Musa brings a message from Greece
It took no more than three days for Musa Alerik, the driver of a construction machine in the Edirne Municipality, to return from the Orestiada prison on the Greek side of the border to his family in Edirne. He had been arrested on May 2 by Greek border guards when he accidentally, as he stated, entered Greek territory after making a wrong turn while maneuvering his excavator and crossed the border into Greece.
Alerik was formally arrested for illegal entry, detained at the Orestiada Police Department and tried by the local Orestiada Court of First Instance. He received a suspended sentence of five months and a fine of 1,500 euros. On May 5, he was driven by a police car to the Kastanies-Pazarkule Border Gate, waited for a while for the formalities of his extradition to be completed and in one hour, he was able to walk back to Turkey. Visibly relieved, he thanked everyone and said the Greeks had “treated him like a guest,” and repeated how he had entered Greek territory “by mistake.”
The case of Alerik inevitably became the subject of different interpretations on both sides of the border. For the Greek media, it was once again a chance to bring up the prolonged detention of the two Greek soldiers who were arrested by Turkish border guards around the same area and accused of illegally entering a military zone on March 2. Since then, they have been kept in the Edirne High-Security Prison and wait their indictment and trial.
So far, the judicial order to continue their detention has been renewed three times. Greek politicians and analysts now call the two Greek soldiers “hostages” of the Turkish side, aiming for a possible swap with the eight Turkish soldiers who fled to Greece after the foiled July 2016 coup and have since remained in Greece following a series of judicial orders.
Alerik is not a soldier and his case is not identical to that of the two Greek soldiers. He was set free in no time. Although, the fact he was detained for even three days by the Greek police in Orestiada did not stop some Turkish dailies from calling him “a hostage,” hence using the same label the Greek media and some politicians have used for the two detained Greek soldiers.
However, regardless of the media hyperboles on both sides, which can reach dangerous extremes, the case of Alerik could prove to be significant for a different reason.
I think it was a clear message from Athens to Ankara to seek different ways to solve at least some of their problems, like border incidents, which can happen to anyone—Greek or Turk. It can even happen to a poor municipal worker taking the wrong turn on his construction machine. The message is that such issues can and should be settled in a smooth, fast and uncomplicated manner.
Apparently, that was how it had been done in the past. When asked about the case of the two detained Greek soldiers, the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said very recently: “I have a pile of files on my desk of previous cases of erroneous entries on each other’s territory, which were settled locally and instantly.”
Will Ankara accept the message from the way Alerik’s case was handled, processed and closed in three days, and respond similarly?
If we recall the words of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during his interview on a local television channel at the end of April, the chances are low. During that interview, his frustration was apparent about the non-extradition of the eight alleged Turkish coup plotters from Greece. He made a direct offer to exchange them with the two detained Greek soldiers. He even implied the anticipated time of their detention, by referring to a previous case of a Turkish soldier who had crossed the Greek border illegally and who had been given a six-month sentence by the Greek courts.
At the same time, he sent messages of peace and wondered “why should we sustain peace?” and continued by suggesting to “sit at a table and solve our problems.”
We are at the start of a highly exciting election campaign and one might say there is little time for the Turkish leadership to deal with specific bilateral issues, such as the case of the two detained soldiers.
That is true, but there is already an exception to that. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch Dimitri Bartholomeos waited for two years to have a meeting with the Turkish president. Erdoğan decided to receive him in his presidential palace on April 26 and according to the Greek Orthodox Primate, gave him good news about one of the longest standing requests from the Fener Greek Patriarch, the reopening of the Halki Seminary. “The time is long due,” Erdoğan is said to have told the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Can we perhaps see the same approach with the two young soldiers?