Turkey marks Victory Day amid tensions with Greece, COVID-19 restrictions

Turkey marked the 98th anniversary of its decisive War of Independence battle against Greek forces on Sunday as the threat of a new confrontation with Greece grows in the eastern Mediterranean.

“Turkey’s struggle for independence and future continues today as well,” Associated Press cited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as saying in a message to commemorate Victory Day.

“It is absolutely not a coincidence that those who seek to exclude us from the eastern Mediterranean are the same invaders as the ones who attempted to invade our homeland a century ago,” he said.

Greece and Turkey have long disagreed on overlapping claims to hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean, with both sides holding conflicting views of how far their continental shelves extend.

Tension spiked between the NATO allies after Ankara sent the Oruç Reis research vessel escorted by Turkish warships to a disputed area between Cyprus and the Greek island of Crete on Aug. 10. 

Athens responded to the move by sending naval and air units to shadow the Oruç Reis and conducting military exercises with Cyprus and France in the area, creating a standoff at risk of escalating into a direct confrontation with Turkey.

On Saturday, Turkey began its own military drills, which will last until Sept. 11, off its southern coast. “No one should have any doubts about our resolve in this matter and our unshakeable belief in victory,” Erdoğan said.

Erdoğan visited the tomb of Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Ankara on Sunday to mark Victory Day. Atatürk led the Turkish forces in the independence struggle following World War I and went on to establish modern Turkey and become its first president.

Victory Day marks the 1922 battle of Dumlupınar, which saw Turkish forces defeat Greek troops in western Anatolia. By the end of 1922, foreign occupying forces had left the territories that would become the Republic of Turkey in 1923.

Leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu released a statement to mark Victory Day. 

“The light that is lit in Dumlupınar still enlightens our way and our future. And we are committed to our freedom and independence, as well as to the sovereignty of the nation, with the same faith today,” Cumhuriyet cited Kılıçdaroğlu as saying.

Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu and Turkish army General Musa Avsever laid wreaths at a ceremony held at the Republic Monument in Istanbul’s Taksim Square on Sunday, Cumhuriyet said. 

Turkey's first lady Emine Erdoğan said on Twitter on Sunday that she commemorated "with gratitude the heroic Turkish Army, especially the founder of our Republic, Gazi Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Commander-in-Chief of our War of Independence".

She said Turkey had "written heroic stories on every page of history and is devoted to its independence, the greatest source of inspiration for our future"

In other commemorations, Turkish warships will visit 20 ports around Turkey and northern Cyprus for sunset flag ceremonies.

A special concert by military bands will be held at the Presidential Complex. After the concert, a light show will be performed with 300 drones, Cumhuriyet reported. Municipalities and non-governmental organisations run by the CHP and the centre-right opposition IYI Party will hold events throughout the country, Cumhuriyet said.

However, Victory Day events have been muted this year due to COVID-19 coronavirus measures. 

On Aug. 23, the Turkish Interior Ministry sent a circular to the governor’s offices of all 81 of the country’s provinces, detailing a series of measures for the upcoming national holiday including restricting crowded celebrations and ensuring social distancing. 

This has led to claims that Erdoğan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is attempting to downplay Atatürk’s achievements.

The AKP has been undermining Victory Day celebrations for years, citing various excuses, prominent businesswoman Ümit Nazlı Boyner said on Twitter last Sunday.

The AKP has continuously “downgraded, trivialised or banned,” the country’s national holidays, she said on Twitter. “You will not be able to make us forget or erase our respect and love for Atatürk and those who struggled for Turkish republic.’’

Turkey’s Interior Ministry said that the restrictions are to ensure public health and was not a ban on events.

“Our Aug. 30 Victory Day will be celebrated in a way that fits out state’s glory. We strongly urge not to pay heed to false statements that aim to direct the public wrongly with ideological motives and improper expectations,” Communications Director Fahrettin Altun said in a tweet earlier on Thursday.