27 October 2021

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GAME-CHANGING BATTLE IN HISTORY

2021 may well become one of the intense years in protracted Turkish-Greek disputes

Author:

15.09.2021

Disputes between Turkey and Greece over the development of hydrocarbon fields in the coastal waters of the Mediterranean Sea continue. Dispatch of warships to the disputed areas could trigger a hot phase of the conflict, but political will and common sense have prevailed. Meanwhile, this is not the first conflict between the two neighbouring states and NATO allies. The long history of their neighbourhood is full of periodic crises in relations.

 

Island of Aphrodite and the apple of discord

The current conflict of interest between Greece and Turkey concerns a dispute over the territorial waters. Discovery of large hydrocarbon reserves in coastal waters exacerbated the confrontation. Formal reason for the escalation of the conflict was the dispatch of the Turkish exploration vessel Oruç Reis to the small Greek island of Kastellorizo located just a couple of kilometres off the Turkish coast.

Ankara claims that the small Greek islands in the Aegean Sea do not have the right to an exclusive economic zone, hence Turkey reserves the right to conduct exploration in this region. The country needs energy and considers itself the leading power in the Eastern Mediterranean. For these reasons, Ankara is not going to retreat in the dispute.

The situation has gotten worse after Greece, Israel and Cyprus signed an agreement in June 2021 on the construction of a gas pipeline to Europe. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country would continue the exploration of oil and gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, despite international criticism. Moreover, Turkey signed an agreement with the Libyan government on the joint exploitation of the shelf in the disputed waters. In turn, Greece has set up a virtual coalition with Egypt and France in order to significantly reduce Turkish ambitions. As a result, there is an increasing threat to the peace in the region again.

Thanks to the support from the EU and the US, Greece has never missed a chance to take a poke at Turkey, albeit in various forms. For example, during the hysteria over re-assigning a status of a mosque to the Hagia Sophia Museum, the purchase of the latest F-35 fighters from the US, when Greece bought the aircraft intended for Turkey, and the construction of a canal bypassing the Bosphorus. Ankara always responds asymmetrically, such as periodic opening of its border with Greece for Syrian and Afghan refugees. Greece has recently announced the completion of the construction of a barrier wall on the border line between the two countries.

Occasionally, the leaders of both countries and diplomats fuel tensions making various statements. In April 2021, the visit of Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias to Ankara ended with a scandal. During the press conference, Turkish and Greek ministers had a verbal skirmish, but then peacefully went to dinner.

 

A landmark year

2021 may well become one of the intense years in the protracted disputes between the two states. This year is also symbolic, as 200 years ago Greece declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire, and exactly 100 years ago Turkey defended its independence from Greece.

In 1821, Greek patriots incited by European countries launched an armed revolt against the central government. Many sympathizers and revolutionaries from Europe joined them at that time. For example, one of the victims of the battles for the independence of Greece was the renowned English poet George Byron. After many years of fighting, Greece has become an independent state. But since its inception as an independent state, the majority of Greeks has become infected with the Great Idea – to reunite the lands of the former Ancient Greek poleis. These ‘primordially Greek’ lands included the western coast of Asia Minor and the capital city of the Ottomans – Istanbul (Constantinople). As expected, the Turks could not approve of such ideas, hence making them to fight against them. However, the support of Greek nationalists from some Western European and Balkan countries, along with a serious crisis in Turkey itself, provided great support to the Greek cause. As a result of four wars between 1897 and 1923, Greece has significantly increased its territory at the expense of the Ottoman state.

In 1921, the existence of the Turkish state was seriously threatened. Collapse of the Ottoman empire after the defeat in the First World War and foreign intervention have turned the life of Turkish society upside down. The vacuum of power and decadent sentiments prevented the 20 million Ottoman Turks from raise their heads. And only the decisiveness of Turkish officers led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who preserved their patriotic spirit, helped to avoid complete chaos, and then to rise the masses to fight the enemy.

