Erdogan’s rhetoric may be unfriendly towards Greece, but his predecessors were outright dangerous, many Greeks say.
Athens, Greece – Days after Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s re-election to the Turkish presidency, Greeks seem tranquil.
The key question for the Greeks has not been whether Erdogan or his opponent, Republican People’s Party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, would win, but whether either would improve historically bad relations.
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“It’s not a matter of individuals. Turkish foreign policy is set,” said Konstantinos Filis, director of the Institute of Global Affairs at the American College of Greece.
“But because Erdogan runs an autocratic system, if he decides something, he can enforce it, even if it’s a spectacular about-turn,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Kilicdaroglu didn’t have the best intentions towards Greece and led a heterogenous coalition stretching from intellectual leftists to conservative Kurds, from liberals to hard-right nationalists. How would he enforce his view?” Filis said.
Before Erdogan came to power in 2003, Turkey had already threatened Greece with war if it should exercise its right under the UN Law of the Sea to extend its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles off its islands in the Aegean (both countries currently claim 6 nautical miles).
There are thousands of Greek islands in the Aegean, but only a handful of Turkish ones. Applying the Law of the Sea would give Greece direct sovereignty over 71.5 percent of the Aegean’s waters, up from 43.5 percent today. Turkish territorial waters would rise from 7.5 percent of the Aegean to 8.7 percent.
The brink of war
In 1996, Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller launched a policy of disputing uninhabited Greek islets.
When she put Turkish commandos on one of those islands, Imia, the two countries came to the brink of war.
Greece and Turkey had already been on a war footing since 1974 when Turkey invaded Cyprus in response to a coup attempt on the island launched by a colonels’ dictatorship then ruling Greece.
Erdogan came to power in 2003, when Greece and Turkey were in the midst of historic talks that were supposed to settle their maritime border disagreements and open a path for Turkey to join the European Union.
The talks meandered, and Turkey’s EU prospects dimmed because of opposition from France and Germany.
A 2018 alliance between Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) stiffened Turkish foreign policy. In 2020, Erdogan said he would no longer abide by an agreement with the EU to hold back asylum seekers.
He sent a survey ship, the Oruc Reis, to look for hydrocarbons in what Greece considers its jurisdiction, triggering a full deployment of the two countries’ navies.
The following year, he launched a new policy of disputing Greece’s inhabited east Aegean islands.
But Greeks still seem to prefer him over the politicians that hail from the secular opposition that held power before him.
“Better to have Erdogan. When I was a lad, the left-wing prime minister [Bulent] Ecevit invaded Cyprus. In 1996, Ciller created the Imia incident,” said Panayotis Konstantopoulos, a parking lot owner in central Athens.
“This one hasn’t done anything. As we say back home in Arcadia, a dog that barks doesn’t bite,” Konstantopoulos said.
News agent Marinos Kollaros does not believe Kilicdaroglu would have been good news for Greece, either.
“Kilicdaroglu is the one who told Erdogan, ‘You’re all talk and no action,’” he said, remembering how Kilicdaroglu encouraged Erdogan to invade Aegean islands in June 2022.
“You shout, you call. There is nothing! Did [Bulent] Ecevit and [Necmettin] Erbakan shout? Did they call? Did they say we’re coming? No, they did what was necessary … Our tradition is to do what is necessary!” Kilicdaroglu tweeted on June 28 last year, referring to the governing coalition that invaded Cyprus.
Relations between Greece and Turkey began to visibly decline in December 2017, when Erdogan visited Athens and announced he wanted to revise the Lausanne Treaty, which set the boundaries between the two countries in 1923.
He left relations worse than they were when he arrived, but upon his return to Ankara, Kilicdaroglu baited him.
“Why didn’t you ask Greece to return the 14 islands?” he demanded, a reference to the rocky islets claims begun under Ciller.
Talks around the corner?
Erdogan’s political fate seemed in peril after two earthquakes killed tens of thousands of people in early February, and Turkish opposition leaders blamed him for not enforcing building codes.
Yet, he came in five points ahead of Kilicdaroglu in the first round of the presidential election on May 14.
“The Turks are used to him. He’s their father. They don’t know the other crowd,” said Konstantopoulos, referring to the six-party opposition coalition. “Kilicdaroglu was invisible.”
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said he would seek to meet with Erdogan at the NATO summit in Vilnius next month.
Officially, Greece says it only has one thing to discuss with Turkey – the delimitation of commercial exploitation rights on the sea bed (referred to as the continental shelf) and the column of water above it (referred to as the exclusive economic zone, or EEZ).
Under the UN’s Law of the Sea, Greece claims a continental shelf and EEZ of almost 500,000sq km (nearly 200,000sq miles) around its islands, where it could exercise exclusive fishing rights or explore for natural gas.
Turkey, despite its long continental coast, is entitled to much less, according to UN law.
That is a major reason why Turkey disagrees with the Law of the Sea on whether islands should have such rights and is one of a handful of countries that have not signed it. But former Turkish ambassador to Athens Burak Ozugergin has told Al Jazeera that Turkey could strike an agreement with Greece under the Law of the Sea, also known as UNCLOS.
“International law encompasses a much larger scope than UNCLOS. There are parts of UNCLOS that are either codified or have become customary law, so it’s not a problem for Turkey to abide by them … we don’t need to be party to UNCLOS. The entire body of international law, including the relevant court decisions is there,” Ozugergin told Al Jazeera in an interview given in October 2021.
The sticking point, Ozugergin said, is that Greece will not negotiate its territorial water rights, while Turkey insists that territorial water and EEZ should both be under discussion.
“In the Aegean, if the territorial water limits are extended by Greece, then we really don’t have much high seas left to talk about, which makes going to court virtually meaningless. Turkey is ready to go to court, but with all relevant issues,” he said in an interview in October 2022.
Greece says it will not discuss its sovereignty with Turkey.
“We have one basic difference, and that is the delimitation of maritime boundaries, meaning the EEZ and continental shelf,” Mitsotakis said in a television interview on May 29.
“Other issues, such as demilitarisation or sovereignty are simply never going to be discussed by Greece,” he said.
Few in Greece expect that Turkey will soften any of its positions because its claims are unilateral and only concern Athens.
“For Turkey, the issues it raises against Greece aren’t of vital importance. They’re negotiating points,” Filis said.
“If the situation stays as it is, Turkey loses nothing, but Greece’s sovereignty is disputed, and sovereignty is a state’s very foundation,” he said.
“We want a normal country we can talk to, that doesn’t dispute our sovereignty, that doesn’t say outrageous things,” Filis said.
“Less ambitiously, we can settle for a country that doesn’t really mean what it says when it reaches for Greek islets and is prepared to trade its position for the feeling that it isn’t hemmed into the Anatolian mainland by Greece’s many islands,” he said.
After Erdogan’s Athens visit in 2017, Greece began a rearmament programme to give itself what officials refer to as “deterrent power” against Turkish military action.
Mitsotakis faces a repeat election on June 25. The initial election on May 21, which gave him 41 percent of the vote, suggests he will win.
Many Greeks hope that fresh governments will lead to at least a resumption of talks. Not many are hopeful that key issues will be resolved.