Time to End the War of Words between Greece and Turkey (*)

September 12, 2022

For decades, since the days of Atatürk and Venizelos, Greek-Turkish relations have been characterized by a roller coaster pattern. Between the years 1997 and 2001, I was the Turkish ambassador in Athens. For a Turkish diplomat serving in Greece has always been a privilege. As I said in an interview before my departure, I not only enjoyed my stay there but I also happened to be the lucky one. Because, after a brief storm, my years there turned out to be a long sunny season.

Relations between the two neighbors hit the bottom with the Öcalan crisis in February 1999. Soon after, they suffered the Marmara and Athens earthquakes, the former causing great loss of life and devastation. The earthquakes gave impetus to the process of dialogue launched following the capture of PKK’s leader in Nairobi. The two countries helped each other deal with the tragic consequences of the earthquakes. Greek search and rescue teams rushed to the Marmara region. After the September 7 earthquake, Turkish teams flew to Athens. Foreign ministers Cem and Papandreou successfully seized the outburst of mutual affection as a window of opportunity to create a positive agenda for bilateral relations. Visits and cultural exchanges multiplied. Trade volume increased. Unfortunately, however, with the passage of time, everything went back to the usual pattern.

At present, the international stage is dominated by strategic competition between the US, Russia, and China. But other countries pay a price as well, the war in Ukraine being the latest example. The Middle East is still struggling with the tremors of the Arab spring. Syria and Libya have become battlegrounds for external powers. Armenia and Azerbaijan are still in search of lasting peace. News from the Balkans is giving rise to concerns.

Most of the world’s conflicts are among neighbors. These are about territory, borders, political and economic interests, threat perceptions, and ideology. If these neighbors are located in unstable regions the involvement of other neighbors and interventions by major powers is a certainty. Some of these confrontations turning into frozen conflicts is a strong possibility. All disputes, particularly armed ones, come at a high price. They result in loss of life, displacement, and political and economic devastation triggering migration challenges. Thus, conflict prevention at least among allies is a must.

Soon after the end of the Cold War, Turkey found itself under the pressure of the conflicts in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. Although Ankara had no responsibility whatsoever for the emergence of these conflicts, Türkiye paid a huge price, one important item of the cost being the negative impact of UN and non-UN punitive sanctions. It goes without saying that the price we are currently paying for our involvement in the Syrian conflict does not fall in this category as it is the result of Ankara’s misguided policy to “remake the Middle East”.

In recent years, our democratic decline and aggressive foreign policy rhetoric have led to our diplomatic isolation and encouraged some eastern Mediterranean countries to move closer to one another on the question of maritime jurisdiction areas. This led to additional problems in our relations with Egypt, Greece, and Israel.

Moreover, on October 14, 2021, Greece and the US signed an amendment to the US-Greece Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) which Secretary Blinken called “the bedrock of our defense cooperation” adding, “Today’s amendment extends the MDCA’s validity, making it consistent with other bilateral defense cooperation agreements between NATO Allies and durable enough to allow for Greece and the United States to advance security and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond.”[i]

In remarks to the Hellenic Air Force Academy in Athens on December 7, 2021, US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt said, “In 2021 alone, Alexandroupoli has welcomed nine major vessels, which have supported the deployment and redeployment of 165 tracked vehicles, 135 helicopters, and over 2,500 pieces of cargo.  The development of this port provides our alliance with a key gateway to the Western Balkans, Eastern Europe, and the Black Sea while strengthening NATO’s efforts to deter and defend.”[ii]

When commenting on Moscow’s concerns about the renewal of a defense cooperation agreement between Greece and the US, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “The sticky part is very simple. You’ve got more and more NATO soldiers, American soldiers on your territory. You transfer hundreds and thousands of military equipment units through Alexandroupolis and so on and so forth. You’re opening new facilities for NATO. At the same time, NATO is naming us an enemy and NATO is formulating the main objective of the alliance and the main objective is to deter Russia. So, this makes us nervous, you have to understand us,” Peskov added.[iii]

During remarks and answers to media questions at a news conference on Russia’s foreign policy performance in 2021 in Moscow, on January 14, 2022, Foreign Minister Lavrov was asked, “Kremlin and the Russian media mention a new US base in the town of Alexandroupolis in northern Greece that is part of moving military equipment to Ukraine. How critical is this for Russia? Was this issue discussed with Greece?”

He said:

“… We have long-standing relations and historical roots with our Greek colleagues, the Greek people and Greece as a country. We remember Ioannis Kapodistrias, who became the first ruler of modern Greece after serving in the Russian Empire on the foreign policy front. I recently met with Nikos Dendias. We discussed everything including our bilateral ties, the prospects for developing trade, economic, investment, cultural and people-to-people relations. These relations are extensive across all areas, including security. We touched on the topic of new steps that have been taken in US-Greek relations to upgrade the status of the port of Alexandroupolis for the purposes of the US Navy. We read about how the Americans plan to use it…. I understand that Greece is a member of NATO and an EU member. But we also see that Greece does not want to follow the path of tougher anti-Russia sanctions. The republic does not really enjoy what is happening now between the West and the Russian Federation. We trust our Greek friends that they will use their wisdom to make choices that answer their convictions.” [iv]

I know that the relations between Greece and Russia have always been strong and that Greece’s membership in NATO has never been a source of worry for Moscow. I also believe that the extension of the US-Greece Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) does not change that. However, it seems that Washington’s use of the port of Alexandroupolis has made a difference.

