A marriage of inconvenience

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by MacroPolis
Photo by MacroPolis

In March 2004, Greece’s young prime minister was a witness at the wedding of Esra Erdogan. Twelve years on, and another young Greek leader is being led a not-so-merry dance by the bride’s father, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

When Kostas Karamanlis attended the Istanbul nuptials more than a decade ago it was seen as a significant moment in the thawing of relations between two traditionally prickly neighbours. Festivities seem to bring out the more convivial side in the character of Greeks and Turks. In June 2001, Greek–Turkish relations were seen as having taken a major step when the then Foreign Minister George Papandreou danced a zeibekiko in front his clapping Turkish counterpart Ismail Cem.

Alexis Tsipras, though, has joined the tail-end of the party, when the euphoria has faded and everyone is worse for wear, arguing over who shot glances at whose wife and reviving old family feuds.

On the face of it, Greek–Turkish relations are not in a particularly perilous state, especially compared to the past. After all, Tsipras visited Ankara recently and meetings of the High-Level Cooperation Council are continuing. However, the problem lies in the wider geopolitical convulsions and the ripples, or tidal waves, that these are causing throughout the region. It is already evident that no amount of hugging, back-slapping and dancing can make Greece and Turkey immune from what is going on in the wider region.

The ongoing war in Syria has made Turkey, in Greek eyes, an unpredictable neighbour. Saturday’s decision for Turkish forces to start bombing Kurds in northern Syria was the latest escalation involving Ankara, which was already in a fully-fledged clash with Russia, a country with which the Tsipras government has been trying to cultivate relations.

The worsening situation in southeastern Turkey, where the country’s military is essentially engaged in civil conflict with Kurdish rebels, is a further factor that Athens views as potentially destabilising.

At the same time, Erdogan seems on a mission to concentrate as many powers as possible in his hands and to neutralise any opposition, as underlined by the jailing of 35 journalists and the detention of many more. These moves are causing concern among Greek diplomats, who fear the emergence of a potentate in the neighbouring country will make Greece vulnerable to his whims, a potential punch-bag on which to take out his frustrations.

Greece’s Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias wants to pursue an “active and multi-dimensional” foreign policy but it has been noticeable that Athens has treaded carefully in strengthening its two tripartite agreements with Cyprus and Egypt, on the one hand, and Cyprus and Israel, on the other. Athens repeatedly underlines that these alliances are not targeted against “third countries” in the hope Turkey’s ire will not be stoked.

The increase in incursions into Greek air space by Turkish air force jets over recent months is seen as one of the symptoms of Ankara feeling penned in and needing to flex its muscles. There are indications, though, that Turkey is prepared to go further than the customary unauthorised overflights in its attempts to rattle Athens and strengthen its longstanding case for questioning Greece’s territorial rights in the Aegean.

When a Greek Navy helicopter crashed on the island of Kinaros two weeks ago, for instance, Turkey issued naval and aviation notices (Navtex and Notam) for Greek air space and territorial waters as part of the search and rescue operation even though Greece had already sent its own vessels and aircraft. Over the weekend, a Turkish frigate attempted to force an Italian research vessel that was conducting a study for the laying of a cable between Karpathos and Rhodes to change course after warning it that it was in Turkish territorial waters. The Turkish vessel only desisted after a Greek frigate was sent to the area.

This explains to a great extent why Greece has flatly rejected calls from some parts of the EU for joint Greek–Turkish coast guard patrols to combat refugee smugglers. It is also why Athens was initially reluctant to agree to NATO patrols in the Aegean. It only acquiesced once it was clear that the Turkish ship in the flotilla would not be allowed in Greece’s waters and vice-versa for the Greek vessel.

Most controversially of all, Turkish authorities refused the plane carrying Tsipras to Iran permission to fly over Turkey recently. Ankara regards the prime ministerial plane as a military aircraft and considers Rhodes, where it was due to land for refuelling before continuing its journey into Turkish air space, as part of a “demilitarised zone” in the Aegean. Turkish authorities reportedly would have only allowed the plane to enter their air space if it stopped in Bodrum rather than Rhodes. Instead, the prime minister’s flight plan was changed and the aircraft landed in Egypt. The decision to skip plans to land in Rhodes, which underlines Greece’s heightened concern about giving Turkey justification to ratchet up the tension in the Aegean, led to Tsipras being roundly criticised by his domestic opposition.

Greece’s impotence has been most visible in the refugee crisis, where Turkey holds all the cards. Turkish authorities have understood that to some extent they can control the flow of refugees and migrants crossing to Greece, a power that Erdogan apparently had no qualms about flaunting during a meeting with European Council president Donald Tusk and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker in November 2015, when he reportedly told the EU officials that Turkey could “open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime” and bus the refugees to the border.

While Erdogan, whose mood during the November meeting only appeared to sour after he was told that Turkey would receive 3 billion euros in aid over two years rather than one, bargains with the EU, Greece seems little more than a helpless bystander.

Like his EU counterparts, Tsipras is caught between knowing that Erdogan’s dominance means there is no other choice than to attempt to reason with him but that in doing so he inevitably provides him with further legitimacy, giving him the whip hand within his country. Perhaps Erdogan’s greatest gain during the discussions about the response to the refugee crisis has been the EU’s willingness to turn a blind eye to what is going on in inside Turkey, particularly with regards to civil rights, press freedom and relations with the Kurds.

Like the unsuspecting wedding guest, Tsipras is now locked into this frenzied dance, which threatens to leave everyone collapsed in a heap. Extricating himself without causing mortal offense would prove a momentous diplomatic feat.

*This article appeared in last week's e-newsletter, which is available to subscribers. More information about subscriptions is available here.

*You can follow Nick on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis

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