Greek-Turkish disputes (and the Cyprus issue) risk going unnoticed

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Greek-Turkish disputes, as well as the Cyprus issue, experience an unpleasant loss of concern – even an outright loss of interest – in the eyes of the international system. This slow-motion shift has occurred over the last year, largely going unnoticed in either Athens or Nicosia: Greek (and Cypriot) public opinion has the disturbing tendency to consider that global attention is focused “our way”, in what used to be the Near East. The political system in both Greece and Cyprus feeds off this self-centered certainty thus getting a measure of self-importance as well as a share of votes.

So, it was a nasty surprise for all concerned to realise that the latest in international environment shocks, that is the commotion brought about by the Ukrainian issue (or should one say “mess”) in East-West relations as evolving in Europe, results in reducing all other fronts to a status of carelessness. Visiting Moscow, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias heard his Russian counterpart (“old fox”) Sergey Lavrov point out that the West was consumed by the Ukrainian crisis, to the point of neglecting all other fronts. Lavrov took the opportunity to offer Moscow’s good offices so as to defuse the (quite nasty) tensions building up in Greek-Turkish relations.

Starting from Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and going up to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s own declarations, the argument is built that even large Greek islands of the North Aegean and the Dodecanese who should be kept demilitarised under international treaties, somehow see Greek soveignty over them evaporate if they are armed. Such a far-fetched legal construction might seem as no more than an oddity if international relations – if, that is , it did not take the official/solemn form of (Turkish Permanent Representative to the U.N.) Ferudin Sinirlioglu  setting out this approach to the global community. Greek Permanent Representative Maria Theofili promptly responded, rebuffing this theory; the Greek Foreign Ministry started a campaign to rally support to Greek rights – and Greek media denigrated the Turkish positions. More importantly, the US, UK and EU made official pronouncements contradicting the Turkish position – the Brussels one was the most vigorous – but a new front of contention has opened in Greek-Turkish relations. The notion of “front” is not necessarily just a simile: Turkish UAVs regularly effect flights over Greek islands and the Greek side is ambivalent on how to respond to such a routine challenge to Greek sovereignty.

Turkish revisionism and aggressivity have not been rolled back – as was hoped – by threats of EU sanctions, nor was it contained by successive rounds of exploratory talks (the 64th round is to be held on Tuesday, February 22 in Athens). Indeed, the fact that such sanctions have been discussed again and again in Brussels with no tangible outcome cannot be overlooked by Greek diplomacy. If compared to the over-eagerness of the EU to push forward sanctions against Belarus and now – most importantly – to threaten massive sanctions against Russia over the Ukraine, the instrument of sanctions (or “measures”) when discussed in the context of Turkish rambunctiousness sounds quite forlorn: most of Greece’s partners in the EU seem to prefer a “positive agenda” to be explored regarding relations with Turkey.

Speaking of sanctions, Cyprus which has been rather more successful in raising a measure of consent within the EU “27” to threaten the use of sanctions against Ankara in view of Turkish activities undertaken at an East Mediterranean maritime context and directly infringing Cypriot sovereignty and sovereign rights over its EEZ, seems now ready to change tack. Instead of asking for the imposition of sanctions, it now tries to get EU support so as to convince Ankara to proceed to some sort of new confidence-building measures over the future of the Cyprus issue. Namely, at this turn of things, CBMs would comprise the opening of the enclosed Famagusta city (held by the Turkish Army) under UN control; this is hoped to defuse Turkey’s policy of opening the Varosha suburb of Famagusta to tourist activities – under the administration of Turkish/Turkish-Cypriot authority.

All of which end up in one key assumption of geopolitics: if your part in a dispute gets increasingly unnoticed because a different issue monopolises attention – as is the case now with the Ukrainian crisis – you are pushed to compromise that some time ago would seem inconceivable.