Greeks, Turks and secret diplomacy

Whether we are talking about great powers or smaller countries, secret diplomacy is and always has been considered a key aspect of international relations. Some have been condemned for practicing it and others have been forced to resign over it, but it remains the norm in many attempts to solve difficult problems.

A convergence of positions and sometimes even final agreements are often achieved through secret diplomacy, as was the case recently with the Prespes Agreement, which was prepared quietly behind the scenes.

The question is not whether you agree or disagree with the result of certain negotiations – this is another, very serious discussion – but the fact that, in order to achieve results on the international chessboard, you must invest in hours of discussions away from the limelight.

In the case of Greek-Turkish relations, these negotiations require people who are trusted by the Greek prime minister and the Turkish president, who are knowledgeable about the issues and able to consult directly and effectively – with both sides knowing that what the other says reflects the reasoning of their leaders – and who have the authority to take action. Even if they are limited in scope, these preparatory moves are necessary for the leaders to take the next step.

Such efforts comprise a few more elements: Firstly, that whatever is agreed will be implemented, and secondly, that the content of the talks will not be leaked. This is how trust is gained and diplomatic problems resolved.

One channel of communication between Athens and Ankara is between foreign ministers Nikos Dendias and Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who maintain a good personal relationship. The head of Turkish diplomacy has often described his Greek counterpart as a friend, ever since they worked together in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Such good relationships can only be useful. However, Çavuşoğlu is not the one calling the shots in Turkish foreign policy. This is done by the office of the Turkish president.

From the Greek side, although the foreign minister is respected, very active and maintains a good relationship with the prime minister, he cannot be described as belonging to Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ close circle. Furthermore, the leadership of foreign ministries can rarely function as an informal channel of communication. This role usually rests with the leaders’ close aides. We saw this at work with the diplomatic adviser of former prime minister Alexis Tsipras. An attempt is now under way to take a similar approach.

The more difficult the problem or complex the equation, and the greater the emotional charge on either side, the greater the need for secret diplomacy. Such a channel between Athens and Ankara is clearly necessary.

Third countries with influence on both stakeholders are often involved by engaging in mediating efforts, hopefully in a productive manner. This is what happened in the case of the recent secret meeting in Berlin, between the aides of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Eleni Sourani, Ibrahim Kalin and Jan Hecker respectively.

Given the deteriorating climate in Greek-Turkish relations, the meeting offered a ray of optimism. But in order for such an effort to succeed, the main players must believe in it and not approach it in a spirit of domination over the other or with an eye on public relations gains.

By choosing to make these talks public, Çavuşoğlu undermined a serious attempt at mediation between Greece and Turkey by a strong third party which commands the respect of and has considerable influence over both sides.

This editorial was originally published in Kathimerini newspaper and was reproduced by permission