From the Blinken visit to the future of Greek-Turkish disputes

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis


U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Greece just after Turkey in his (fourth within months) tour to nine countries of the wider, conflict-ridden Near-and-Middle East area where flare-up looms if the Hamas-Israel war spills over.

Blinken kept the pressure low by choosing Istanbul instead of Ankara and Crete instead of Athens to mark the working-visit dimension of the latter. In Turkey, meeting with both his counterpart Hakan Fidan and President Erdogan, Blinken resorted to all the trappings of an official visit; in Crete, the meeting with P.M. Kyriakos Mitsotakis was clearly laid-back (no ties…) and hosted at the Mitsotakis ancestral home, a “passage obligé” for U.S. officialdom ever since the Nineties.

The Turkish leg of the Blinken visit was of central importance, since Turkey is also a central player at the war-torn Black Sea, having recently blocked NATO warships from accessing it through the Dardanelles and Bosphorus, while also claiming the role of mediator in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and of an engaged observer at the Israel-Palestine one.

Insofar Greece is concerned, apprehension has centred rather on how far US/NATO wooing of Turkey might alter the delicate balance of power achieved over the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean (Cyprus included). Greek sensitivities concerning the balance of power may have been kept under control with the trade-off of future US-sourced armaments (Turkey-required F-16 vs. Greece-hoped-for F-35s). But the main US aspiration, also shared by the Europeans – meaning mainly Germany – is for the “calm waters” recently achieved at the Aegean and the Eastern Med to remain so, in a long-term permanent mode.

For this to become possible, the gradual détente started between Greece and Turkey (rather recently, as such things go) would have to shift from “low politics” issues such as visa-free entry of Turkish national to Greek islands or economic/tourist cooperation to core matters of the two countries’ disputes.

For this to happen – or rather to start happening – Turkey would have to rein in its revisionist reflexes asking for claimed “grey zones” to be recognized at the Aegean, for demilitarization of Greek islands, or for joint exploitation of hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean. As for Greece, it would have to move away from a decades-old creed, that “the only issue to be addressed” by the ICJ or such other tribunal in a Greek-Turkish dispute context is the delimitation of EEZs and of continental shelf areas.

Now let’s take a step back and have a look on what Blinken’s host in Crete has to deal with. The mixture of reform-laden political discourse, of a realist stance in foreign relations (that shifted towards closely toeing the US/NATO line in the Russia-Ukraine war) and of a resolutely free-market economic policy, but fleshed out with copious hand-outs spread around in a Covid and /or energy-prices context, have proved quite successful for the Mitsotakis government. Successful in the ballot box, successful in ongoing opinion polls.

Mitsotakis’ own pragmatic, centre-oriented profile, combined with quite a measure of self-distancing from the prevailing right-wing/conservative reflexes of the party he made (good) use of so as to accede to power – stodgy, traditionalist, at times openly jingoistic Nea Dimocratia – made him adopt, or at least push for, more socially progressive and internationally palatable (so to say) policies.

Could it be that nowadays his stamina for reforms and/or for breaking new ground is breaking down? The fact that K. Mitsotakis had to back off rather unceremoniously e.g. in the matter of same-sex marriage he had chosen to champion has little to do with international relations. But the very fact that the same socially conservative electorate that made him step down in the former issue is also quite sentient of “national matters” (as Greek political lingo is wont to call crucial issues of foreign policy) may well cause a renewed standstill in Greek-Turkish relations. With the US, the EU or whoever else in the role of no more than uneasy observers.