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How Greece and Turkey can win together

The two countries should work together to resolve their issues through direct talks and without third-party intervention
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias (R) and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu (L) hold a press conference after their meeting in Athens, on 31 May 2021 (AFP)

Turkey and Greece have always had a problematic relationship except for some brief periods of calm. Though both are now members of Nato, the relationship remains tense.

The two countries were on opposing sides of the war over Cyprus and had historical hang-ups that plagued the relationship, with each side deeply suspicious of the other.

Athens remains a hot spot in Turkish foreign policy and geopolitics, a challenge it inherited from the Ottoman Empire. Turkish geopolitical reasoning did not remove Athens from its list of security threats, despite having established good neighbourly relations with Greece from time to time.

Though the number of disputes between the two countries adds up to a long list, the Cyprus issue and Aegean conflicts dominate that list, while several other issues are waiting to be settled.

Solvable issues

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These issues include the militarisation of the Aegean islands and Cyprus; the breadth of territorial waters; application of the Lausanne treaty; rejecting the Annan peace plan after the referendum in Cyprus; control of international aviation through Flight Information Regions (FIR), and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in the Eastern Mediterranean; violation of the Refugee Convention; unilateral Nato base expansion; implementing bilateral protection of the rights of religious minorities; and armament policies.

While the list is long, most, if not all, of its items are either solvable or readily manageable topics. The problems have some striking features, but all the conflicts are bilateral between Turkey and Greece.

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These issues can be resolved quickly based on a healthy dialogue, strong political will, and direct diplomacy between Ankara and Athens without needing a third eye, country, or institution. Indeed, the defining feature of the problems on the list is that both countries will benefit from their solution and both suffer from the ongoing deadlock. 

Turkey's relations with Greece, as one of its two neighbouring Nato members, experienced ups and downs and tensions that sometimes reached the brink of war until the 2000s.

It was then that a new era began. In the 2010s, the two sides formed a joint ministerial council, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to Greece in 2017 was the highest level of contact between the two neighbours since 1952, when they joined Nato.

However, this did not lead to a new peaceful era; instead, tensions have returned.

When former US President Donald Trump came to power in the US, there was a marked shift in US foreign policy in favour of Greece. Furthermore, Greece started to take actual steps regarding hydrocarbon fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Ankara was having problems with Egypt and Israel which Athens decided to take advantage of. 

Russia and Greece started to develop a closer relationship. In the end, Greece agreed to follow a policy to securitise its energy policies in the Eastern Mediterranean which looks to be a lose-lose for both Greece and Turkey. In the past, Greece would attempt to resolve disagreements with Turkey through diplomatic channels, but more recently, it has tried to address the issues through Washington, Israel, Cairo, or Europe.

This does nothing to help calm down tensions and has in fact backfired.

Direct talks

Ultimately, Greece and Turkey can only solve their problems through direct talks. As long as Greece tries to manage its disputes with its most prominent neighbour through other capital cities, tensions will continue to rise.

Athens will try to gain an advantage by relying on Israel and Egypt in the Eastern Mediterranean, and on the United States and the European Union in the Aegean. However, it would be fair to say that this strategy has completely backfired. The approach that transfers the issues to other capitals not only deepens the deadlock but also intensifies the divisions and complications.

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While the Cyprus problem was an issue between Greece and Turkey, it became an EU issue when Cyprus joined the EU, even though it did not comply with the EU membership requirements (no border conflicts according to the European Union's Copenhagen Criteria and Madrid Criteria).

The exploration of the Eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon deposits and the transportation of gas has become a source of unnecessary tension that could have been avoided with the collaboration of Greece and Turkey.

Especially after Russia invaded Ukraine, it is more evident that cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean would benefit all parties. 

During the new wave of migration in 2015-16, which started with Russia's involvement in the war in Syria, Athens handled the refugee issue unilaterally and undertook very inhumane practises. As the EU saw that the problem was getting out of control, it overcame Greece's one-sided approach and agreed on a solution with Ankara. 

Security threats

Turkey and Greece will have elections next summer, assuming everything goes to plan. However, the polls are not the only reason for the tension between the two countries and do not prevent resolving these problems.

It is in the interests of both countries to solve several issues: from the militarising of the islands in the Aegean, to the solution of the Cyprus problem, the use of gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, and military harassment.

The arming of the islands in the Aegean - some of which are within swimming distance of Turkey - is seen by Turkey as an aggressive and provocative act

Although the elections have informed the escalation in recent months, it is not the real reason behind the current problems. Because the Turkish-Greek problems are neither provocative enough to win an election nor dynamic enough to bring down inflation, which is the main issue on the electoral agenda in both countries.

How can they start to solve the problems? First, Greece needs to drop its maximalist expectations. If it doesn't, Turkey will continue to respond in kind.

This vicious cycle makes it impossible to settle any dispute. Greece is heavily in debt and yet continues to arm itself beyond its means. The arming of the islands in the Aegean - some of which are within swimming distance of Turkey - is seen by Turkey as an aggressive and provocative act.

Greece has twice engaged in maximalist actions and has been driven back: at the turn of the 20th century and then in 1974 in Cyprus. Also, Turkey has recently been gripped by populist politics, making it difficult for the country to take action to reach a settlement with Greece.

This might explain why Turkey, given all the other geopolitical challenges, does not need another one with Athens. The Syrian civil war is a human tragedy, a significant source of irregular migration, and a severe security threat along Turkey's longest border. Iraq, next to Syria, continues to export security threats to Turkey, as does Iran.

Riots police push back migrants outside the port of Lesbos, on March 3, 2020, amid a migration surge from neighbouring Turkey
Greek riots police push back migrants outside the port of Lesbos amid a refugee surge from neighbouring Turkey on 3 March, 2020 (AFP)

Unless Armenia establishes a lasting peace with Azerbaijan, its borders with Turkey will remain closed. As mentioned above, there is tension regarding the extraction and transportation of hydrocarbon resources in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Despite Ankara re-establishing relations with Israel, ambassadors still need to be appointed. Disputes and diplomatic problems between Egypt and Turkey continue. In the north, Russia is already a threat in the Black Sea.

Turkey does not need the Aegean, the only remaining conflict-free and stable region, to become a conflict zone, too. 

Hard choices

If Europe wants to see geopolitical stability in its southeastern flank; if Washington wants to create a genuinely safe zone in the Black Sea; and if the Aegean Sea is to face off the Russian threat, they have to reconsider their policies

Moreover, in the past, both the EU and the US maintained a modest geopolitical balance, much more than today, as they seem to have abandoned any pretence of balance between Turkey and Greece.

In the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and in the face of the emerging crises, the question that needs to be answered now by Europe and Nato is: how much do we need geopolitical and security stability in our southeast region? In other words, what will Europe and Nato lose if Turkey ceases to be a source of security and stability in southeast Europe?

Therefore, hard choices need to be made by all sides.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Taha Ozhan is an academic and writer based in Turkey. He holds a PhD in politics and international relations and is currently research director at the Ankara Institute. He was an academic visitor at Oxford University (2019-20), served as chairman of the Turkish parliament's foreign affairs committee (2015-18), and was a senior adviser to the Turkish prime minister (2014-16). He has published on global and regional politics, political and IR theory, and political movements in the Middle East. His latest book is Turkey and the Crisis of Sykes-Picot Order (2015).
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