The raw reality of Greek-Turkish relations

Greek-Turkish relations EU flags

This text aims to clarify some facts and perspectives on Greek-Turkish relations, -facts and perspectives that seem to lead to confusion amid the turmoil of the war in Ukraine and the unpleasant signs of further escalation.

Having always insisted on the need to distinguish between a long-term trend and temporary transitions in Ankara’s strategy towards Greece, I read with surprise texts that refer to another “reversal” of Turkish behaviour.

As if the visit of the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, fully understood in the context of the Euro-Atlantic alliance at the specific time of the Ukrainian crisis, would mean something for its neighbour’s strategy. For this to happen, 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 in Athens gave it a useful diplomatic step.

The visit had gone badly, with revisions to the Lausanne Treaty, de-escalations and Erdoğan’s visit to the Muslim minority in Thrace, a minority that Ankara denounces as Turkish. Greece did not gain anything from that visit, it probably lost.

Besides, apart from the Aegean and Cyprus, we should also systematically worry about the future of Thrace, where we tend to accept the Turkification of the different minorities – the Pomaks, the Alevis and the Roma. Athens should encourage pluralism and, consequently, the weakening of the role of the Turkish consulate.

In any case, relations after 2017 took a downturn, culminating in the most acute crisis and a near-war confrontation of 2020.

Let’s go back to 2022.

Turkey, as expected, hastened after the meeting to recall (with massive violations and overflights) the general framework of its terms of stay in the West. Considering that the Ukrainian tragedy is upgrading it, Ankara is trying to make it clear that rapprochement with the West does not imply a softening of its individual claims and views.

In this explosive context, Turkey seeks to seize the opportunity to advance its role in the energy sector – we expect the details of which will be judged – while insisting on its dangerous revisionist views in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean.

It is not only the consistent avoidance of sanctions in Russia, the ongoing S-400 tug of war, etc. Both with the massive violations and overflights in the Aegean and with the statements against President Biden about the Armenian genocide, Turkey clear the terms of her stay in the West at this absolutely critical juncture with the Ukrainian crisis.

Unfortunately, these terms include the unacceptable and extremely dangerous claims against Greece. Today, the “strategic depth” of Turkey and its “multiple regional identities” that former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was trying to highlight are expressed in a way that is both more specialised and more dangerous.

In place of the over-ambitious global role in the G-20 economic context and beyond, Erdoğan focuses on a more direct militaristic game, reshaping Kemalist militaristic traditions into a new Ottoman framework for promoting the country’s power as a protector of oppressed Muslims.

Ankara totally disputes the Lausanne Treaty. Even the day set for the change of character of Hagia Sophia, July 24, was chosen to commemorate the day of the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

The Greek embarrassment

Between the pseudo-hawks who, for years, have been announcing war with Turkey every other day (and lying back with the same obsession) and the pseudo-pigeons who systematically ignore the weight of any Turkish claim (even attributing the difficulty to Greek public opinion), the space for the rationally patriotic approach to the problem has almost been lost.

Apart from the steady strengthening of the country’s deterrent capacity and the realistic and as complete information as possible of the public away from communicative politicisations, 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 the “western” approach to Turkey as a whole, and given the special parameters set by the current phase of the war with Russia (this dangerous innocence was also heard in recent days), but specifically the relationship with the EU, where Athens must have influence.

Today, a “Helsinki 2” strategy is no longer feasible, no matter how fascinating the deceptive security of repetitions. The Helsinki European Council in December 1999 marked the beginning of a – ultimately ineffective for one reason or another – Greek effort to make positive use of Turkey’s accession process as a means of pressuring Ankara to change its position on specific issues. Whatever the reasons and circumstances that may explain this outcome, today Turkey’s accession process is essentially not just frozen but dead.

Therefore, as I wrote a year and a half ago , what is worth striving for is the careful co-ordination of the conditions for achieving lasting peace with Turkey in a neighbourhood of the planet that will remain fluid and dangerous. There are no easy and fast “solutions”.

As far as the EU is concerned, the task today is on a different footing (not on accession) and is much more complex: Turkey should be pressured for a relationship regime that is both motivating and compliance with the specific issues we are concerned. In other words, the question today is whether a new overall 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 about the need to adopt alternative scenarios for the future of EU-Turkey relations. This approach can be an interesting starting point or, conversely, work in a completely disorienting way: Turkey is not just a country with which the EU wants to establish a framework for further 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 approach Turkish aggression only by means of mild power. The EU should favour a combination of determination and at the same time fostering cooperation trends.

Greece today must systematically focus on restoring the discussion of EU-Turkey relations to that, roughly, context, regardless of one or the other development in US-Turkey relations. For the EU, the evolution of the customs union must be part of this whole new approach and not a delimited policy area which – by definition – is in principle a win-win situation for Ankara.

At the level of the overall new EU-Turkey relationship, although the difficulties associated with the adoption of measures that are automatically enforced are well known and given, the Greek side should strongly support an effective and predictable mechanism for responding to breaches of the terms mentioned above.

And in terms of Greece-US relations? There is – here’s culmination of the excellent bilateral relations that have always existed and been greatly strengthened in recent years – a potentially critical additional development. Mitsotakis’ speech at a special session of Congress, which to be held means that it has been agreed by both Democrats and Republicans and in Parliament and the Senate, will be a historic moment for Greek-American relations.

At this historic moment, in the Congress but also – mainly – in his individual talks, the Greek Prime Minister should make clear the seriousness of the situation with the Turkish claims not only for Greece but for the Eastern Mediterranean and the cohesion of NATO. It should, among other things, be made clear that if Turkey attempts to strike Greek islands, which is not at all unlikely, Greece will respond immediately and comprehensively.

And – of course – he will consider that, so far, full allied coverage exists for Athens: the mutual defense assistance agreement with France. After all, Europe should try to rediscover its pace, within the Euro-Atlantic context but with a distinct voice, before a new Trump era may remind us again of the unbearable costs of European non-existence.

Conclusion

In the process of emerging not only as a land but also as a naval power, Turkey will continue to pressure Greece and Cyprus, while nationalist-militaristic tendencies within it will continue to give a degree of cohesion to a social body with centrifugal forces. As long as the West-Russia 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 entails for real or sham tolerance.

In Ankara, invoking the “Blue Homeland” means Turkey’s attempt to become a naval power but with conditions and intentions to conquer vital space. On this basis, which we have analysed in the past, both the Erdoğan government and the Kemalist official opposition state that if Greece does not change its stance on “militarisation”, Greek sovereignty over the eastern Aegean islands will be called into question.

In other words, Turkey is trying to “gray” no longer rocky islets but large Greek islands. In order to leave the islands of the eastern Aegean without defence so that at the right time, after some incidents that will be provoked with 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 builds systematically and then (in times of great crisis such as the current one with the Ukrainian one) tries to make profits. Nor does it remain in words: 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 something to it. As I have repeatedly explained, what Greece has a strategic reason to want in 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 the achievement of a balance of power vis-à-vis a neighbour with revising tendencies and the firm promotion of Greek positions are a precondition for dialogue and – if evolving conditions favour – for lasting peace in the future.

Currently, friends and allies should realise that Turkey’s strategy towards Greece could indeed lead to the collapse of NATO’s southeastern wing. Greece obviously avoids it but Turkey may make it inevitable.

Costas A. Lavdas is a Professor at Panteion University and has been, among others, Senior Research Fellow at the London School of Economics and holder of the Chair of Greek and European Studies “Konstantinos Karamanlis” at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in the USA. He is a contributor to Liberal.

READ MORE: Greece and Turkey in the era of Global Hybrid War.

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor