Shadow of Turkey hangs over the Greek elections
It is not an exaggeration to say that for the Greeks “no day passes without news from Turkey.” For good or bad, news about Turkey cover a substantial portion of a Greek’s daily news diet and even gives enough food for the future. This huge neighbor, with whom Greece has both land and sea borders, has been a constant source of worry and a big headache for Greek politicians who have not found so far - together with their Turkish counterparts - a calm and peaceful modus vivendi for their peoples.
People who are not familiar with the psychology and history that either links or separates both parts of the Aegean could not perhaps comprehend that the issue of “what to do with Turkey” would creep up now. When the most critical campaign period has just started in Greece for a general election which may be a make or break for Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, and it may end with the collapse of the first leftist government in Greece to date.
The term of the Syriza government coincided with a particularly stormy period in regional politics, with Turkey and Greece having to deal with an unprecedented refugee crisis which affected both countries and with the crisis culminating to the attempted coup of 2016, which Greece had also been caught into the problem as was the unwilling recipient of some of the accused coup plotters who sought refuge there.
And while the disputes over the Aegean continued unabated over airspace, continental shelf and territorial waters, the discovery of potentially hugely profitable underwater energy resources mainly in the eastern Mediterranean which involved not just the two close neighbors, but also Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon and even Libya plus huge oil giants who entered into the equation, made the matter even more complicated as it altered the balances and regional strategies. The landscape has changed, and the interested parties will have to stich up new plans with long-term planning in mind.
So, the publication of an article-analysis by a former prime minister of Greece, Kostas Simitis, a day before the official launch of the Greek election campaign of July 7 created enough of a stir in Greece over the issue of Turkey, managing to throw a shadow over the election campaign that whoever comes to power next will have to deal with a situation with Turkey which now includes several more political, geostrategic and economic parameters.
Kostas Simitis has had personal experience with the most serious crisis which brought Greece and Turkey to brink of war. He was the prime minister of the Imia/Kardak crisis in 1996 which flared over issues of sovereignty of two rocks in the Aegean Sea. A last minute American intervention defused the crisis but the issue remains unresolved.
Now, 23 years later, Mr. Simitis brings back the Imia/Kardak crisis and puts forward the view that it was not an incident that took place by chance. “The Turkish leadership, wanted to take advantage of the crisis of [former prime minister] Andrea Papandreou, of his resignation and the election of a new leadership [of Simitis] because they thought they would catch it by surprise. It cannot be excluded that similar thoughts would be present in the mind of the present leadership in Turkey. The intense political confrontation in Greece due to the elections creates advantageous conditions for actions. Turkey may think that this period is suitable for imposing its views on issues such as the coastal zone and the Greek continental shelf. And after analyzing the Greek foreign policy, as was applied till now, he has this to say for the future Greek governments. “It is necessary to settle the pending issues after the elections, as the risk of incidents with negative consequences will be existent if we do not try to find solutions that are not always pleasant but which guarantee peace in the region… in such an effort, Greece will have the support of both the European Union and the U.S.”
Simitis’s article was met mostly with strong criticism. He was blamed for wanting to exonerate himself for the “mishandling” of the 1996 crisis by accepting the then American administration as mediators. In reality, they say his and later policies by the following governments made things worse and introduced the issue of “grey zones” in the Aegean Sea. No doubt this article is going to stay in the background of the election campaign in Greece and it is interesting that an indirect reference to the role of the “American factor” in the area was made yesterday by Binali Yıldırım, the mayoral candidate for Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, in an exclusive interview he gave to the Greek Skai TV. “During an election period the political climate gets tense. We have lived that before. There is no problem between Greek and Turkish people. We can solve any kind of problem, like the Aegean and Cyprus by mutual respect and abiding by the international law… But there may be some abroad who might want to provoke us, and we should not fall into their trap,” he said. I just wish things were that easy.