Greece's foreign policy trap

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by Andrea Bonetti/Fosphotos
Photo by Andrea Bonetti/Fosphotos

All eyes are on the Greek coalition’s bid to exit the country’s third bailout in August, allowing it to claim the valuable political prize that is likely to come with completing the programme, seeing growth return, securing a debt relief package and re-establishing market access. However, recent events have highlighted that the greatest threat to the coalition’s cohesion and the stable environment it hopes to profit from in political terms lies in foreign, rather than economic, policy.

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, who leads junior coalition partner Independent Greeks (ANEL), met on Tuesday amid rumours (albeit exaggerated ones) of a deep rift between the two and questions about whether the government is on its last legs. The factors that triggered this speculation are mostly linked to events unfolding outside the country’s borders rather than within.

The turmoil that has been caused by the negotiations between Athens and Skopje over the Macedonia name issue, including ANEL’s opposition to the kind of deal that Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias appears to be pursuing, has been one of the key factors in upsetting the balance between the two unlikely coalition partners. The other is the increasingly strained relationship with Turkey, which has been stretched to the limit by the ramming of a Greek coast guard vessel by a Turkish boat off the Imia islets in the Aegean and the capture of two Greek soldiers that crossed the Evros border between the two countries, as well as the rhetoric that has flowed from these events.

An example of this is how government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos and the newly-appointed Alternate Defence Minister Fotis Kouvelis distanced themselves from a suggestion by Kammenos that the two Greek soldiers were being held “hostage” by Ankara. Tzanakopoulos said that Kammenos has been speaking metaphorically, while Kouvelis described the term used by the defence minister as “excessive.”

Apart from causing internal disputes, these foreign policy issues are also leading to the opposition and some of the media heaping pressure on Tsipras and his cabinet, whose handling of sensitive national issues is coming under great scrutiny. In a speech to his shadow cabinet on Wednesday, New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis accused the government of being “incompetent” in its management of relations with Turkey and argued that his centre-right party is much more responsible when it comes to such issues of national importance.


The Macedonia name talks are delicately poised as Kotzias flew to Skopje on Thursday after the Foreign Ministry sent to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) its proposal for an international treaty between the two countries aimed at settling the dispute, which has been a bane for Greek foreign policy since the early 1990s.

The two large public protests in Athens and Thessaloniki against allowing FYROM to use the term “Macedonia” in any new name (even though it already uses it in its current one) and New Democracy’s decision to side with the demonstrators have created a tense atmosphere at home for Tsipras. A Kapa Research poll for Alpha TV made public this week indicates that 56.5 percent of Greeks do not want the term “Macedonia” to be used and 52.5 percent said they are in favour of the public protests. Regarding the government’s overall handling of the issue, 64.1 percent said they had a negative view.

This resistance and negativity is compounded by the fact that Tsipras’s own coalition partner, Kammenos, has made it clear he will not back a deal that allows Greece’s neighbour to use the term “Macedonia.”

However, the ANEL leader has also indicated that he is not willing to bring down the government over this issue. Tsipras is also aided by the apparent willingness of PASOK and To Potami, which are in the process of merging under the centre-left umbrella of Movement for Change (KINAL), to vote for an agreement in Parliament, subject to certain conditions. The prime minister also knows that the majority of those protesting against a solution are probably not SYRIZA supporters and that those who feel most passionately about this subject are not likely to vote for his party at the next elections anyway.

There is also no guarantee that the talks with the FYROM government will result in an agreement. There is still much distance to cover and it is not yet certain that Tsipras will have to run the domestic gauntlet.


The same, though, cannot be said of Greece’s fragile relationship with Turkey and its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On this matter, Tsipras and his ministers are already exposed to the full force of unease and dissatisfaction within the country as it becomes ever clearer that Greece has failed to gain a foothold in its relationship with an increasingly recalcitrant and unpredictable neighbour.

Two high-profile incidents have raised the level of tension in Greece: The ramming of the Greek coast guard boat off Imia, which Greece and Turkey almost went to war over in 1996, and the detention and possible trial of the two Greek soldiers who crossed the Evros border, which is a transgression that would normally be treated in a routine manner by the countries’ military officials.

Both of these came after Ankara repeatedly expressed its deep frustration at the decision by the Greek judicial system not to send back eight Turkish servicemen who fled Turkey in a military helicopter while the failed July 2016 coup was unfolding in their homeland.

They also came in the wake of Erdogan’s visit to Athens in early December, which has piled even more pressure on Tsipras. The decision to invite the Turkish president at a time when his ties with the rest of the European Union appeared to be non-existent was questioned from the start within Greece. The fact that he then preceded to turn the visit into a lecture tour appeared to justify some of the worst fears among the government’s critics.

