Earthquake diplomacy revisited – really?

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

A 6.7 (or was 7) Richter scale magnitude earthquake has stricken the southern Aegean region, causing extensive damage at the Greek island of Samos – but with little loss of life; far more lethal was the shock at Izmir and Kusadasi ancient Ephesos) over at the Turkish shore, with dozens of dead and some 20 high-rise buildings collapsed.

Some twenty years ago, in August 1999, Turkey had experienced an earthquake in the Marmara area of Turkey that left behind more than 17.000 dead, 44.000 wounded, extensive damage and homeless in the hundreds of thousands. Three weeks later the earthquake at Parnitha, near Athens, had caused some 80 deaths, hundreds of wounded and 50.000 homeless.

Back then, mutual offers of assistance had caused a thaw in the already tense relations of the two countries and led to what was termed “earthquake diplomacy”. [To freshen our collective memory: back then, the “casus belli” proclaimed by Turkey over Aegean territorial waters was 3-years old].

This time around, a repeat of the earlier efforts to use a natural disaster situation so as to bring about a measure of detente in (potentially more explosive) Greek-Turkish relations was attempted. But one should be careful in drawing analogies. Let’s take a closer look at official exchanges:

Foreign Ministers Nikos Dendias and Mevlut Cavusoglu had telephone calls “regarding the situation in Izmir and Samos” and also reiterated “respective offers for assistance of need arises”.

Soon afterwards, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called President Erdogan “to offer condolences for the tragic loss of life from the earthquake”. Mitsotakis concluded: “whatever our differences, there are times when our people need to stand together”. Recep Tayyip Erdogan replied starting in warm language (“Thank you Mr Prime Minister”) and offering his condolences in return. Then he moved in a peculiar – given the respective extent of damage – expression of “readiness to always help Greece heal its wounds”, before reverting to a warmer and rather philosophical consideration: “that two neighbours show solidarity in difficult times is more valuable than many things in life”. [To keep our collective perception awake: hours after such high-spirited exchanges, naval exercises were once more underway by Turkey, alongside hydrocarbon searches by Turkish vessels over the Greek continental shelf].