Of fence-sitting over Greek-Turkish disputes

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

In Greece and Turkey, the Governments in place are running the last laps of their stint in power: P.M. Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his Administration have to go to elections within one year – at most; President Erdogan sees his own term in office expire in the same time horizon – as is the five-year term of the Turkish National Assembly.

As things go in this part of the world, such concurring timelines point to increased tension. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has seen his popularity slide, while economic hardship increases among everyday Turks, so a reflex of grands standing is coming back-ranging from renewed military activity to the north of Syria and all the way to going after a role in the Ukraine crisis. One should add, here, new-fangled doctrines about the status of the Greek Aegean islands; Ankara tries to establish a theory according to which sovereignty over Greek islands agreed to be kept de-militarised according to earlier international treaties would fade once such islands were armed to deter Turkish aggression. Greece responded in vigorous legal terms, but the naked threat stands.

Greek P.M. Mitsotakis is in stronger popularity grounds – but the volatile nature of Greek politics is a permanent fixture, so he has been building visibility; for instance by delivering an address to the joint session of the U.S. Congress, part of which was devoted to diplomatically chiding Turkey for its behavior within NATO –fence-sitting  as it is in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, as well as encroaching on Greek rights in the Aegean and East Mediterranean.

The picture we have just painted is not – by and large – the one prevailing in either side of the Aegean. But it looks this is the one guiding reaction abroad. A policy of painstakingly keeping equal distances is becoming once more visible, while Greek-Turkish tensions are building up.

The next recent crop of such international positioning: When Turkish fighter planes were sighted (and, presumably, intercepted) just 2.5 miles away from the Greek city of Alexandroupolis – and, adding insult to injury, when President Erdogan in a bout of ill-will declared he was no longer willing to have any sort of contact with P.M. Mitsotakis, (reminder: just weeks ago, the two held a face-to-face at a scenic suburb of Istanbul overlooking the Bosphorus, in a show of determination to ease bilateral tensions) – reactions on part of Washington and Brussels were quite tepid. State Department spokesman Ned Price reiterated calls to “all NATO members, including Greece and Turkey” to work together so as to keep peace and stability in the region resolve their disputes “in a diplomatic way” and avoid rhetorics that may increase tensions. EU Commission Deputy-Chief spokeswoman Dana Spinant had also encouraged “cooperation between the leaders of Greece and Turkey” for a positive climate to be reestablished.

A model case of keeping equal distances, if there ever was one! It took some forceful protest on part of Athens to Brussels to get a slightly better reaction, with Secretary-General of the EU External Action Service Stefano Sannino tweeting he had conveyed to the Turkish Permanent Representative to the EU “serious concern” about the Alexandroupolis incident. (Somehow stronger language was used by Commission Vice-President M. Schinas calling for “respect to be shown to leaders and member States of the EU”; and condemning “incendiary rhetoric”; the fact that Schinas is Greek somehow limits the impact of his comment).

In this unpleasant balancing act between Athens and Ankara, a less-observed contribution was the one of German coalition Secretary of State and Government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit. In an even better show of fence-straddling, he is quoted as calling for “cooperation within NATO, especially in this period of crisis”, adding an appeal to the Turkish President and the Greek PM to sort out “their differences”. Be it said that diplomatic language – or a less-than-diplomatic approach – may be one thing; but, combined with the ceremonial launching of the (second) German Type-214 HDW submarine to serve in the Turkish Navy, an unpleasant rebalancing of positions is underway.

(Not to leave aside: the UK saw it fit to lift right now a partial embargo on arms exports to Turkey, Rolls-Royce will be powering Turkey’s National Combat Aircraft. While Canada may well be the next in line for termination of the embargo in drone technology to Turkey).