On the rocks once again
Just over two weeks ago, reporting from the Dolmabahçe offices of the Turkish Presidency was describing the 61st round of the exploratory talks between the Turkish and Greek delegation as a success after a five-year gap. Indeed, the presence of Turkish Presidential Spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin at the talks was seen as a gesture that the Turkish side wanted to “upgrade” the importance of the event. The agreement to hold the next round in Athens soon was also seen as a sign that Turkey and Greece may have decided to use the mechanism of “exploratory talks” in an effective way.
It was never thought to be easy. In fact, from the beginning, it was obvious that the two sides did not see the agenda of the talks in the same way. They were so much apart that one could think that they did not belong to the same diplomatic mechanism. For the Turkish side, the motto was “all the outstanding issues between the two sides must be on the table,” while for the Greek side, it was just about the delimitation of the continental shelf and the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean.
For the majority of commentators in both countries, no major breakthrough was expected. But the announcement that there will be the 62nd round of the exploratory talks to be held soon in Athens raised hopes that at least the process will stay alive.
But the developments of the last few days showed us that whatever had been agreed in the grand room of the Presidential Dolmabahçe Office by the stormy Bosporus was not sturdy enough to ensure the smoothness of the talks from now on.
A statement by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in his last trip to Cyprus this week showed how easily things can go out of hand. During a meeting with the Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades, Mitsotakis said: “The only accepted framework for a solution to the Cyprus issue is the U.N. framework for a bizonal bicommunal federation,” adding that “a prerequisite for the reunification of the island is the complete and rapid withdrawal of troops.” This was enough to cause an outburst by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
“I said that I could meet with Mitsotakis, but I see now that Mitsotakis is resorting to provocations. We agreed to start consultative meetings; their old name was exploratory discussions. The second round is to start in Athens. But Mitsotakis is using provocative language. After these provocations, how can I meet you? First, learn your limits. If you really want peace, do not provoke me! You kick the negotiating table, and you run away from it. We did not. We are at the table, and if that is how you go, then we cannot sit at the table with you,” Erdoğan said, speaking to his parliamentary group last Tuesday.
“There is no other solution than a two-state solution for Cyprus, whether you accept it or not,” he added.
A few hours later came a response from the Greek PM, during a TV interview. “We have seen these outbursts by Ankara before”, he said. “But we remain firm in our position.”
He claimed that the party that is not right usually raises tension and that the conditions are not ripe for a meeting with the Turkish president. But he also pointed out that when there were moments of extreme tension between the two sides, like last August, Ankara “was mature enough to take a step back.”
He opined that Turkey is now isolated due to its policies, and that is why it has returned to the negotiating table. The Greek PM insisted that he remains to be an optimist “preferring to see the glass half full,” and reminded that Greece has invited Turkey to Athens to continue their exploratory talks.
“Let us leave the bad 2020 behind us and see how we can invest on a more constructive agenda in 2021,” he said.
What are we supposed to make out of all this? There is a long list of outstanding issues between Turkey and Greece, although they have not even agreed on how many they are. Whenever a statement is made which is disputed by the other, either one or both of the parties threaten to leave the negotiating table. It seems that a stormy voyage is ahead of us.
Or is it so? Maybe not. Let us wait to see whether Ankara will actually leave the negotiating table. Let us also follow the events in Cyprus and the telephone diplomacy with the new Biden team in the next few days. Let us also observe the regional diplomacy of Athens with Arab countries and Israel and look out for any moves from the EU or NATO. As both Turkey and Greece do not act in a vacuum, the fate of their talks will depend on much more than the mood of each party.