Turkey, Greece unlikely to return to the spirit of 1999
Turkey and Greece do not only share the beauties of the Aegean Sea, its culture and history, but also its geographical risks. Both countries host many active fault lines and dearly suffer when earthquakes jolt, as seen at times in history. The most recent one happened on Oct. 30 when a 6.6 magnitude tremor hit İzmir, Turkey’s third-largest city, and Greece’s Samos Island.
Dozens were killed in İzmir while two Greek nationals were reportedly killed as a result of the earthquake, reminding Turks and Greeks once again of the fact they meet the same fate. Indeed, not too long ago, in 1999, this fate had manifested itself when consecutive powerful earthquakes hit both neighbors killing thousands of Turks and Greeks.
In August 1999, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake hit Turkey’s Marmara region and killed at least 17,000 people. In September 1999, around 150 Greeks were killed when a 5.9 magnitude tremor struck Athens. The Greek government was one of the first countries to send search and rescue teams to Turkey to save lives under the debris.
Similarly, it was Turkey that extended its hands to Greece in September, creating a very solid and sincere infrastructure of what Ankara and Athens called the seismic diplomacy to mend ties.
The conditions in 1999 were surely very much different from today. It came just three years after the Kardak crisis where the two NATO allies nearly escaped an armed conflict and months after the PKK’s infamous leader Abdullah Öcalan was sheltered by the Greek ambassador to Kenya before he was captured.
As a result of the seismic diplomacy meticulously implemented by two foreign ministers, İsmail Cem and Yorgo Papandreou, in that period, Turkey and Greece could open a new page in bilateral ties. This approach has shown its consequences in the years to come as Turkey and Greece succeeded to develop many fruitful projects in the fields of energy, transportation, trade and tourism.
Many in the Turkish and Greek media, academic or think tank communities reminisced in good purpose about the 1999 spirit when they heard about the recent earthquake. For many reasons, expecting a revitalization of this spirit is not realistic.
First is about the nature of today’s crisis between Turkey and Greece stemming from a disagreement over the delimitation of the continental shelves. Greece relies on the U.N. Convention for the Law of the Sea and argues its islands generate continental shelves to the full effect. Turkey, which is not a party to the convention, rejects the Greek arguments about the islands and stresses that the solution needs to be found based on the equity principle.
Second, this ongoing crisis has a multilateral aspect as well. Turkey feels isolated after Greece and Greek Cyprus initiated the formation of the East Med Forum with the inclusion of almost all other littoral countries, including Egypt and Israel, whose ties with Turkey are strained.
For example, a Greek-Egyptian delimitation agreement signed on Aug. 6 was the main reason for the cancellation of the resumption of the exploratory talks between Ankara and Athens.
Third, the Turkish-Greek crisis in the eastern Mediterranean is at the same a crisis between Turkey and the European Union. Out of the membership solidarity, the EU has chosen to be on the Greek side and has already declared the Turkish seismic works in the region as illegal although it has no jurisdiction on such a matter.
Fourth, neither Turkey nor Greece seem to have a genuine will to launch a process for a bilaterally negotiated settlement. Turkey wants to use the crisis to force the EU to deliver its promises concerning the upgraded customs union, visa waiver and more financial assistance for the migrants. Symbolically important, Turkey extended the mandate of the Oruç Reis in the area two days after the earthquake and showed that it won’t slow down.
On the other hand, Greece wrongfully thinks that potential sanctions will eventually force Turkey to take a step back from its claims in the Mediterranean. It has already secured that sanctions will be on the table when the EU leaders will meet in December and believes it will be easier to negotiate with a sanctions-hit Turkey afterward.
Unfortunately, all these calculations in both capitals are unrealistic. The EU will not simply grant Turkey all these privileges and sanctions will not result in a drastic Turkish retreat. Worse, all these policies being carried out in Ankara, Athens and Brussels are likely to escalate the tension and will make things much more complicated.