This text aims to clarify some facts and perspectives on Greek-Turkish relations, facts and perspectives that seem confusing amid the turmoil of the war in Ukraine and the unpleasant signs of further escalation.
Having always insisted on the need to distinguish a long-term trend and temporary transitions in Ankara’s strategy vis-à-vis Greece, I read with surprise texts referring to another “reversal” of behavior Turkish.
As if the visit of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, fully understood in the context of the Euro-Atlantic alliance at the precise moment of the Ukrainian crisis, meant anything for the strategy of his neighbor. For this, a systematic work with serious indications of tangible results must have preceded it.
Unfortunately, a recurring pattern is beginning to emerge. Let us remember 2017. The first official visit of a Turkish president to Greece after 65 years took place at a time when the Erdoğan government had begun to isolate itself in the Western camp. The then government of Athens gave him a useful diplomatic stage.
The visit had gone badly, with revisions to the Treaty of Lausanne, de-escalations and Erdoğan’s visit to the Muslim minority in Thrace, a minority that Ankara denounces as Turkish. Greece gained nothing from this visit, it probably lost.
Moreover, in addition to the Aegean Sea and Cyprus, we must also systematically worry about the future of Thrace, where there is a tendency to accept the Turkification of the various minorities – the Pomaks, the Alevis and the Roma. Athens should encourage pluralism and therefore weaken the role of the Turkish consulate.
In any case, relations after 2017 deteriorated, culminating in the most acute crisis and a confrontation close to war in 2020.
Let’s go back to 2022.
Turkey, as expected, was quick after the meeting to recall (with massive violations and overflights) the general framework of its conditions of stay in the West. Considering that the Ukrainian tragedy revalorizes it, Ankara tries to make it understood that the rapprochement with the West does not imply a softening of its claims and its individual points of view.
In this explosive context, Turkey is seeking to seize the opportunity to advance its role in the energy sector – the details of which we await judgment – while insisting on its dangerous revisionist views in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean.
It’s not just Russia’s constant avoidance of sanctions, ongoing S-400 tug of war, etc. Both with the massive violations and overflights in the Aegean Sea and with the statements against President Biden over the Armenian Genocide, Turkey is clarifying the terms of its stay in the West at this absolutely critical moment in the Ukrainian crisis.
Unfortunately, these terms include unacceptable and extremely dangerous claims against Greece. Today, Turkey’s “strategic depth” and “multiple regional identities” that former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu tried to highlight are expressed in ways that are both more specialized and more dangerous.
Instead of the overambitious global role in the economic context of the G-20 and beyond, Erdoğan focuses on a more direct militaristic game, reshaping Kemalist militarist traditions in a new Ottoman framework to promote the country’s power as protector oppressed Muslims.
Ankara totally contests the Treaty of Lausanne. Even the day set for the change in character of Hagia Sophia, July 24, was chosen to commemorate the day the Treaty of Lausanne was signed in 1923.
The Greek Embarrassment
Between the pseudo-hawks who for years have announced war with Turkey every other day (and lie with the same obsession) and the pseudo-pigeons who systematically ignore the weight of any Turkish claim (going so far as to attribute the difficulty in Greek public opinion), the space for the rationally patriotic approach to the problem was almost lost.
Apart from the constant reinforcement of the country’s deterrent capacity and the realistic and most complete possible information of the public far from communicative politicizations, what should Athens do?
First of all, as I have been explaining for years, Greece must try to co-shape the future framework of EU-Turkey relations. Not Turkey’s “Western” approach as a whole, and given the particular parameters set by the current phase of the war with Russia (this dangerous innocence has also been heard in recent days), but specifically the relationship with the EU, where Athens must have influence.
Today, a “Helsinki 2” strategy is no longer possible, however fascinating the deceptive security of rehearsals. The Helsinki European Council of December 1999 marked the beginning of an attempt – ultimately ineffective for one reason or another – by Greece to use Turkey’s accession process positively to put pressure on Ankara to it changes its position on specific issues. Whatever the reasons and circumstances that may explain this outcome, today Turkey’s accession process is essentially not only frozen but dead.
Therefore, as I wrote a year and a half ago, what deserves to be sought is the careful coordination of the conditions for a lasting peace with Turkey in a region of the planet that will remain fluid and dangerous. There are no quick and easy “fixes”.
As far as the EU is concerned, the task today is on a different footing (not on membership) and is much more complex: Turkey should be put under pressure for a regime of relations that is both motivating and consistent with the specific issues that concern us. In other words, the question today is whether a new comprehensive approach to the EU-Turkey relationship in the new environment and with the new data can include terms for Greek-Turkish and how these terms will be applicable.
