Greek-Turkish rapprochement in slow motion

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

The (officially) private visit of Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in Athens – plus a lunch with his Greek counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias – coming just after Rama was warmly received in Ankara by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, touched on several issues. At the very least on the progress made by Greece and Albania moving towards a solution over the dispute for their EEZs in the Ionian Sea through the Hague ICJ; also on Albania’s own progress closer to EU membership. But the more intriguing take-way from this visit was Rama’s own allusion to Albanian mediation, so that Athens would resume the slow trek towards some sort of rapprochement with Ankara, in the form of exploratory talks favoured by the international community, talks that broke down in 2016. Compared to Turkey and Greece, Albania looks a minnow –  but a quite active diplomatically one.

So, this comes as the latest of a series of signs that Greek-Turkish rapprochement may be inching forward. For better or for worse, this remains anybody’s guess.

The state of play: All concerned parties wait for the incoming Biden Administration to show their hand on this ominous front of (inter alia) intra-NATO friction; the EU steadily favours Athens and Ankara to sit around a table – any table! – so as to avoid having to deal with a flare-up; the Turkish side re-iterates readiness (even eagerness) to engage in talks, all the while widening the scope of disputes (most recent claims have to do with demilitarization of Greek islands in the Aegean); the Greek side asserts the main position that bilateral issues should go to the ICJ (but only over the delimitation of continental shelves and EEZs).

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had tweeted on Year’s end “let 2021 be the year when we settle our differences equitably by talking directly, sincerely and earnestly”, to get from Greek FM Nikos Dendias the retort “may 2021 be the year of the 3 “A”s  for Turkey: Abandon its threats of war against Greece […] after all we live in the 21st century , Aspire to become more European, less Neo-Ottoman, Abstain from provocations and illegal activities”.  A more recent Cavusoglu call – this time from Lisvon, where the Turkish FM visited for talks with the Portuguese Presidency of the EU – was for a “road map for the normalization of relations with the EU”. The cornerstone for such normalization would be a new relationship of Turkey with France – with which communications had broken down ever since 2019 – especially after a long talk of Cavusoglu with French FM Jean-Yves Le Druon.

For Cavusoglu, resumption of Greek-Turkish talks “is a matter of weeks”; still, the most recent turn of bilateral relations on the field was the near-collision of a Turkish patrol boat with a Greek coast guard vessel; the latter was called by Greek fishermen for assistance since they felt threatened in their sea-bream fishing around the Imia islets, where 25 years ago a Greek-Turkish clash was just prevented to turn into all-out conflagration. Memories cast long shadows in the region…

Notwithstanding such increased diplomatic activity, seen from the Greek side the main doubt to be delt with over the next weeks is whether internal tensions and contestations within the present Government will allow for whatever steps to be taken on the path towards any sort of Greek-Turkish rapprochement.