of Alexis Tsipras had struggled to deal with the problem of an ever-increasing number of “boat people” almost exclusively from the Turkish coast landing on islands closer to the Turkish mainland among them, Lesbos, Samos, Kos and Rhodes. With the rest of Europe now applying a “closed doors” policy, Greece had been left virtually alone to deal with the problem, aided by a plethora of non-governmental organizations and an understaffed infrastructure barely capable of keeping things under control.

The euphoria that filled the pro-government media in Greece immediately after Mitsotakis’s victory did not allow any space for covering such an unpleasant subject such as overcrowding refugee camps. Yet the danger of a sudden escalation that became apparent in July and August when more than 13,000 people landed on Greek shores, with numbers further increasing in September. A staggering 200 percent rise in arrivals over the last five months made the problem impossible to cope with, both for the government authorities and the local communities.

The statement by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last September that he will “open the gates” for migrants to Europe if international support for a safe refugee zone in northern Syria fails to materialize,” solidified the perception among many in Greece that their country is an unfortunate victim between two critical players, Ankara and the EU.

With last week’s incidents in Moria, Mitsotakis’s government faced its first severe crisis with international implications. Unable to find immediate solutions, it rushed into agreeing on a new plan, the central idea of which is a stricter distinction between irregular migrants from genuine refugees seeking asylum. This new conservative government, unlike its leftist predecessor, believes that this is an illegal migration issue rather than a refugee crisis. Hence, the axis of the new measures aims at setting up a speedy repatriation mechanism, which brings us once again to the level of cooperation between Turkey and the new Greek government.

For this reason, the results from the contacts that the Migration Minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos had yesterday in Ankara with Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu and today with Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, are of extreme importance. The response of Ankara towards Greece will show whether it is willing to collaborate on a bilateral level constructively or it sees Greece as part of the EU in which case a willingness to collaborate is not guaranteed.