The minefield of current Greek-Turkish relations

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

In the realm of international relations, where tensions rarely subside in areas laden with heavy history, the secret of success – if not of survival – resides in knowing one’s opponent or adversary (not to say “one’s enemy”).

Greece and Turkey are opponents in the region the West has known as the Near East, since times in memorial. They still are; they will remain opponents for the foreseeable future. So, now that the Turkish Foreign Minister is in official visit in Athens (starting his stay with a “private visit” in Thrace, an area with a large Muslim minority, the major part of which is of Turkish descent), there is no better way to assess Turkey’s intentions than following the Turkish press reporting.

The real goal of the Mevlut Cavusoglu visit is to prepare the ground for a meeting of Turkish President Erdogan with Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis. It is nobody’s secret that such a meeting – meant to lessen tensions that have been close to a flare-up in the Eastern Mediterranean one year ago – is promoted by all and sundry in the EU, in NATO and so forth In the run-up to the Cavusoglu visit, confidence-building measures of a security/defense content were discussed while exploratory talks in a diplomatic setting were proceeding . Still, the Greek position that the only issues that constitute legitimate bilateral disputes are EEZ and continental shelf delimitation clashes directly with the Turkish reading of things.

Ankara chose to have the Cavusoglu visit co-incide with the presence of research/survey vessel Tubitak Marmara in the sea area between the northern Aegean islands of Chios, Samos and Ikaria; the major part of such area falls squarely within Greek authority, with limited international waters. Following last summer’s Turkish assertation of claims in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially around the Kastellorizo archipelago, but also in the wider area between this outpost, the Rhodes-Kasos Karpathos line and Southern Crete, it is evident that the very reading of EEZ and continental shelf disputes will be no easy matter.

Coming close on the track of these issues, the positions taken by the two sides in the (ongoing) talks over Cyprus are diametrically opposed , with Ankara supporting – or is it imposing? – the Turkish-Cypriot choice of a two-state solution, and Athens siding resolutely with the internationally recognized integrity of the Cyprus Republic. More leeway may exist in the matter of an International conference for the Eastern Mediterranean promoted by Ankara but with quite different an angle than the one currently adopted by the East Med Gas Forum, where Greece and Cyprus participate along Israel, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Italy with U.S. and French support.

Turkey also raises the issue of refugees and migrants under the angle of push-backs and related actions it accuses Greece is practicing in border areas – be it in the Evros land border or in the Aegean islands; Greece, with much of the E.U. on its side, retorts that the Turkish authorities are using (if not outrightly weaponizing) migrant waves so  as to disrupt the border area and cause intra-EU problems.

So, between the Greek positon, that the only dispute that can be discussed is EEZ and continental shelf delimitation, and the Turkish one that is close to an open-agenda approach, the distance is great. The EU, of which Greece is a member (as in Cyprus…) in its quest for a “positive agenda” over EU/Turkish relations; NATO and the U.S. traditionally adopt a position of “keep contacts open” when talking to Athens and Ankara. This makes for a minefield crossing, all the more so since internal pressures in Greece – even within the Government party – make it tough to keep a steady line faced with Turkish revisionist practices (and wavering international interest).