Greek Business File, September-October 2020, No 127

Geopolitics by George Prevelakis


Troubled waters. Can the Greek Merchant Marine react symbolically to Turkish revisionism?

Greece has gone through a severe economic crisis during the 2010s. Currently, apart from the Covid-19 challenge, Greece faces a serious threat by her neighbouring Turkey who employs various means and ways to claim a share of the Greek maritime space.


Can the Greek presence abroad, the Diaspora and the Merchant Marine, be of assistance during these crises? A positive answer seems obvious. Their multiple, certainly generous, contributions cannot be ignored or underestimated. However, neither the Diaspora nor the Merchant Marine act in accordance to their global economic and political weight.

Despite the appeals of the Greek governments during the economic crisis, prominent Greek-American businessmen refused to invest in Greece, considering the economic environment not credible. The shipping community, which represents almost 21% of the global tonnage, has not yet clearly demonstrated the will to use its collective economic power to assist the Greek government.

The domestic expectations that those two extra muros powers would come to help in a decisive way are based on a misunderstanding, stemming from the experience of living inside a state territory. The Greek Diaspora and the Greek Merchant Marine are network structures with no center. Their unity depends on cultural rather than political links. They do not receive orders from anybody, contrary to the elements composing a national society – for example, the centralised network of municipalities. Their logic behind their mobilisation is radically different. More often than not, they are hostile to State interference.

The Greek-American mobilisation after the 1974 Cyprus crisis was an extraordinary exception. It was highly successfull (which is why it became a major reference point in the Diaspora politics scientific literature), demonstrating clearly the conditions under which the Diaspora or the Merchant Marine could come massively to the assistance of Greece. Greek-Americans felt the Turkish occupation of a large part of Cyprus and Greece’s inability to react as a major humiliation. More so, they were appalled by US’s ambiguous, if not unfavorable stance towards this offense. This cultural shock mutated the ethnoreligious network of the Greek-American community into a political network; they became a real lobby. The Greek-Americans did not react as protesting Greeks. They made use of their rights and privileges as US citizens. They challenged the US administration using the specific instruments related to their political status.

The efficiency of this mobilisation is due to the cultural stimulus and the use of specific characteristics and assets. No policy of the Greek State could possibly reproduce those two factors. Deeply impressed by this success, the Greek State repeatedly tried to reanimate the experience, albeit always unsuccessfully. The intervention of a centralised structure disturbed the chaotic networks of the Diaspora, impeded their normal function, and eventually led to the gradual decline of the Greek lobby. The constant efforts of the Greek State to instrumentalize the Greek extraterritorial networks and their disastrous consequences probably explain the Diaspora’s refusal or failure to assist Greece during the recent years.

However, the situation could evolve differently concerning the recent Turkish maritime challenge. The attitudes, policies and declarations of the Turkish political leadership constitute a real insult to the core identity of the Greek shipping community. This community has the means to react in a specific, independent and efficient way.

Turkish claims are presented as an economic issue. According to Turkey, the oil and gas deposits supposedly existing in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean should not be monopolised by one country. This economic revisionism is a convenient way to hide, in a more or less acceptable way, the real and absolutely unacceptable Turkish geopolitical revisionism. But the almost daily declarations of Turkish military and political leaders clearly reveal the real Turkish aims. Slogans like “Blue Homeland (Mavi Vatan)” or vivid criticisms of Kemal Ataturk’s policies like “the loss of the Aegean islands” show a much more important and dangerous aim than a share of uncertain economic benefits.

Turkey developed the ambition to extend its continental space to the sea, aware of the growing importance of the maritime dimension in the world economy and politics. At the same time, their efforts express the Turkish fantasy to reconnect with the Ottoman glory.

Nevertheless, the Greek control of the Aegean is the product of an extremely painful “historical compromise” after the Greek-Turkish war. Turkey obtained in exchange the Greek-populated shores of Asia Minor, from where more than one and a half million Greeks were uprooted. Should Greece follow the same revisionist track, asking for instance “the return of Smyrna” – the “unfaithful” Ismir, according to Turkish nationalists? Claims for a change of agreed borders, even not openly, opens the Pandora’s box of regional instability.

Concerning the past, the Ottoman maritime presence was largely based on the knowledge and experience of Greek-Rum sailors (1).

Undoubtedly, Greeks dominated the  Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean since Ancient times. This is a fact, witnessed by the Western maritime powers who unified and dominated the world through the sea and recognise the Greeks as the ancestors of their maritime tradition; and the Aegean Sea as its cradle. On this heritage, identity and tradition has been repeatedly built the global success of the Greek Merchant Marine. Their modern, cosmopolitan look does not separate  the Greek sailors, captains and shipowners from their historical tradition, based and nurtured in a specific geographical framework: the islands of the Archipelago. To a large extent, this tradition explains today’s enormous share of the Greek Merchant Marine. However, Turkey claims as its own property these timeless fundamental Greek identity elements, the historical roots and the geographical environment.

The Turkish declarations are a direct insult to the Greek Merchant Marine, thus appearing as rootless, deprived of its proper identity. As a reaction, the Greek Merchant Marine might organize a possible mobilisation of its forces, efficient only if it made use of their specific means and instruments: cosmopolitan presence; understanding of foreign peoples’ culture; extroversion; and a rich network of connections with influential actors of the world economy and politics. They do not need a centralised coordination and they must avoid any dependence on the State. On the contrary, they should rely on initiative and imagination. Chaotic in form but coherent in content, such an effort would drastically contain the Turkish ambitions. A discreet mobilisation of the forces of the Merchant Marine could reproduce the old success of the Greek-American lobby. They, too, undergo a cultural shock and possess significatnt specific and welladapted means to react accordingly.

The shipowners are in a position to think and plan actions of a large variety. As an example, instead or in addition to the excellent cultural institutions offered to Greek cities, they could found similar institutions in major western capitals, to demonstrate, project and celebrate the strong ties between the sea and the Greek and Orthodox traditions. Or, they might create a Ship-Museum-Cultural Center passing through the rivers of major metropolis, like Paris or London, displaying the Greek maritime flag in their very center.

The recent Turkish threat goes far beyond the economic or even the territorial issue. By challenging the relationship of Greece with the sea, Turkey attempts to rewrite history and its significance, which probably is the expression of a feeling of inferiority. In the era of globalisation and of ocean economy, Turkey’s military might does not count as much as Hellenism’s global reach, as clearly expressed by its Merchant Marine. The Merchant Marine must react; not militarily or diplomatically but symbolically. Its actions should aim to deconstruct the Turkish communication strategy and to reinstate in the international conscience what is the largely acknowledged truth: the Greeks’ ties with the sea in general and, more specifically, with the Aegean Sea.


1. The modern Turkish national identity consists of two components, both of which are alien to the sea. The former refers to the turkophone populations of Central Asia: nomads of the steppe, who simply ignored the sea. The latter component is Islam, a demanding religion imposing strict rules, impossible for sailors to upkeep, for instance, the five daily prayers, which is why the sailors of the Ottoman fleet were Orthodox Christians.