Some attribute America’s expanded use of the port to Greece’s desire to secure greater support against Türkiye. And it seems that given Ankara’s increasingly problematic relationship with Washington, and Secretary Biden’s remarks regarding the MDCAallowing Greece and the US “to advance security and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond”, Ankara puts the emphasis on this version of the expanded use of Alexandroupolis. Looking at the evolving relationships between Greece, the US, and Russia on the one hand, and Türkiye, the US, and Russia on the other hand, I cannot help asking whose interests are served by the MDCA. Perhaps, to its credit, Washington is filling two needs with one deed. To put it bluntly, Washington does not mind the MDCA being presented as American support against Ankara, but the word “beyond” and Ambassador Pyatt’s reference to the Black Sea amply explain the principal target.

A month before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, on January 25, President Macron and Chancellor Scholz met in Berlin to exchange views on the Ukraine crisis. Why is it that Greece and Turkey could not come together at the senior level for consultations on the crisis and reach a common understanding of what could follow and how to react? Is it because Germany and France are the leading members of the EU and the rest of Europe is supposed to follow them?

During my years in Athens, I tried to convince my Greek friends that the so-called “Turkish threat” is nothing but a myth and that Türkiye faces far more important other challenges which made our differences with Greece at least problems we can live with. That still is the case.

These days, Greek-Turkish relations are once again going through tough times. The Mitsotakis government appears to enjoy the advantages of its EU membership and the opportunities offered by its cozy relationship with Washington where he was given a huge welcome in May 2022.

I am no stranger to the EU’s double standards and profound anti-Turkey bias. I also know from my days in Washington as a young diplomat that President Biden, throughout his political career, has been a strong supporter of Greek interests and an adversary of Turkey. He is the best friend Greece has ever had and would have at the White House. His seemingly more friendly approach to Turkey under President Obama was pure theatre. No wonder why Prime Minister Mitsotakis, during remarks at a White House reception on May 16 to honor Greek American relations said:

“Mr. President, by saying that you recognize many Greek American friends amongst this gathering tonight.  You’ve mentioned several of them by name.  They call you “Bidenopolous”, for a reason, although I suggested that maybe you should be called “Bidenakis.” [v]

But in relations with superpowers, everything comes at a price, and in this case, it is the expanded use of the port of Alexandroupolis

But do the celebrations in Washington change the fundamental reality that the only path to lasting solutions on Greek-Turkish issues is bilateral diplomacy? No. I would be more interested in seeing how Moscow would perceive Athens’ recent “less friendly toward Russia” foreign policy shift. After all, Russia has been a consistent supporter of Greek interests for centuries.

At present experts on both sides of the Aegean are once again focused on maritime jurisdiction areas, islets, rocks, and air space problems. I appreciate their work but believe they can do much more if given an opportunity. What puts them in such a narrow space is the absence of a broader, more comprehensive approach that would allow them to address the incredible advantages to accrue to both sides if they were to avoid conflict and engage in good-neighborly cooperation.

In the months leading up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the West was united in calling on Moscow to reduce tensions and prioritize diplomacy. Is this not the path NATO allies Greece and Turkey should take? Why not, for once, engage in a common effort to define as a matter of policy and in maximum detail, like in a national development plan, the benefits that could accrue to both sides were they to engage in serious cooperation in trade, manufacturing, tourism, agriculture, joint ventures in other countries, climate change, and even the purchase of fire-fighting aircraft?

Putting an end to the totally counterproductive war of words to enable a broader approach to Greek-Turkish relations is not a new idea. Neither is the fact that endless exchange of accusations and aggressive rhetoric which, despite negligible domestic policy dividends, are the worse investment in the future of our bilateral relationship. Moreover, these discourage moderate voices on both sides from speaking up. They create an atmosphere of tension among the members of the military raising the risk of an accident.

By contrast, a mutually agreed period of calm could allow both sides at least to rethink how we got here. And it may give our Greek neighbors to take a fresh look at their understanding of the consequences for Türkiye of the string of Greek islands along its Aegean shores. I know that many in Greece tend to see these islands as a wall between the Anatolian landmass and the Aegean Sea. Unfortunately, unless this perception changes, the resolution of the maritime problems remains an illusion. Because no Turkish government can ever accept that Türkiye is no longer an Aegean coastal state. So, why not take a few decades to focus on what is doable? Such cooperation by itself may not resolve the outstanding issues but it will show the alternative cost of confrontation. The Aegean has been there for thousands and thousands of years.

Some might say that times have changed and I have remained anchored in the past, in the years of “earthquake diplomacy”, and there is no opportunity for climate change or forest fires diplomacy at this juncture. But I am no dreamer. I am not proposing a diplomatic process under overblown titles. All I am saying is that I am a believer in cooperation between neighbors, be it between Greece and Turkey, Syria and Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, or Armenia and Turkey. Disagreements are well-known. So are the distinguishing features of governments. Nonetheless, it is important to identify the areas where interests incontestably converge and try to move forward.

(*) This is the updated English version of a post published in “Diplomasi Koridoru” on January 28, 2022.

————————————————————————————————

[i] https://gr.usembassy.gov/statement-by-secretary-antony-j-blinken-signing-of-protocol-of-amendment-to-the-mutual-defense-cooperation-agreement-with-greece/

[ii] https://gr.usembassy.gov/ambassador-pyatts-remarks-at-athena-2021/

[iii] https://tass.com/politics/1374171

[iv] https://russische-botschaft.ru/de/2022/01/17/foreign-minister-sergey-lavrovs-remarks-and-answers-to-media-questions-at-a-news-conference-on-russias-foreign-policy-performance-in-2021-moscow-january-14-2022/

[v] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/05/16/remarks-by-president-biden-first-lady-jill-biden-and-prime-minister-mitsotakis-of-greece-at-a-reception-honoring-greek-american-relations/

About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions he held in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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