The Complexity of the Greek-Turkish Relationship
The relations between Greece and Turkey are compound and complex yet relatively simple. The simplicity stems from the fact that their histories have been shaped in great part due to their interaction with each other. In other words, these have been forged by liberation, war, ethnic violence, historical memory, religion, and integration or lack thereof.
The complexity regards the bevy of issues that separate the two sides albeit the fact that they are de facto on the same side of the strategic divide between the West and its competitors or opponents.
This in turns implies that the bilateral relationship cannot be separated from the wider strategic and geopolitical dynamics thereby making the finding of something more than a modus vivendi difficult.
In Athens, there is widespread consensus of a growing threat perception emanating from Turkey. In particular, over the course of one year the threat perception has morphed from the Turkey-Libya Memoranda of 27 November 2019 to their ratification to the attempt to flood with refugees and immigrants the Greek-Turkish land border over the course of one month beginning late February 2020 to the extension of the crisis to the Eastern Mediterranean by sending hydrocarbon exploration vessels accompanied by warships in waters contested both by Greece and Turkey. Thereby, this has been deemed at breaking the status quo and the business as usual model of relations between the two countries which prioritized the management of disputes rather than their resolution.
NATO and the EU have, in fact over time, acted as levers or barriers to a further deterioration of relations with the promise of the use of their conflict resolution mechanisms to further deter tensions and to change behaviors. But over the last year, they have proven ineffective as the EU accession process has come to a standstill while NATO has shown itself to be rudderless at a time when it has been attempting to fend blows from within from its purported leader – the United States.
Consequently, international actors such as the EU and regional powers such as Germany, in particular, and its Chancellor that has acted as the de facto leader of the West, during the Trump era have attempted to bring the two sides to the table. In other words, the effort has been focused to force them to sit down at the table of dialogue within the already existing framework of the exploratory talks and its 60 rounds of significant dowry in order to allow the two sides to agree upon the parameters of a negotiation framework. Unfortunately, to date this has all been for naught. Athens feels that Ankara has not been forthcoming as it has at least twice gone back on its promise to sit at the table upon the stoppage of its exploration activities in the contested waters. In fact, in realization that conflict management and prevention might have reached its limits and that conflict resolution is now on the table, Athens has targeted its discourse and actions with a more conciliatory tone by repeatedly stating that a lack of agreement at the negotiating table of the delimitation of the Continental Shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone of the two countries could be determined by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or another mutually acceptable international arbitration framework in spite the fact that this would entail some political cost as the outcome might not be necessarily the one Athens would want. The same argument applies for Ankara as well.
Greece has also intensified its efforts to resolve its outstanding maritime delimitation issues with neighbouring countries such as the delimitation agreement with Italy in June 2020, a partial delimitation deal with Egypt in August 2020; and an agreement with Albania in October 2020 to refer the delimitation of their Exclusive Economic Zones to the ICJ in the near future. The relevance of these agreements is that Athens has demonstrated a willingness to negotiate in good faith and to accept the principles that some small islands have limited continental shelves.
After many attempts to sit at the table, October looked to be the crucial month with the European Council meeting which defined the parameters of a wider EU-Turkey framework with its references to a positive agenda as well as to the expectation that exploratory vessels and their accompanying armed navy vessels would withdraw from the contested waters and that diplomacy would be given a chance. At the same time, the NATO Secretary General announced an agreement on a deconfliction mechanism between Greece and Turkey which basically implied the reenergization of military Confidence-Building Measures had been agreed upon during times of lesser tensions. Obviously, both the EU Council conclusions and NATO’s intervention had been defined with Ankara’s knowledge in the hope that tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean would subside and the EU-Turkey relationship would be jumpstarted.
As a result, with Athens increasingly worried about Turkey’s increased revisionist actions, it has also focused on the need to formulate a policy of strengthened deterrence both militarily and diplomatically. This has implied reinvigorating its national defense with defense expenses, primarily due to armament purchases, expected to rise by over 61% in 2021 as per the draft budget submitted to Parliament for debate and approval. It also strengthened defense cooperation both with the US and France as well as with other regional powers. The enhanced defense cooperation with the United States and France is relevant as it is being conducted outside the NATO context thereby highlighting the dilemma within NATO regarding Turkey. On the diplomatic front, Athens has been seeking to have its positions better understood by its partners and allies and obtaining their solidarity, something which has been reflected, in particular, in the European Council Conclusions of early October and will certainly be included in the forthcoming December European Council.
Nevertheless, the problem and challenge are how to find a modus vivendi which allows for a relaxation of tensions and a serious effort to move beyond conflict management to conflict resolution. Otherwise, the increased threat perception is bound to remain, if not increase. The same applies to the already low levels of trust between the two sides, both at the level of civil society and between the two countries’ officials. Undoubtedly, the persistence and longevity of the Covid19 pandemic does not help as it has brought people to people contacts to a halt with its mandatory travel restrictions.
Greece understands that Ankara’s powerplay and ambitions as a regional power of significance is larger than the bilateral context and, as such, it is dependent on how the relationship and interplay between the great and greater powers evolves at a time when systemic change and disorder is underway. In this regard, Athens will continue doing more of what it has been doing including strengthening its deterrence, getting ready for dialogue with Turkey once Turkish vessels leave the contested waters, and attempting to shape the EU position from within by making full use of its rights and obligations as a member states in shaping the Union’s position.
The road ahead is not easy yet and anything short of a mutually acceptable compromise does not augur well for either Greece or Turkey, the cohesion of the West, and the region as a whole.