Greek-Turkish “exploratory talks”: Just a tactical tool to win time

Following months of high tensions – including standoffs at sea and dogfights in the air - and many ifs and buts, Turkey and Greece seem ready to sit down at the table to discuss the issues that led to a huge military escalation between the two NATO allies.

The “exploratory talks”, as they are called, first began in 2002 and ended after a 61st round, which took place in March 2016. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan allegedly suspended the process in anger when Greece, citing legal issues, refused to hand over a small group of Turkish military officers who had fled Turkey and landed in Alexandropolis after a failed coup in July of that year.

As the delegations met at the Swiss Hotel in Istanbul today, the mood was extremely cautious and expectations low. This has to do with the distance between the agendas of the two sides. Greece insists that the demarcation of maritime exclusive economic zones and the continental shelf are the only issues up for discussion.

Turkey, however, wants a whole range of issues put on the table, from the demilitarisation of Greek islands, which it calls “grey zones” in the Aegean Sea, to the rights of Greece’s Muslim-Turkish minority in Thrace.

This first meeting, held at retired ambassador level on the Greek side and deputy foreign minister level on the Turkish side, is therefore important in the sense of each side taking the pulse of the other and will signal the future course of the talks.

The stage is set for absolute red lines and a good deal of maximalism, rather than progress.

It will not be an easy process, and both Ankara and Athens know it. For the Greeks, political tensions with Turkey suddenly escalated in early 2019, when Erdoğan launched the so-called “Blue Homeland” doctrine, designed by a group ultra-nationalist, ex-military officers. The doctrine envisages expanding Turkey’s areas of geographical control and influence beyond its current borders to encroach on those of Greece and Cyprus.

Since early 2019, military tensions have intensified in a large naval zone extending to Cyprus from the southwestern side of Crete, also encapsulating Kastellorizo, a tiny Greek island just off Turkey’s southern coast. A Turkish deal with the Libyan government in Tripoli to mark out new territorial borders in the Mediterranean has upset geographical balances, riled Greece and led to counter moves by Athens, which cut a similar agreement with Egypt.

As the political confrontation between Greece and Turkey escalated, it caused a domino effect of steps and measures within the EU and in Washington. Possible EU sanctions now hang over the Erdoğan government. Meanwhile, the U.S. military has consolidated its presence in Crete and around the border town of Alexandropolis, de facto preventing Ankara from intensifying a crisis that could lead to open military confrontation.

Some small hopes exist that the exploratory talks could be transformed into a meaningful process. Both Greece and Turkey have strong tactical interests in keeping them going.

The Mitsotakis government in Athens, disappointed by what it sees as weak or insufficient backing from its EU partners - especially Germany and Spain - and its NATO allies, now needs to show that it is in favour of a civilised dialogue, that is until the Biden administration begins to “restore law and order” in the region. It aims to at least win time.

There is profound frustration among Biden and his team about the behaviour of the Erdoğan government. This is no secret. Following Turkey’s purchase and testing last year of an S-400 missile system bought from Russia, Erdoğan does not have a single political backer in Washington after the departure of Donald Trump. Therefore, it is no longer a matter of if, but when the United States imposes sanctions on Ankara.

The political balances in the EU regarding possible sanctions against Turkey, due for discussion in March, remain delicate. While France and even Germany, which has sought to mediate between Greece and Turkey, are in favour of retaining sanctions as a serious option, Spain, Malta, and Italy oppose them.

Erdoğan, given the huge burden of an economic crisis at home that he himself is responsible for, will seek to avoid or at least delay as long as possible any open confrontation with the EU.

Erdoğan has no choice but to accept the recommendations of his close confidants - such as Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and Chief Advisor Ibrahim Kalın - that Turkey must be seen willing to negotiate and that dialogue pays.

But it is dialogue, nothing more. While the fate of the negotiations will depend on the tactics of both sides, the main parameters, which some major players in the EU cynically accepted, remain unchanged.

For Erdoğan, an offensive foreign policy is a must for his political survival, and history tells us that once a leader starts on such a path, it is nearly impossible to make a U-turn.

The exploratory talks with Greece will remain just that - “a cautiously run, aimless search device” - while the real game changer, if any, will be defined by the Biden administration and its political choreography of the region. For that, we will have to wait a little while longer.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.