Tensions escalating once again

Tensions escalating once again

It was only last month, on March 13, a cold Sunday afternoon when a sudden air of optimism was blowing between the two sides of the Aegean. The reason was a hastily prepared meeting that day, between President Erdogan and Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Mitsotakis was to come to Istanbul on that day to attend the Feast of Orthodoxy, a day of great significance for the Patriarchate at Fener. The plan was that after attending the mass in Fener, Mitsotakis was to meet the Turkish president.

The meeting between the two leaders, took place at the Vahdettin Mansion on the Asian side of Istanbul with magnificent views of the Bosporus. The photos of the two leaders looking at the unique waterway between Europe and Asia was the only visual experience journalists had from the meeting as it was completely closed to the press.

So, no questions, no answers, just briefings by the officials. The briefings were unusually positive about the outcome of this one-and-a-half-hour encounter of the two leaders. We were told that the “Turkish president was very upbeat and talkative, that he was prepared to talk about everything, that he was open to solutions”, etc.

Actually, the Greek government spokesman Ioannis Oikonomou had set the frame of the discussion before the meeting: “The two countries face a number of challenges with regard to a series of problems. The Greek premier will go with a positive attitude,” he had said before the trip to Istanbul.

Indeed, the two leaders seemed to have agreed on the basics: Improving bilateral relations, keeping communication channels open beside disagreements, increasing bilateral trade. President Erdogan talked about opening a new page in bilateral relations and progressing in Aegean-related issues through “honest and sincere dialogue”.

The media from both countries saw the meeting as a hopeful restart of a problematic period which peaked in the summer of 2020 over territorial disputes in the Aegean and East Mediterranean.

Yet, the atmosphere deteriorated quickly with both sides accusing each other of a number of issues. The Turkish side accusing Greece for refusing to “sit down and talk over all their issues” and “militarizing many islands of the Aegean thus breaching the Lausanne Agreement” and the Greek side accusing the Turkish side of continuous violations of Greek airspace and overflights over areas of Greek territory. In fact, the Greek Foreign Ministry served two protest notes to the Turkish ambassador in Athens on Wednesday morning over repeated violations of Greek airspace by Turkish fighter jets, which also flew over residential areas.

A new demarche was filed the next day, April 28 by the Greek Foreign Ministry deploring “the continuing Turkish provocative and illegal behavior, which violates Greek sovereignty… These actions for which Turkey is unilaterally responsible create a climate of particular tension in the relations between the two countries contradicting the efforts to improve this climate.”

Also, it seems that the Greek side may take the decision to “freeze” the military Confidence Building Measures between Greece and Turkey which have been going on in the context of NATO. The fourth meeting was due to take place in Ankara between representatives from both sides.

What happened? Of course, a lot happened after that hopeful meeting in Istanbul between Erdogan and Mitsotakis. The invasion of Russia and the ensuing bloody war showed us that strategic plans and calculations may be redrafted, and peace can easily change to conflict.

Greek politicians and analysts are now fearing that Putin’s move to change the borders of his country at the expense of Ukraine, a sovereign country, may give ideas to Ankara to redraw the map of the region. Turkey is seen as the “Evasive Neutral” (as the title of the famous book by Frank G. Weber) who knows how to take advantage of different circumstances.
It will be very interesting to see how Ankara will respond to Greece’s latest strong diplomatic steps. Let us hope for a de-escalation of tension.