Tsipras, Erdoğan meeting again. Any hope this time?
I knew that I would sound extremely naïve after living in Turkey for so long, but I insisted in asking my Turkish colleague: “How come Hulusi Akar, in a matter of hours, sends two conflicting messages to Greece?”
Let me explain. Earlier this week Akar, the Turkish defense minister, in a speech at the maintenance base of the Turkish Air Force, underlined the determination of Turkey to “defend its presence” in the “Blue Sea” where “all its rights and interest are.” Although, he said, Turkey wishes to have good relations with its neighbors especially Greece “there have been some wrong calculations, wrong data have been given due to certain political factors, and there have been some provocations.” And he warned that “Turkey will not allow any fait-accompli in the Aegean, Mediterranean and Cyprus and will not agree to any solution in these areas which will not include Turkey, either in the matter of economy, military, security or defense.”
This was not the first time we heard such a statement. Very similar warnings coming from Akar himself and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have been coming quite frequently. Especially after oil and gas exploration in the east Med became an integral part of regional politics.
But it was the next statement that came from Akar that prompted me to display my naivety to my Turkish colleague.
Less than a day after his warnings over the determination of Turkey to defend its “rights and interests,” Akar sent a very polite letter to his Greek counterpart Evangelos Apostolakis, who, like Akar, had to leave his previous post as the chief of the Greek General Staff in order to take up the position of defense minister in the Tsipras government. In his letter, which the Greek Defense Ministry announced that it received with a delay of two days, Akar congratulated his counterpart for his new political post and said he is in favor of military cooperation and good neighborly relations. Akar also said he would be happy to host him in Turkey.
My Turkish colleague did not seem puzzled at all. “I do not see any contradiction at all in this,” he said, adding that Akar’s “threatening” message was not threating at all; it was a statement of national position, and was not directed specifically to Greece. And as for the “friendly” message, this was an expected gesture within the diplomatic etiquette, bearing in mind that Apostolakis is due to accompany Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to Turkey next Tuesday.
The friendliness of Akar’s letter, however, could not ease the tension and nervousness on both sides of the Aegean. The message was sent on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the Kardak/Imia crisis, when Greece and Turkey closely avoided a real war. On the Turkish side, the media commemorated the event with a barrage of photo/video reports showing that this year the rocks were guarded by the Turkish navy, and “no Greek dared to throw a laurel wreath” to the sea around the two tiny rocks where three pilots lost their lives in a helicopter accident under unclear circumstances on that dramatic night. On the Greek side, the media brought once again the relatives of the victims, members of the commando teams and retired officers on the screen to explain what had happened and how the war was avoided. Still, people are not satisfied that their politicians told them the truth.
Tsipras is expected to come to Turkey next Tuesday, accepting an invitation by Erdoğan back in September last year in New York when they both met on the sidelines of the last U.N. General Assembly Summit. In a cordial atmosphere, then, Erdoğan invited Tsipras for “a meal on the Bosporus.” However the meeting will take place in Ankara after a change of program. We still do not know how many misters and officials will accompany Tsipras — except for Mr Apostolakis.
Vague press reports from both sides indicate that the visit is not expected to mark a breakthrough but aims to sustain an open dialogue, although Tsipras’ energy and momentum are high after the successful settlement of the dispute with Skopje over the name of the Macedonian republic. In spite of fierce reactions at home, he appears determined to try his luck with much harder outstanding issues, like Turkey or even Cyprus. He has little time, though, before the elections in October as he is trailing behind in polls and he is now leading a minority government after the break-up with his coalition partner. He has no other option, but to take high risks or face electoral defeat. The intentions of Ankara are not clear.
So, in such a fuzzy context, we can only resort to wishful thinking. That Tsipras and Erdoğan can at last give us a clearer picture of their plans and make us somewhat more hopeful for our future.