Of Epiphany festivities, of Greek-Turkish disputes and of a State Department tepid response

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis attended the Epiphany festivities – an important day of religious observance for Greek Orthodoxy, associated with blessing the waters (all important for a nation of sea-faring memories) – in the small island of Gavdos, with a population of 208 souls. Sitting squarely 22 miles south of Crete, the southernmost out-post of Europe barring Cyprus, Gavdos and its pristine beaches has become quite a lodestone for tourists in the summer high season; more recently explorations for natural gas were undertaken by ExxonMobil off its westernmost tip.

Neither the Epiphany and the blessing of waters nor the hydrocarbons venture is enough to explain the Mitsotakis trip to Gavdos. It was rather the realization that Turkish efforts to paint Greece as a source of “provocation” and “harassment” in the Aegean (turning facts on their head just a day after a Greek patrol boat was harassed by a Turkish coastguard vessel) might mislead international public opinion as to the Greek-Turkish overall dispute. Gavdos has been mentioned by Turkish sources as a disputed point in the maps, notwithstanding its situation on the map.

So, Mitsotakis saw it fit to be on Gavdos when asserting that “Greece will not accept any sort of suggestions on how it will assert her sovereign rights”. To translate in layman language, this refers to Turkish threats of “casus belli”, were Greece to extend its territorial waters to 12 miles instead of 6 (where things stand today). Casus belli threats were issued by Ankara over the Aegean islands – ever since mid-1995 – but were recently extended to Crete, which caused some concern.

The ensuing position of the U.S. State Department, that “at a time when unity is most needed [in NATO], the US regrets the escalation of provocative statements; we urge our Allies to avoid threats and provocative rhetoric that will only increase tension and help no-one”, can be construed as a veiled disavowal of the Turkish stance. But a quite tepid one…