The post-Afghanistan debacle: increased regional challenges for Greece

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

The fact that Greece is situated in a region of instability is known to all; the fact that such instability is on the rise, especially due to the calculated revisionism of Turkey and its eagerness to assume the role of regional overlord, cannot be missed either.

Faced with such realities, Greece traditionally tries to fight back with diplomatic means, also with such instruments as provides its European/EU status. Whenever some new upheaval occurs and rocks the regional boat, new challenges arise. The most recent, albeit an apparently distant one, is the collapse of the American/NATO presence in Afghanistan. Its backwash is already felt here. It has been mainly perceived in Greece as a factor of renewed refugee/migrant pressure; political worthies were fast to nip in the bud any thought of Greece accepting refugees nor serving as a conduit for refugee waves coming towards Europe.

Let’s take a first step in a well-known territory: the rejection of migrants/refugees from Afghanistan on part of the Greek Government (to be fair, this is a widespread reflex in Eu countries: France’s Emmanuel Macron was the very first European leader to slam the door). While Greece was signaling “red”, neighbouring Albania and North Macedonia made it known – after a nudge by the US, to be true – they would welcome Afghan refugees, at least while their possible passage to the States or Europe was discussed. So far, little of a permanent nature; but it transpires that in Albania, incoming refugees might be housed in abandoned dwellings in villages of the Greek minority. The fate of such partly-ghost villages has been a longtime matter of contention. The seizure of such dwellings on part of the Albanian government was frowned upon by the international community; now, this new twist may turn the tables. This could come in no worse moment for Greek-Albanian relations that were taking a turn for the better, with an agreement to negotiate the two countries’ dispute around EEZ/continental shelf-matters, with final recourse to the ICJ in the Hague.

Now let’s shift our attention to North Macedonia, the other potential recipient of Afghan refugees. Greece is hesitating to implement the Prespes Agreement that normalized – in 2018 – the tense relations between the two countries. While the current Greek Government was procrastinating in ratifying Cooperation Memoranda flowing off the Prespes Agreement, lo and behold! a 5-year Military and Economic Cooperation Agreement was entered into between North Macedonia and Turkey.  Under this agreement, Turkish funding will help to “strengthen operational capabilities and supply equipment to the North Macedonian army”. A feeling of changing dynamics?

One more step east-wards: no such issues of Greece with Bulgaria, but… news come increasingly forth of a trickle of Afghan refugees coming through this border, instead of the Evros passage (between Turkey and Greece) that has acquired a high-tech fence, UAVs, sound-cannons and the suchlike so as to make it impenetrable. If the transit route through Turkey and Bulgaria brings Afghans fleeing the well-filmed and well-photographed extreme situations in that God-(and West-) forsaken country, what will the international reaction be? (The UE, as such, holds a position of not-reneging to the international obligations of humanitarian law, however negative the stance of most of its members).

Of course, the importance of all such cases pales if compared to the eagerness with which Turkey endeavours to use the leverage it possesses – or thinks it possesses – in post-US/NATO withdrawal Afghanistan, to “sell” to the West its contacts and intermediation with the new – Taliban – powers at Kabul. No good services are offered without some sort of pay-back in return; Athens is on the lookout for what Ankara may be asking.