In the conventional parlance of international politics, Turkey and Greece have been in a rapprochement process since 1999 and their foreign ministries have also been engaged in high-level proximity talks.
Although no tangible progress toward a solution has been achieved in any of their disputes over the Aegean Sea –related to the continental shelf, territorial waters, airspace, sovereignty- as well as minorities and Cyprus, both countries have until recently refrained from escalating tension in their bilateral relations.
Thanks to two solution-oriented foreign ministers, the late İsmail Cem and George Papandreou, who planted the seeds of a slow but sure process, the two countries succeeded in maintaining a positive atmosphere for 18 years.
The positive atmosphere was reflected in the discourse of politicians on both sides, who avoided hostile language in their rhetoric and dealings. But this gradually changed with the advent of populist politics on both sides of the Aegean, which accelerated after eight Turkish soldiers fled to Greece following the July 2016 coup attempt. Greece’s refusal to extradite the soldiers accused of involvement in the coup attempt increased tension and triggered an exchange of harsh language between Turkish and Greek officials.
The rhetorical change has been taking place against the background of the wider geopolitical transformation of the neighborhood and in the way Turkish foreign policy is conducted. As Turkey has increasingly adopted use of its military in Syria and Iraq to eliminate perceived terror threats, the increased security-oriented discourse in Turkish policymaking has heightened Greek anxieties. The use of language from high-level Turkish officials – containing implicit or explicit threats of the use of force and with extra historical references – have added fuel to the fire.
On the Turkish side, which is feeling increasingly surrounded by real life security threats, the frequent nationalistic statements from various Greek politicians and what are considered uncalled-for challenges, such as visiting the disputed Kardak/Imia islets in the Aegean, are seen as opportunistic steps while Turkey is distracted with other engagements. As a result, when faced with encounters in the Aegean or in the eastern Mediterranean with Greek Cypriot gas exploration in disputed areas, Turkey has responded with increased naval presence in both theaters, further rattling Greek and Greek Cypriot susceptibilities.
Several incidents in the first quarter of 2018, like the collision of Turkish and Greek patrol boats in the Aegean, the detention of two Greek soldiers who crossed into Turkey, and increased tension over the Aegean airspace, have turned the environment from negative to dangerous. The upcoming elections in both countries have even more potential to increase nationalist sentiments on both sides and trigger further incidents.
According to a survey conducted last year by Kadir Has University’s Center of European Studies, focusing on elite perception in both countries, the majority think that if a crisis were to erupt between the two countries it will be related to the Aegean Sea. When that happened last time over the Imia/Kardak islets, it was the U.S. that mediated between the two countries. The problem today is that the ability and the leverage of third parties to broker dialogue and ease the tension has diminished significantly.
Under such circumstances, we should remember how an incident over a tiny uninhabited islet in the Aegean brought the two countries to the brink of war 22 years ago. We should all act responsibly; as then Turkish Foreign Minister Cem pointed out after that incident: “We have to continue the dialogue because it is in the interest of both peoples.”