Author: Jeyhun NAJAFOV
The recent tension between Greece and Turkey due to the disputed islands of Kardak/Imia in the Aegean Sea threatens to turn into a military confrontation between the two NATO member states. As decreed by the Greek Minister of National Defence, Panos Kammenos, a 7,000-strong Greek military contingent will be dispatched to the island of Evros. According to him, this decision was made considering the existing state of relations with Turkey. Although Kammenos is confident that the Greek army is able to solve the issue on its own, Brussels understands that even a minor incident between Greek and Turkish militaries can develop into a continental conflict. Officially, the core cause of the tension was Athens’ decision to include the disputed islands of Kardak (Imia) in the Aegean Sea into the environmental program EU Natura 2000. The Turkish foreign minister said that Greece was trying to use the EU project in its own interests. There is no doubt that the islands of Kardak belong to Turkey, and this issue is not subject to discussion. In response, the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that its sovereignty over the islands is "indisputable".
Ankara has also appealed to pan-European institutions stating that Turkey’s position on the implementation of the EU environmental programs, including Natura 2000, by Greece was brought to the attention of the European Commission back in 1998.
In fact, the Greek-Turkish relations have a long history of confrontation including regional rivalries, wars, and refugees. Even such a noble cause as environmental protection or sporting competition can result in unpredictable events. Therefore, the ongoing process directly concerns the interests of Azerbaijan, which is implementing a strategic project of the natural gas export through Turkey and Greece, the Southern Gas Corridor. Greece is the starting point of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) passing the territories of Greece, Albania, and Italy and designed to connect to the other two pipelines, Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) and South Caucasus Gas pipeline, also known as the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline. For Baku, it is important that the South Gas Corridor chain does not break because of the disputed islands in the Aegean Sea.
We have interviewed the former Turkish MP and political scientist, Canan KALSIN, on the behind-the-scenes side of tension between Athens and Ankara.
Can you tell us something about these islands disputed by Turkey and Greece?
Ankara believes that the Kardak islands are situated in the territorial waters of Turkey according to all international norms. Unfortunately, after Italy transferred the islands in 1947, the then government of Turkey led by Ismet Inonu did not establish Turkey's sovereignty over the islands legally due to its political short-sightedness. At that time, they believed that Turkey’s sovereignty over the islands might be taken for granted. These islands have been the source of disputes since the first half of the 20th century. The parties have periodically expanded their zones of territorial waters. Last time, contrary to all previous agreements, Greece decided to expand the area of its territorial waters in the Aegean Sea by 65% and turn it into its internal lake based on the 1982 UN International Convention on the Law of the Sea. In 1987 and 1996, Greece carried out a number of provocative acts to annex the islands. For example, in 1996 the Greek military landed on one of the islands and raised the Greek flag there. It was a great provocation. Three Greek soldiers were killed after the Turkish military tried to expel the violators from the island. In general, Ankara does not want to aggravate relations with Athens on this matter. Turkey has no problems with Greece. Until now, there was no Turkish or Greek presence on these islands. The question is what the Greek military did in the territorial waters of Turkey. Ankara follows a pragmatic policy regarding the islands. The situation is quite complicated, so it is optimal for both sides to leave the islands as a neutral zone. But the Greek nationalists exaggerate the issus. In fact, the Greek Minister of Defence, Panos Kammenos, is also the leader of the nationalist Independent Greeks Party. This organisation is a partner of the Syriza party, whose leader is the incumbent Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.
The issue of the Kardak islands is a convenient pretext for inciting nationalist hysteria. The same was true in the 90s and the following years. I think there are two very important factors inherent to the current Greek policy that could explain the cause of the next tension. The fact is the Greek economy goes through a very difficult period. The EU assistance has only postponed the imminent default. Greek treasury is empty, and the state cannot pay salaries. Greek economy is suffering from huge inflation and financial crisis. The government understands that the public patience has reached the limit. External injections not only do not help to pull the country out of a debt hole, but on the contrary, Greece is getting increasingly sunk in debt and crisis. In Athens, the nationalists try to shift public attention from internal problems to an imaginary external "Turkish threat", a far-fetched problem with the neighbouring country. This is how populist rulers usually act, and Tsipras is no exception in this case. He came to power with populist slogans. Unable to restore the law and order in the country, he begins a dangerous game in foreign policy. Incidentally, that is what the military rulers of Turkey did in the last century. They were explaining the poor standards of living and economic problems by a hostile environment.
