Don’t Get Your Hopes Up About Ankara and Athens

September 9, 2023
by Enes Esen, published on 9 September 2023
Don’t Get Your Hopes Up About Ankara and Athens

Turkish Foreign Minister Fidan and his Greek counterpart Gerapetritis held their first bilateral meeting on Tuesday in Ankara to prepare for the meeting between Turkish President Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in New York on September 18. Last year, Erdogan said he would never talk to Mitsotakis again and threatened to attack Greece several times. Many analysts and journalists are celebrating these meetings as the start of a new detente between the two countries. Given the hostile discourse in recent years, it is understandable that there is enthusiasm to see a return to normalcy. However, a slight improvement in diplomatic relations does not necessarily imply that the two neighbors are on the path to resolving their differences on a range of issues. Ankara and Athens are still navigating in the troubled waters of the Aegean Sea and the eastern Mediterranean.

Firstly, Turkish leaders tempered their criticism, not due to a change of heart regarding Greece following the devastating earthquakes in February, but because Turkey's election campaigns had concluded. President Erdogan's election strategy often revolves around the motto, 'A nation at war is a nation at peace with itself.' Whether this involves a military operation in Syria with thousands of troops or the threat of force against Greece depends on international developments at the time. What's significant is that during a military escalation or the appearance of one, economic issues take a back seat, and people tend to rally behind a strong leader. In line with this strategy, Sweden and Greece temporarily became foreign enemies of the AKP’s Turkey during the last elections. 

Second, Fidan told the journalists that Turkey and Greece have differences of opinion in the Aegean, but they agreed to form new approaches to settle their differences. These include mainly confidence-building measures at the diplomatic and military levels, as well as in other lesser important fields. 

According to a report from Ekathimerini daily, Greece's current strategy appears to involve referring maritime disputes between Turkey and Greece to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In line with this approach, deputy foreign ministers are scheduled to engage in political talks on October 16. However, there is a critical flaw in this strategy. Unlike Greece, Turkey has largely been content with the status quo in the Aegean Sea and Cyprus, having primarily asserted its claims in the eastern Mediterranean through military displays. Bringing the disputes to the court again as in 1976 would subject Turkey's claims to scrutiny and it may result in concessions to Greece, including the recognition of Greek territorial waters extending to 12 miles. This will be unacceptable to the Turkish government. 

Moreover, the issues in the Aegean Sea and Cyprus are deeply entrenched within Turkey’s nationalist discourse, encompassing the AKP, its coalition partners, and the main opposition parties. Concessions in these matters can trigger an existential crisis for any government in Ankara. The AKP government's ultra-nationalist allies have already criticized it for aligning with Greek claims in the eastern Mediterranean to improve relations with the European Union. These junior partners argue that Turkey should push its boundaries by encroaching on Greek territorial waters and unilaterally expand its territorial waters all the way to Libya. 

On the other hand, one day before the Greek Foreign Minister Gerapetritis to Turkey, on September 4, Prime Ministers of Greece and Israel and the President of Cyprus met for the 9th Trilateral Summit in Nicosia. The Joint Statement of Greece, Cyprus, Israel Summit stated that “a settlement which will reunify the island … would not only benefit the people of Cyprus in its entirety but also significantly contribute to the peace and stability of the region.” The unification of the island's two communities, i.e., the Turks and the Greek Cypriots, under one banner is one of the thorniest issues that troubles Turkey’s relationship with Greece. It is not likely that the parts can present a new approach to this old matter in the near future. 

These trilateral meetings have taken place over the past eight years, with a particular focus on energy and defense cooperation to counter Turkey's maritime policies in the eastern Mediterranean. However, with Turkey recently improving relations with its neighbors, this alliance of convenience has become less rigid. There are even discussions about the possibility of transferring Israel's natural gas to Europe through Turkey. While Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu used this summit to reassure Greece and Cyprus that improved relations with Turkey would not come at their expense, the Greeks and Cypriots took the opportunity to emphasize that they don't want to see Turkey becoming Israel's preferred energy partner.  

While the easing of tension between Turkey and Greece is a welcome development, it is unlikely that the parties will propose a new approach to their long-standing issues in the Aegean Sea, the eastern Mediterranean, and Cyprus. Greece's proposal to address differences in the Aegean Sea through a dispute resolution in an international court will not be well received in Ankara. The only tangible progress in the near future may come from the development of promising oil and natural gas resources in the region, although this will still require substantial effort and patience.

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