On Monday 30 April 2018, a panel discussion on ‘Greek-Turkish tensions: Impending Conflict?’ took place in the European Studies Centre. The panellists talked about the present tense climate in Greek-Turkish relations, potential risks for escalation, and related wider geopolitical considerations in the region. David Madden (SEESOX) chaired the session, Ezgi Basaran (SEESOX) began with an overview of recent developments in Greek-Turkish relations, Othon Anastasakis (SEESOX) talked about the Greek context, Mehmet Karli (SEESOX) presented the Turkish perspective, Katerina Dalacoura (LSE) spoke about relevant developments in the Middle East, Yaprak Gürsoy (Aston University) focused on the role of NATO and the US, and Kalypso Nicolaidis (SEESOX) ended with some final comments on the probabilities of conflict.
Basaran spoke about the Greek-Turkish tensions that began on 15 July 2016, with the eight Turkish soldiers who landed at the Alexandroupolis airport the day after the attempted coup in Turkey, asking for asylum from Greece. Turkey sought their extradition, which the Greek Supreme Court denied. On 7t December 2017, the first official visit by a Turkish president to Greece in six decades took place. However, in 2018 relations between the two countries worsened, with numerous incidents in the Aegean, and further escalated with the imprisonment of two Greek soldiers after they got lost and crossed into Turkish territory. She stressed the point that tensions with Greece are not high on the public discourse agenda and although it is hard to guess how things will turn out, Erdogan would not gain very much in domestic politics if there were an escalation in the crisis. She added that in Greece a considerable number of Golden Visas are given to Turks. Anastasakis presented the Greek perspective, pointing to the fact that the issue monopolises the public discourse in Greece. He emphasised that there is a re-securitisation of the relationship between the two countries following the previous multifaceted rapprochement since 2002. He offered three levels of analysis through which the tension can be seen. Firstly, the ideological-political prism and the neo-Ottoman foreign policy; secondly, the instrumentalisation of traditional bilateral disputes; and thirdly - which is the real issue - the threat that Gülenism poses to Erdogan’s authority together with the latter’s obsession with the eight military officers in Greece. He added that Greece had been consistent in trying to multilateralise the disputes, as opposed to Turkey, which had consistently viewed them as bilateral. He gave a snapshot of Greek internal politics within the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition, with Foreign Minister Kotzias pursuing a low-key approach and focusing more on the Macedonian name issue, Defence Minister Kammenos upping the rhetoric with Turkey, with an eye on reaching the 3% electoral threshold for his party in the next elections, and Alternate Minister Kouvelis trying to soften the rhetoric. He mentioned that refugee flows, as another instrument on the part of Turkey, have been increasing lately at the Evros border, the dire financial implications of defence expenditures for the Greek budget, and that Greek officials appeared less worried about the period before the Turkish election in June than about the day after.
Karli offered the Turkish perspective, first drawing attention to the upcoming elections and noting that the electoral pressure will continue up to the next elections in 2019. He analysed the key role of domestic factors, such as the change in the constitution - the recent adoption of the presidential system - the challenge from a newly formed right-wing party (IYI Party) and the zero short-term electoral cost of having a crisis with Greece, in contrast with, for instance, the Kurds who make up a significant part of the electorate. He spoke about the new identity of Turkish foreign policy, describing its main features as a “zero friends” policy, reliance on hard power, weakening of Western orientation and strengthening of relations with authoritarian regimes like Russia. He pointed out that there is a shift from a multi-actor process to a one-man show in foreign policy decision-making and emphasised the re-securitisation of Turkish foreign policy. He also spoke of the high cost factors for Turkey that could reduce the risk of an escalation of the conflict - military (Greece having a NATO standard military force), diplomatic (Greece having strong international backing), and economic (given the latest 8% fall in the value of the lira since the beginning of 2018).
Dalacoura put the crisis in the Middle-Eastern context. She argued that the centre point of the issue is Syria. The turning point was in the 2015 elections and the AKP’s shift to nationalism (political opening towards the MHP party). Also, the loss of Davutoglu was a further turning point - both a cause and an effect of what was happening. There was an abandonment of civilizational discourse and the presence of Realpolitik became more obvious. She stressed that the Syrian situation and domestic developments in Turkey are interlinked, mentioning the unsuccessful opening of Turkey and Erdogan towards the Middle East, and the AKP’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood. The relations of two other important players with Turkey were also discussed - Iran (a case that should be studied in isolation and where a modus vivendi seemed to have been established) and Israel (improved relationship). She underlined the fact that AKP cannot afford to go for a long term, overarching foreign policy, but can rather only seek short-term policy solutions with all these actors in the region.
Gürsoy spoke about the lack of involvement of NATO and the US in the current crisis. In the past they had intervened to mediate, so that conflicts had not been prolonged. She argued that, since 2016, the crisis between the two countries had continued because NATO and the US have not intervened. She mentioned the contrast with the 1996 Imia/Kardak crisis, where Clinton had successfully urged both sides to back down. She offered a historical overview (Turkey and Greece are NATO members since 1952, the 1964 Johnson letter, the US embargo after the 1974 Turkish intervention in Cyprus, US-Turkey alliance strengthening in the 80s). She mentioned that both Greece and Turkey believe that NATO and the US favour the other side. Moreover, she explained the present absence of their involvement by pointing to NATO’s own problems, the Arab uprisings and US-Turkish relations. US cooperation with the Kurds in Syria, and Turkey’s military operations in Northern Syria against the Kurds, had led to problematic relations between Turkey and the US. Moreover, the Turkish government and media blamed the July 2016 coup attempt on the US, further straining relations. As a result, Turkey has been cooperating with Russia, which might lead to further problems in NATO, especially if the S-400 air missile defence purchase from Russia goes through. Gürsoy concluded that it is highly unlikely Turkey will leave NATO but, because of regional and domestic circumstances, NATO has lost its leverage over Turkey and the crisis in the Aegean.
Nicolaidis proceeded to summarise the discussion from an EU viewpoint. She spoke of the re-securitisation of the relationship and the need to take account of domestic politics and the characteristics of the region. She feared the apparent signs of the logic of war cycles, including actors’ propensity to gamble in the face of loss (Erdogan’s obsession with the eight soldiers) and a tendency to learn from past failures rather than successes. On a more optimistic note, the Greece of today was not the ‘90s government and it remains moderate. The Middle East situation can have positive or negative effects, with Syria turning Turkey’s focus away but also creating a spill-over effect. She wondered whether the EU could increase its resilience over refugee problem, which would allow it to play a more influential role in this story.
The Q&A discussion revolved around the Muslim Brotherhood, the role that China can play though its investment strategy (port of Piraeus, China-Turkey Uighur issue), energy resources in Cyprus (Greece and Cyprus had been moderate in their responses), the position of France and Italy, Turkey’s unsettled relations with Germany, the strength of the air forces in Greece (underfunded) and Turkey (call-up of retired pilots). The discussion came to a close with the general consensus that ‘responsible leadership is needed’.
Foteini Kalantzi (A.G. Leventis Research Officer, SEESOX, St Antony's College)