Greece and Turkey: Tensions need to ease

Greece and Turkey: Tensions need to ease

This year’s “Fetih” anniversary was not like that of previous years. Aside from being an important anniversary that touches sensitive chords in both countries’ historical memory, this year’s edition was also loaded with contemporary politics. Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya, became the latest arena to lay bare the differences between Turkey and Greece amid the recent, dangerous escalation of tension between the two neighbors.

This time, the tension feels more intense. Greece and Turkey are confronting each other on multiple fronts, including land borders (in terms of asylum seekers and migrants), the Aegean (in terms of an ongoing sea and air dispute resulting in frequent harassment on both fronts) and the eastern Mediterranean (in terms of the continental shelf, the delineation of maritime borders and the exclusive economic zone between the two countries) – to say nothing of the ongoing problems around Cyprus. Ultimately, it’s a long list of disputes that are now emerging as dangerous challenges in need of urgent solutions.

As the fear of the coronavirus pandemic temporarily leaves us – to revisit us again come September – another fear is slowly creeping up: one of military confrontation between Greece and Turkey.

Less than a year ago, it was not like that. When the Mitsotakis government was elected to power with a large majority, hopes were high that the new, strong Greek government would follow a more effective policy regarding Turkey. It wasn’t that anybody thought things would be easy, but there were voices inside the governing party of New Democracy that today’s Turkey is different, meaning that we, Greece, should launch a dialogue with our eastern neighbor within a different context. But almost a year later, tension has increased.

The pandemic officially arrived in Turkey on March 11. Just days before that, the asylum seekers and migrants that had flooded the banks of the Evros/Meriç River in an effort to cross had subsided. On both sides of the river, tensions were high, as tear gas and live ammunition were fired at migrants trying to reach the Greek side. Greek forces also pushed many back.

The pandemic put a long pause on that dramatic episode, but desperate people stranded in Turkey may still take the risk once again soon. Now, however, there are stricter measures and physical barriers along the river on the Greek side, as well as a greater security and military presence.

In Greece, the early, strict curfews against the pandemic have proven to be a success. The country’s economy, however, has been hit hard. A country which was proud of its tourism as its “heavy industry” is now struggling to lure European tourists whose countries have also suffered because of the pandemic. The return to some strange normality is difficult for everybody.

The return to a strange normality for the Greek government included having to pick up the thread in its problematic relations with Turkey. The situation on the land borders is again fragile, and maybe even more so on the sea. Greeks are fearful of a military clash as Turkey is pushing its claims harder in the area. The latest claim is that an area between several islands in the Mediterranean, including Rhodes and Crete in the west and Cyprus in the east, is part of the Turkish continental shelf, meaning Turkey can explore it for oil and gas. The claim was based on the position that the Greek islands do not have a continental shelf themselves – just territorial waters of 6 nautical miles. That was in total conflict with the Greek position that islands also have continental shelves, meaning that particular area belongs to Greece’s continental shelf. By all accounts, this latest episode is interpreted as the most serious for some time.

Voices in the Greek opposition have criticized the government for not having a specific, coordinated policy on “how to deal with Turkey” and for taking Turkey lightly without realizing the seriousness of the matter. However, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is already sending letters to the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the European Council president, Charles Michel, claiming that “the possibility of an escalation on behalf of Turkey would not lead just to a crisis between Greece and Turkey but to a crisis in the full spectrum of Turkey-EU relations.”

As the days ahead are critical for the region, we should also keep an eye on Mitsotakis’ first official visit abroad after the end of the pandemic. It will be to Israel on the 16th of this month, when he will talk about the situation in the east Mediterranean.