Which way will the Turkey-Greece pendulum swing this time?
In the last few weeks tension between Turkey and Greece has flared over a number of incidents that have caused uneasiness and anger on both sides. In mid-February, Greek and Turkish patrol vessels narrowly avoided a full-scale crash around the uninhabited Imia/ Kardak islets over issues of sovereignty. Since then a number of other incidents have further exacerbated the tension. The question of what comes next is now being asked with increasing frequency, as the pendulum between these two NATO allies and “friends” has swung between peace and war on several occasions in their history.
The land border between Greece and Turkey is defined mostly by the river Evros/Meric, though some forested land patches and unmarked open ground makes it difficult to discern the real dividing line, especially if there is thick fog and snow. That is what two Greek soldiers said when they were caught by a Turkish military patrol on the border last week. They said they had gotten lost and were following footprints on the snow, believing they belonged to migrants trying to cross the border. In the end, the two soldiers accidentally crossed over to the Turkish side of the border.
Such micro- incidents, according to locals, like soldiers losing their way, or shepherds accidentally chasing their flock across the border, are regular occurrences and are often sorted out locally and peacefully. That is what everybody on the Greek side thought would happen this time too.
However, the two Greek soldiers were formally arrested by a judge in Edirne for “entering forbidden military territory” and were jailed as non-residents of Turkey – hence deemed likely to escape. It thus became apparent that this incident would not be so simple.
In Greece, some commentators have linked the Thrace incident with the Imia/Kardak incident in the Aegean and with Turkey’s objection to energy exploration work by the Greek Cypriots in the East Mediterranean. In Turkey, meanwhile, some have implored Turkish leaders and judiciary to “give a good lesson to the Greeks.” Many Turks also cite the issue of the non-extradition to Turkey of eight military officers sought by Ankara over “Gülenist” connections. Those officers sought refuge in Greece immediately after the failure of the July 2016 coup attempt, sparking anger in Turkey.
Fortunately, in spite of often turbulent relations, Athens and Ankara still maintain a number of shock-absorbing political, diplomatic and military mechanisms, which have managed to avert a major crisis so far.
In an unusual coincidence, the timing of the latest incident in Thrace fell precisely on the date of a major international meeting in Greece bringing together top names in international politics, economics, academia and military issues. The Delphi Economic Forum held its third meeting for three days on March 1-4 in the ancient site of Delphi to discuss “New Globalization and Growth Challenges.”
Needless to say, Turkey was among the hottest topics of this year’s forum. The “Turkey and the World: New Political Reality” debate was attended by politicians, academics and journalists from several countries including Turkey. Former Turkish EU Minister Egemen Bağış suggested that Athens and Ankara are “two brothers who fight but come together in common dangers,” while repeating that the eight officers in Greece should be sent back to Turkey. Kemal Kirişci of the Brookings Institution noted that “Turkey’s new political elite, created after 2002, never believed that contact with the EU was a priority.” Üstün Ergüder of Sabanci University said the current leadership of Turkey “must decide whether it wants the country to be open or closed,” while also urging the EU to not keep trying to stop Turkey from getting closer to Europe.
“We invested many years in the Helsinki strategy but today this is obsolete. The Turkey of today is not the Turkey of 10 years ago. We need a new strategy, an initiative of real dialogue to recreate essential contact lines that have been lost today,” said former Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyiannis.
“We have had big problems in Imia/Kardak very recently, while two soldiers have just been detained by Turkey and must be returned immediately to Greece,” said George Koumoutsakos, the shadow foreign minister from the official opposition New Democracy Party.
Today, the court in Edirne is expected to decide on whether to accept the objection by the attorneys of the jailed soldiers and release them. Such a release will certainly calm matters. Meanwhile let’s just hope that the self-admitted “secret fear” of U.S. Ambassador to Greece Jeffry Pyatt does not come true. “My worry is about some unforeseen accident occurring,” Pyatt warned.