The Mitsotakis/Erdogan phone call and beyond

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Some months ago, when Greece – with the (largely symbolic) help of its European partners – was successful in holding back a wave of refugees and migrants trying to cross its borders from Turkey so as to access “Europe”, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan fumed that he wouldn’t accept “even to be in the same room with [Greek Prime Minister] Kyriakos Mitsotakis”. Last week, following increased further tensions between the two uneasy neighbours, it became public knowledge that the two had a phone discussion over matters of “low-intensity diplomacy” – but also decided to keep open channels of communications so as to avoid a potentially traumatic flare-up. The main issue of contention between the two NATO allies – as international media usually remind their audience – has shifted to claims over EEZ and continental shelf delimitation in the Eastern Mediterranean; Turkey has been conducting extensive seismic exploration and drilling operations in the EEZ of Cyprus and threatening to do so over parts of the continental shelf of Greece.

Compared to such frictions, the recent Mitsotakis/Erdogan choise to open again channels of communication was prompted by a rather mundane matter: Turkey is in need of an opening to the exclusion zone built by the EU due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic; Greece, both as EU member and as direct neighbour to Turkey, has an important say in the matter. It goes without saying that the Mitsotakis/Erdogan seeming rapprochement was brokered by well-wishers, both European and transAtlantic, who would by no means like to have to intervene in case of a flare-up. This is why public (or leaked) assurances that the leaders of Turkey and Greece went no further than such low-intensity matters, plus declaring their wish to keep communications channels open, have not been able to dispel the feeling that major issues have been touched upon.

Τhe real question, now, is whether the incipient rapprochement will survive (a) Turkish-side, the need of Erdogan to keep the pressure on so as to play to his own audience at home (b) Greek-side, the lack of cohesion in the ruling party of Nea Dimocratia over any further move that might be interpreted as compromise. Compromise being construed as a four-letter word in Greek political discourse). Ex-Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Nea Dimocratia potentate went on record with a (thinly-veiled) statement that “nobody goes to a dialogue with pirates” following on the step of earlier (Turkish FM Cavusoglu) statements that the Turkish side would be “open to dialogue”.

Meanwhile and while the usually self-restrained Greek side has recently followed Turkish provocations and innuendoes about the use of force with some sort of tit-for-tat strong language on part of the Greek Defense Minister and the Greek Armed Forces Chief of Staff, a most disturbing signal came all over the way from Cyprus. President of the Republic Nikos Anastasiadis, building on the presence of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell in Cyprus, went on record to the Cyprus State TV to state that any military engagement might lead to “the end of the Greek-Cypriot Community”. Disturbing.