History is echo chamber locking Athens and Ankara in impasse

Greece Letter: Frustration pivots around EU lack of response to serious issues with Turkey


This year Greece begins a series of commemorations, similar to those ongoing in Ireland: from the bicentenary of the war of independence from the Ottoman empire, which began in 1821, to the bicentenary in 2030 of the 1830 “London Protocol” by which Britain, France and Russia established Greece as an independent state; and next year the centenary of the “Anatolian Catastrophe” of 1922 in which 1.5 million ethnic Greeks were expelled from eastern Turkey after Greece’s disastrous attempt (with encouragement from Britain and France) to recapture Constantinople.

Each of these milestones in Greek history continues to reverberate in the acoustic of international politics, not least because Greek-Turkish relations remain at an all-time low, and because Greece remains substantially the child of geopolitics.

In fact the conflict is so long-standing that it goes back to 1453, when the Turks captured Constantinople, the seat of Greek culture and Christianity. Today’s conflicts – and there are many – come on the back of this history. The diktat by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan last year that the former basilica of Hagia Sophia – arguably the heart of Orthodox Christendom – should become a mosque was designed (successfully) to provoke international outrage.

The two countries have been on the edge of war at least three times since 1986 and remain on full military alert, with each investing colossal sums in armaments which are crippling their respective economies.

War is unthinkable between two Nato members, one of which is an EU state and the other an applicant for inclusion. But war is still being provided for, and in some quarters tacitly advocated. The daily dog-fights between rival jet fighters in Aegean airspace are a disaster waiting to happen.

Mutual contempt

Greece and Turkey are ostensibly conducting diplomatic manoeuvres on the relative extent of their maritime borders and continental shelves. After years of diplomatic rhetoric – much of it consisting of mutual contempt and accusation – the first formal talks since 2015 took place on January 25th and adjourned after three hours. It’s “talks about talks” as neither can agree on the other’s agenda. Whether the talks will resume successfully is very doubtful.

From the Greek perspective, Turkey’s demand for repossession of key Greek islands such as Samos, Chios, Lesbos and some of the Dodecanese (awarded by international treaties) is unacceptable. So too is Turkish exploration for oil and gas in what Greece regards as its own waters, which Turkish president Erdogan pursues unapologetically and with seeming disregard for international maritime law.

The Greek-Turkish conflict derives not merely from the weight of historical memory, nor the ownership of a few small islands, nor the symbolic clash of Christianity and Islam, nor the competing claims on the mineral deposits of Greece, Cyprus and Turkey. It is all of these and much more. And it is insoluble.

Turkey’s strategic position in geopolitics has always guaranteed its virtual immunity from reprisals. Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and subsequent annexation of the north of the island has never been challenged. The EU decision last December not to impose heavy sanctions on Turkey for its behaviour in the Mediterranean has exacerbated Greece’s sense of injustice.

Aggression and disruption

Greece’s frustration at the EU’s lack of effective response to its Turkish crisis obscures the fact that what is a crisis for the Greek state is not necessarily seen as a crisis in Bonn, Paris, Brussels or indeed Washington. Despite the eloquence of foreign minister Nikos Dendias, Greek diplomacy has failed to convince either the EU or the US of the need to curtail Turkish aggression and disruption of international law.

I have met Dendias (he is a Corfiot) and regard him as a serious and highly qualified politician who could well be the next leader of his party (New Democracy) and even premier. But he has inherited an irremediable situation both in his relations with his opposite number, Mevlut Cavusoglu, and with European and American perceptions of the wider issues.

He complains that Europe “has not grasped the magnitude of the problem”. The problem will be beyond the grasp of the European mind as long as Greece is regarded as a backward country where we like to go on our holidays, rather than an emerging hub of East-West commerce, with massive Chinese investment.

US policy is “Keep Turkey in the West”. Erdogan continues to proclaim that Turkey wants to be in Europe, but Greece sees his actions as blatantly and provocatively anti-West with his disregard for human rights and democracy.

There seems to be no resolution of either the Greek-Turkish conflict of 200 years or the Cypriot charade of 47 years. An agreed peace, between Greece and Turkey or between Turkey and Greek Cyprus, is impossible. So all we can look forward to is the impasse of a disagreed peace.

Source: Irish Times https://www.irishtimes.com/history-is-echo-chamber-locking-athens-and-ankara-in-impasse-1.4478400