The coalition, though, defended the decision to invite him by explaining that it felt it needed to establish a clear line of communication with Ankara precisely because the EU has lost any leverage it had with Erdogan, who is uninterested in continuing the Union accession process, and due to the uncertainty surrounding US foreign policy in the region. In 1996, it was Washington that intervened to ensure that the two NATO allies were not going to go to war over Imia. The sense from Athens these days is that Greek diplomats and military officials are not confident that the Trump administration would be so proactive if conflict in the Aegean was a possibility.

Regardless of whether hosting Erdogan or not was the right decision, events since then have confirmed that Greece finds itself across the water from a leader that feels emboldened and vulnerable at the same time. This makes for a dangerous mix.

Since the failed coup in July 2016, the Turkish president has felt that he is a target for various enemies, from the Gulenists to the USA, and that he needs to remove any potential threats within Turkey’s borders and beyond, as highlighted by the purge of the country’s police force and armed forces as well as the recent offensive in Syria’s Afrin district, where Erdogan is claiming to be targeting Kurdish YPG militia fighters.

Last April, Erdogan was able to extend his powers after winning a referendum by a relatively small margin – enough to make him virtually omnipotent but also suggesting that there are many in the country uncomfortable about the way power is being amassed in his hands. Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation was damning in its recent report on the quality of democracy and governance in Turkey.

Now, Erdogan is preparing for next year’s presidential elections and he knows that he will need to muster as much support as possible to get the majority he seeks. In January, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) announced that it would support Erdogan’s candidacy. The MHP has a hardline approach regarding Turkey’s relations with Greece, highlighted by comments its leader, Devlet Bahceli, made recently to nationalist MPs. He claimed that Greece is illegally occupying islands in the Aegean and that Turkey is ready to drive Greeks into the sea again, if needed. The latter is a reference to the war between the two countries in Asia Minor between 1919 and 1922.

Keeping the MHP satisfied means that Erdogan must maintain the pressure on Greece. It was no coincidence that after the recent incident off Imia the Turkish Foreign Ministry suggested in a statement that Athens is misleading Greeks by claiming that the islets belong to Greece and not Turkey.

While this rhetoric is largely designed for domestic consumption, it still makes Greece, where many politicians and much of the media are unable to pick up on the nuances of developments in Turkey, very jumpy. According to the Kapa Research poll, 92.5 percent of Greeks see Turkey as the biggest threat to Greece and 65 percent fear a potential conflict with the Turks, with almost half expecting Greece to lose territory as a result of such a clash.

A case in point was the regular questioning by Erdogan of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which established the current borders between Greece and Turkey among other things. While his comments regarding the treaty were to do with far more than the sovereignty of Aegean islands and were mostly focussed on influencing a domestic audience, the perception in Athens was that the Turkish president was intent on redrawing the boundaries with Greece. This culminated in the excruciating exchange between Erdogan and Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos on live television in December after the Turkish leader called for a “revision” of the treaty ahead of his visit. 


The jitteriness in Athens has not been helped by Turkey’s recent actions off the coast of Cyprus. The collapse of the Cyprus reunification talks last year, with the Greek-Cypriot side carrying much of the blame according to some observers, has opened another front with Turkey.

The prospects for a new round of peace talks on the island look grim, and Turkey, which occupies the northern part of Cyprus, has already started to make its presence in the area felt. In February, Turkish warships blocked a vessel hired by Italian firm ENI that was due to drill for gas southeast of the island. 

Turkey’s move should not be misinterpreted as an attempt to extract any of the island’s hydrocarbon resources, which have so far been found to be rather limited. Ankara is looking to send a clear message through its actions, as well as to achieve some specific strategic aims, one of which is to make hydrocarbons part of any future reunification discussion as they have so far been absent from the talks. Ankara is interested in sending a message to Greece and Cyprus that they should keep Turkey in mind regarding anything they do in the region. The same message goes to Egypt, which has been in discussions with Athens and Nicosia over the past few years regarding the delimiting of exclusive economic zones.

Ankara is also aware that this is a prime opportunity, given the turmoil in the US State Department and the EU’s lack of conviction, to stamp its authority in the region. It is little surprise, therefore, that Turkey announced this week it would be sending its own hydrocarbon research vessel to the Eastern Mediterranean, with Erdogan insisting that Turkish-Cypriots should have a share of the resources and claiming that Athens and Nicosia had been “taught a lesson.”