If one considers the history of Greek-Turkish relations, it turns out that Greece has paid a high price for all its claims to Turkish territories. In the beginning of the last century, Athens already tried to change the borders of Turkey but was fended off very quickly.
Turkey made a restrained response indeed – a few general statements urging to observe the internationally recognised regulations on foreign borders and territorial waters...
Yes, the Turkish authorities are evaluating the situation. Greece has been a tool of Western pressure on Turkey since the end of World War I. In 1996, the then Turkish Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, reacted extremely sharply to the incident with the Greek flag on the island. She promised to hit the Greek ships as soon as they approach the island. Then the whole world froze in anticipation of war. Turkey was heavily criticised for militaristic statements about its partner in NATO. The existing situation is a bit different. Ankara does a lot to ensure mutual understanding between the two countries, and friendly relations between the peoples. This approach turned out to be effective. For example, some Greek politicians openly declare that only Turkey can help save the Greek economy. Only the Turkish business can ensure the capitalisation of Greek economy. But this is completely against the myth about the Turkish threat cultivated by Greek nationalists. Ankara waits until the problem ripens. The more restrained is the Turkish policy, the stronger is the position of pro-Turkish politicians in Greece. Turkey demonstrated its military power during the military operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch. It is no secret that the Turkish military is many times stronger than the Greek army. Therefore, it will not be difficult for the second most powerful army in Europe to protect the islands. Sometimes Turkey tries to counter the external threats without the use of force. But Turkey's response to the shelling of its territory from Syria demonstrated that Ankara was ready for any decisive action.
Some Western experts note that the core of the problem is the gas fields discovered in the Aegean Sea. As soon as Greece establishes control over the islands, it will be able to produce gas from the nearby hydrocarbon fields...
In fact, the problem is a complex mix of interrelated factors. Natural gas deposits is one of them. Five years ago, Greece announced its intention to launch oil and gas production based on international agreements. But the environment and geography of the Aegean Sea require that all issues are resolved on a bilateral basis. Turkey’s insistence on this matter made the Greeks to abandon the idea of gas exploration almost in Turkish territorial waters. As to Athens’ role in gas business, it is most likely entrusted with a mission to materialise foreign energy plans. In recent years, Turkey has managed to implement a number of strategic gas pipeline projects on its territory. Turkey has become an energy hub for Central and Eastern Europe. The development of gas fields in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas will further strengthen Turkey’s position in its relations with the West. This is an alarming sign for the U.S., which have their own plans for exporting gas to Europe.
Yet another important factor is Turkey's progress in its relations with Russia. Moscow and Ankara have stepped into new economic and political dimensions in their relations. Turkey has effectively lifted the issue of accession to the EU and is intensively building relations with Moscow and Beijing. Amidst the worsening relations with Moscow, the West was alarmed that Turkey might cease to serve as a buffer between the West and Russia. The geopolitical map of Europe is changing.
Do you think this may lead to a military conflict?
Everything depends on the sense of responsibility of the Greek ruling elite. Even if Athens tries to fish in troubled waters, it knows very well where the red line starts. However, some random incidents are likely.
It is interesting that the issue of the islands was raised when the Cyprian president, Nicos Anastasiades, unexpectedly announced a desire to establish allied relations with Turkey. By the way, Ankara has not recognised the Republic of Cyprus yet. Perhaps, this is Greece’s message to Turkey: "If you withdraw your troops from Cyprus, we will withdraw the issue of the Kardak islands"?
The Cyprus issue will not be resolved in the next 10-15 years. It is one of the elements of Western pressure on Turkey. The population of Northern Cyprus voted for the reunification of the island in a referendum. But Greece and Europe rejected the prospect of settling the Cyprus problem. Obviously, both Greece and the Greek part of Cyprus do not want to secure a just peace. In such a situation, Turkey does what a guarantor state should do – ensures the security of Turkish Cypriots.