The yoyo of Greek-Turkish relations

The yoyo of Greek-Turkish relations

A photo caught my eye. It showed two defense ministers, Hulusi Akar and Nikos Panagiotopoulos, last Wednesday in Brussels shaking hands and half-smiling in an empty audience room. They were there for a NATO defense ministers’ meeting, and they agreed to keep their channels of communication open. Also, they both expressed their satisfaction for the next round of bilateral exploratory talks due in Athens next Tuesday, Feb. 22.

Though that was not the mood in Athens last Wednesday evening. A “trading barbs” incident involving Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and Turkish Ambassador to Norway Fazlı Çorman took place in the Norwegian capital Oslo. The Institute of International Affairs in Oslo, the well-known NUPI, organized a seminar that included a presentation by Dendias on the “Law of the Sea in Eastern Mediterranean.” The speech was delivered to a selected group of academics and diplomats. Dendias analyzed the Greek position regarding issues complicating Greek-Turkish relations, namely maritime zones in the Aegean, continental shelf, exclusive economic zone, militarisation of the Greek islands, and so on.

Introducing the seminar, the moderator pointed out that although Norway had signed its maritime delimitation agreement with Russia in 2010-one of the biggest achievements of Norwegian foreign policy, as he said, “in the eastern Med there are more difficulties than the small ones that what we had with the Russians.”

Dendias based his argument strongly on the importance of the International Law and the International Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the latter not been signed by Turkey. “Turkey chooses to ignore the International Law of the Sea and has been threatening our country since 1995 with a casus belli,” he said. During the question session, Çorman took the floor and argued that the declaration of casus belli by Turkey was in response to Greece’s threat of unilaterally declaring the extension of its territorial waters to 12 miles, and because of that, Turkey was a persistent objector to signing the UNCLOS agreement. It was a tense dialogue between a minister and an ambassador that ended with Dendias claiming that the Greek-Turkish problems are solvable provided that Turkey “comes to the 21st century.”

The Greek media presented it as a “hot incident,” although the issue did not make headlines in Turkey.

However, for me, the most important part of the discussion was the summing up of the session by Professor Tore Henriksen, an authority on the Law of the Sea.

There is always a solution, but of course, there must be a willingness on both parties, he said. UNCLOS is, of course, setting out the basic rules for the Law of the Sea, but UNCLOS also leaves a lot of leeway to the parties in practice, also to seek a solution of their disputes in the International Court. The parties must find ways to live with each other without provoking their rivals. You will not be happy with the solution, either of you, but the total sum will be beneficial for both, Professor Henriksen said.

Getting back to the photo of the two defense ministers in Brussels, there was no visible tension, unlike in Oslo, but there are many problems also. And I wonder whether it might be an idea for both sides to listen to Professor Henriksen as somebody whose approach certainly belongs to the 21st century.