No news in August? Try again!

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Summer months are supposed to last longer, to allow for an ebb in public life tensions. After all, Americans and the British are known to speak of the silly season, while the quote of Umberto Eco goes:” there is no news in August”.

August 2020 may well give the lie to such received wisdom – at least in so far tense relations between Greece and Turkey are concerned and allies of the pair look for ways to defuse the long-standing disputes over the Aegean (and, increasingly, the Eastern Mediterranean) that threatened to end in a flare-up in July.

Turkish moves to initiate seismic exploration in sea areas considered by Greece to fall within its own continental shelf have been put on hold following German mediation calling for “wise/prudent dialogue” between the two neighbours. Ankara, through Defense Minister Hulusu Akar, declared that meetings were scheduled between Greek and Turkish officials “to address issues that have led to rising tensions”, but without specifying a date; Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias replied in an interview that “the two sides unfortunately have not reached a point where we can start a dialogue” say that we have even agreed to start a dialogue”. [Meanwhile, August is the last remaining hope for something to be salvaged of the – Covid-19-stricken – tourist season for both countries].

The current situation has been described in diplomat-speak as “contacts to initiate talks so as to make possible a wise/prudent dialogue that will hopefully lead to negotiations allowing for recourse to the ICJ (or other juridical or arbitral institutions)”: not for the faint-hearted! Turkey considers that the standstill in the Eastern Mediterranean cannot last further than August, Greece counter it is ready for dialogue but not “under threats”; no dialogue can be held “at gunpoint” according to Nikos Dendias.

One should not look for problems only across the Aegean. Turkish public opinion may be passably docile to official guidance; the same is in no way the case in Greece. Moreover, within the present Greek Government there is an important current of opinion that “one does not talk with pirates” – a thinly-veiled reference to Turkish  aggressive tactics over the last weeks. While Dora Bakoyanni, former Foreign Minister and always vocal in matters of foreign relations, saw it fit to assert that talking with somebody does in no way mean to surrender.

Détente between neighbours and NATO allies may be the proclaimed wish of all concerned parties. But “no news in August” cannot be taken for granted.