Dimitar Bechev
Apr 20 2018

Stormy times ahead in Turkey-Greece Aegean dispute

There are two parties who should be worried about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decision to call snap elections on June 24.

One is clearly the opposition’s rising star Meral Akşener and her Good Party. She will have a hard time forging a conservative alliance capable of chipping votes away from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Neither will Akşener capitalise on the economic downturn many anticipate. 

The other actor to be concerned about the forthcoming vote is Greece. Electoral competition within Turkey could well exacerbate tensions mounting between Ankara and Athens.

Relations have been going from bad to worse over the past few months. It all started with Erdoğan’s blunt words during his visit to Athens last December, where he brought up the revision of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty that agreed the borders between the two countries.

Then, on Jan. 28, the Turkish Navy tried to prevent Defence Minister Panos Kammenos from laying a wreath on the disputed Kardak/Imia islets in the Aegean Sea, the site of a standoff that nearly led to a military showdown in 1996. On Feb. 12, a Turkish patrol boat rammed a Greek coastal guard vessel near the pair of uninhabited outcrops.

Meanwhile, Ankara’s navy blocked an oil and gas exploration ship chartered by the Italian energy firm Eni, from drilling off the coast of Cyprus. 

Then on March 2, Turkish guards detained two Greek soldiers who had strayed across the land border west of the city of Edirne. The local court refused to release the servicemen, an implicit tit-for-tat in response to the non-extradition of eight Turkish soldiers who sought refuge in Greece after the failed coup in July 2016.

Then Greece intercepted a Turkish military drone, on April 6. Tensions are sky-high. On April 12, a Greek Mirage 2000-5 crashed over the Aegean as it was returning from a mission to intercept Turkish jets violating the country’s airspace. The pilot, Captain Georgios Baltadoros, lost his life. On April 17, Turkish fighters harassed Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ helicopter as he was heading to the Dodecanese island of Kastelorizo.   

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said Turkish soldiers have removed the Greek flag from Imia/Kardak. That statement and the tough response from the Greek Foreign Ministry have dashed hopes for calm that followed Yıldırım’s phone call to Tsipras to offer condolences for Baltadoros’ death.   

“We are in an undeclared war with Turkey over the Aegean,” said Alternate Defence Minister Fotis Kouvelis.

Have we hit rock bottom?  I fear not. The election race in Turkey is likely to harden nationalist rhetoric even further. Akşener, who originally hails from the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), has welcomed into the ranks of her new outfit one Colonel Ali Türkşen. 

Back in 1996, Türkşen rose to national fame when his 11-strong commando unit foisted Turkey’s star-and-crescent flag on Imia/Kardak. Even though the Good Party’s best shot would be to focus on the wobbling economy, it would not be a surprise to see people like Türkşen coming to the fore during the campaign.  

The fight over who is the most resolute defender of national rights and honour could turn nasty. The government, its ally

The MHP and the opposition will be outbidding one another to woo potential swing voters. That includes the People’s Republican Party (CHP). Its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has been calling Erdoğan a fake patriot, urging him to assert Turkish sovereignty over the contested islands in the Aegean, and reminding him how Bülent Ecevit, the CHP’s head and prime minister in 1974, made sure the Turkish standard flew over Mount Pentadaktylos in Cyprus.  

Though he might prefer not to fan the flames any further, Erdoğan might find himself pressed to do something in order to defang domestic critics. And escalate the standoff with Greece as a result.

Politics in Athens give no reason for optimism either. Kammenos’ Independent Greeks party, the junior partner in the current government, is breathing down Tsipras’ neck. The populist nationalist faction and its leader are always ready to pick a fight with Ankara. Together with the main opposition party, New Democracy, they lash out against Tsipras and Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias over the ongoing talks with the Republic of Macedonia on resolving the long-standing “name issue”.

January and February saw mass rallies in Thessaloniki and Athens opposing a compromise with Skopje. Tsipras’ room for manoeuvre on those highly sensitive national matters is therefore getting ever smaller. He needs to appear resolute. With general elections early next year, his political survival might be at stake. New Democracy has kept a 10-point lead in the polls for months. 

Ideally, Tsipras would like to shift the conversation to the economy. In August, Greece is exiting the bailout program agreed with its creditors in July 2015 (remember Syriza’s famous “summersault” or “kolotoumba”).  But the conflict with Turkey could well hijack the agenda. 

Greece and Turkey are going through a testing time. It almost feels as if the turbulent 1990s are back with vengeance. It will take political skill and diplomacy to navigate the choppy waters