In effect, what is happening in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean is a variation of Turkey’s power play in northern Syria. While there are several reasons for Erdogan’s decision to send his army into Afrin (including wanting to prevent Kurdish influence from expanding, being in a position to control refugee flows and to avoid the area being handed over to Bashar al-Assad, with whom the Turkish president has been at loggerheads for several years), a key driving force has been Ankara’s desire to grab a seat at the table with other powers, such as the USA and Russia, when Syria’s future is decided.

So it is in Turkey’s relations with Greece and Cyprus that Erdogan wants to show who is the master in the region. They are also squares on a much larger chessboard, on which the Turkish president wants to make his presence felt. Erdogan’s desire to flex his muscles, the collapse of Turkey’s EU accession process and the breakdown in the relationship between Ankara and Washington has shaken the kaleidoscope. Traditional alliances and understandings are no longer valid and the future seems full of uncertainty.

Amid this tumult, the stance taken by those who Greece would normally turn to for support breeds little confidence. To the degree that it engages with Turkey, where it seems to have lost most of its leverage, Washington is unable to have an effect on Erdogan’s actions. This was highlighted by the way Donald Trump’s recent call for a de-escalation in Afrin fell on deaf ears in Ankara.

The US Ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt, continues to be active and vocal in efforts to ensure that Greek-Turkish relations remain on an even keel, but the concern for Athens is that if the American president cannot get through to the Turkish President, his envoy in Athens hardly stands a chance.

The EU, meanwhile, has limited itself to words picked from an ever-escalating scale of severity. The European Council was due on Friday to “strongly condemn” Turkey’s actions in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean and to express "grave concern" about the two Greek soldiers and others detained by Turkish authorities but the statement by EU leaders will carry little weight in Ankara. Erdogan has made it clear that since he has no interest in working towards EU membership (which comes as a relief in some European capitals), the views of its politicians are of no interest

The same cannot be said of how decision makers in the EU view the Turkish leader. The bitter truth is that at the moment, they need him more than he needs them. While European leaders will not admit it in public, paying Turkey to keep Syrian and other refugees from travelling to the EU has brought them significant political relief. Immigration has become a dominant issue in most central and northern European countries since the huge influx of Syrians in 2015 and anything that stops or stems the flow is vital to thousands of political careers in those countries. It is estimated that Turkey is currently hosting close to 3.5 million refugees, which gives Erdogan significant leverage over fearful EU leaders.

Also, despite complaints about the state of democracy in Turkey and the actions of the Turkish military regarding the Kurds within and beyond the country’s borders, the EU has not shown any qualms about doing business there. For instance, it was reported that Germany’s Rheinmetall and Turkish vehicle maker BMC signed an agreement in January 9 to upgrade Turkey’s Leopard tanks. Rheinmetall is also set to work with Turkey to produce the country’s own tanks. According to another report, the German Economy Ministry approved 31 permits for the sale of military equipment to Turkey in December and January. As long as European countries allow their relationship with a restless Turkey to be controlled by the fear of losing euros rather than influence, we should not expect any significant change to the recent pattern of developments.

In these circumstances, Greece is left in treacherous waters. Its muddled approach to foreign policy issues, ridden with short-term tactics and empty rhetoric, is matched by confusion among its key allies, whose motives and leverage are equally suspect. If they are not willing or cannot make an impression on Erdogan, what chance does Athens have? This is a very dangerous position for the Greek government, and more importantly, the country to be in.

1 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: Dean Plassaras

    All these are contrived and imaginary issues by a desperate Greek opposition (especially the defunct ND which was tested on the job and rejected by Berlin) which has clearly lost the economic contest game and now wishes to switch to what it considers its strong card, namely foreign policy. As far as Skopje is concerned nothing will happen except a good faith effort to resolve a chronic name problem which thanks to the intransigence of Skopje will remain unresolved. The Cypriot and Greek hydrocarbons issue is not even worth mentioning. These are hydrocarbon deposits in deep waters which make them uncompetitive for export. All Cyprus and Greek could hope for from these new discoveries is energy efficiency like the Israeli model. The rest is for 20 years from now, which in political terms is an eternity. As far as Turkey is concerned, this is basically an unstable country with a critical Kurdish problem and which country faces challenges of rapid disintegration from its eastern provinces. Turkey is the classic weak player that pretends to be strong. Therefore this feeble attempt by New Democracy to create a "trap" for the government, that it so desires to replace, will probably end up in nothing and another failed attempt by a desperate opposition to create leverage in areas where none exists. But then again, empty political promises are based on grand illusions and ND is very good at those meaning its remarkable ability to create crises de jour in order to cover its own nakedness and apparent shortcomings.

    Reply You have to
    in order to reply.

Please Comment

You have to
in order to add a comment.