Beyond France, already in Austria, Italy and elsewhere, clear arguments are being made on the need to adopt alternative scenarios for the future of EU-Turkey relations. This approach can be an interesting starting point or, on the contrary, work in a completely confusing way: Turkey is not only a country with which the EU wants to establish a framework for deeper trade and economic integration, it is a country that systematically threatens the status quo in the region and maintains relations of tension and potential conflict with at least two EU member states – Greece and Cyprus.
Prior to the new situation created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, most international analysts converged on the view that the EU could no longer address Turkish aggression only through moderate power. The EU should foster a combination of determination and at the same time encourage cooperative tendencies.
Today, Greece must systematically focus on restoring the discussion on EU-Turkey relations in this context, basically, regardless of one or another development of US-Turkish relations. For the EU, the evolution of the customs union must be part of this whole new approach and not a demarcated policy area which – by definition – is in principle a win-win situation for Ankara.
At the level of the new global relationship between the EU and Turkey, although the difficulties related to the adoption of automatic implementing measures are well known and proven, the Greek side should strongly support an effective and predictable mechanism to respond to violations of the conditions mentioned above.
And in terms of Greek-American relations? There is here – a culmination of the excellent bilateral relations that have always existed and have been considerably strengthened in recent years – a potentially critical additional development. Mitsotakis’ speech at a special session of Congress, which will mean he has been endorsed by both Democrats and Republicans, as well as in Parliament and the Senate, will be a historic moment for Greek relations. -American.
At this historic moment, in Congress but also – mainly – in his individual talks, the Greek Prime Minister should make clear the gravity of the situation with Turkish demands not only for Greece but for the Eastern Mediterranean and the cohesion of NATO . It should, among other things, be clarified that if Turkey tries to strike Greek islands, which is not at all improbable, Greece will react immediately and comprehensively.
And – of course – he will consider that, so far, full Allied cover exists for Athens: the mutual defense assistance agreement with France. After all, Europe should try to get its stride back, in the Euro-Atlantic context but with a distinct voice, before a new Trump era reminds us again of the unbearable costs of European non-existence.
Emerging not only as a land power but also as a naval power, Turkey will continue to pressure Greece and Cyprus, while the nationalist-militarist tendencies within it will continue to give some cohesion to a social body to centrifugal forces. As long as the West-Russian conflict does not lead to an immediate military rupture (which we have every reason to avoid), Ankara will continue to play a special role with all that that implies of real or fictitious tolerance.
In Ankara, invoking the “blue homeland” means Turkey’s attempt to become a naval power but with conditions and intentions to conquer living space. On this basis, which we have analyzed in the past, both the Erdoğan government and the official Kemalist opposition declare that if Greece does not change its position on “militarization”, Greek sovereignty over the eastern Aegean islands will be questioned.
In other words, Turkey is trying to “grey” no longer rocky islets but large Greek islands. In order to leave the islands of the Eastern Aegean defenseless so that at the right time, after a few incidents which will be provoked by the appropriate hostilities, the Turkish amphibious force will try to occupy an island. And to follow a negotiation with Greece at a disadvantage.
As for Greece, Turkey systematically builds and then (in times of great crisis like the one Ukraine is currently experiencing) tries to make a profit. It does not remain in words either: the Turkish-Libyan memorandum exists, the occupation of Cyprus exists, the graying with Imia exists.
Greece cannot bear the cost of Turkey’s rapprochement with the West. In order to improve relations in the first place, Turkey owes him something. As I have explained several times, what Greece has a strategic reason to want in its relations with Turkey is a lasting peace that does not hide.
Based on this framework, developments and initiatives should be evaluated. Any de-escalation is obviously welcome, but achieving a balance of power vis-à-vis a neighbor with revising tendencies and the firm promotion of Greek positions are a precondition for dialogue and – if changing conditions permit – to a lasting peace in the future.
By now, friends and allies should realize that Turkey’s strategy towards Greece could indeed lead to the collapse of NATO’s southeast wing. Greece obviously avoids it but Turkey can make it inevitable.
Costas A. Lavdas is a professor at Panteion University and was, among other things, Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics and holder of the “Konstantinos Karamanlis” Chair of Greek and European Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Tufts University in the United States. He is a contributor to Liberal.
READ MORE: Greece and Turkey in the Age of Global Hybrid War.