Nevertheless, the collapse was close. In June 1921, the Greek task force, which occupied Western Turkey, won the battle for Afyon-Karahisar and launched an offensive on the capital of the young republic – Ankara. Experienced in the Balkan and world wars, the 120,000-strong Greek army was close to success: its victorious pace was stopped only in the vicinities of present-day Ankara. The destiny of Turkey as an independent state should have been written in the Battle of Sakarya. The Ottomans withstood and restored the former image of the Turkish warrior. Thus, the English historian R. Grant views the Battle at Sakarya among the "battles that changed the course of the world history." The event has since been celebrated annually in Turkey as a national holiday.

A year later, the stronger Turkish army was able to liberate the country's territory from foreign invaders. Famous American writer Ernest Hemingway, who then worked as a war correspondent on the Greek-Turkish front, noted the victories of the Greeks, but added that “he who wins last wins the best."

The Lausanne Peace Treaty ended the war between old neighbours and secured Turkey's geographical position within its current boundaries. The parties also made a population exchange, as more than a million Greeks and about 600,000 Turks have been forced to leave their native lands during the war.

During the hostilities, thousands of Turks were killed by the Greek nationalists, while the Greeks still remember the Asia Minor Catastrophe. However, the parties found a political will for reconciliation: they have set up diplomatic relations, while the leaders of both states, Ataturk and Venizelos, have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

 

The Cyprus question

After a relative tranquillity, relations between the countries again got worse because of the Cyprus crisis. Although both Turkey and Greece entered NATO almost simultaneously after the Second World War, they failed to establish allied relations. This time the problem was Cyprus, which has been under the British mandate after the partition of the Ottoman Empire. Greeks, who make up about 70% of the population of the island, did not abandon the dream of Enosis (union), meaning  the reunification with mainland Greece. Thanks to guerrilla groups fighting against the British, the Greeks achieved the independence of the island. But at the same time, the rights of national minorities, primarily Turks, were infringed more often. The situation got worse in 1974 with the coming to power of the nationalist junta of the so-called black colonels. After abolishing the moderate leader Makarios, the military made Nikos Sampson, known for his extremist and anti-Turkish sentiments, a new ruler of the island. In response, the Turkish army invaded Cyprus and in two weeks cleared the territories populated by ethnic Turks of Greek troops. The capital city of the island, Nicosia, was divided in half by the parties. This is how the history of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and the next hotbed of confrontation between Turkey and Greece began.

Over the years, dozens of attempts have been made to resolve the situation and unite the island into one state. The most realistic attempt was made in 2004 thanks to a plan devised by the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. According to him, the leadership on the island was to be formed on a parity basis, but with the 4 to 2 advantage of the Greeks. International community guaranteed the holding of a referendum, the return of all refugees, and a membership for a united state in the European Union. However, the planned unification was thwarted by the Greek Cypriots, with 87% of votes against the plan. Nevertheless, the Greek part of Cyprus was admitted to the EU, with Turkey being the only state to recognise the Northern Cyprus.

 

Greek “lake” and Turkish straits

In the beginning of 1990s, the amendment to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea triggered another round of tension between Turkey and Greece. According to new rules, the width of the territorial waters was increased from 6 to 12 nautical miles. Turkey opposed the new ruling, as it turned the Aegean Sea into an inland lake of Greece. In fact, according to the Lausanne Peace Treaty, almost all the islands of the Aegean Sea were controlled by Greece. At the same time, a number of large islands (Lesbos, Chios, Samos and the islands of the Dodecanese archipelago) are located in close proximity to the mainland borders of Turkey. This hampers Turkey’s potential to expand both its maritime or air zones of influence, since their area is calculated based on the nearest point of the territory of a state that also claims this area. Any possible enlargement of these zones would necessarily bring more proportional benefits to Greece than to Turkey. Claims of Athens are hypothetically can turn the Aegean Sea into a Greek lake with all the ensuing consequences. To prevent this, the parties need to negotiate in accordance with the principles of justice. But this did not happen, and twice in recent history (in 1987 and 1996) the countries were on the bring of another hostile conflict.

Since the beginning of 2021, Turkey and Greece have been actively negotiating. This was proceeded by two meetings between the foreign ministers of Turkey and Greece on the sidelines of the NATO summit in June.

Answering the question about a possible ‘permanent war or peace’, Turkish President R. T. Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister K. Mitsotakis agreed to leave communication channels open and refrain from exacerbating tensions in the Aegean Sea. Time will show how sincere were the goals and statements of the negotiating parties.

Either way, both parties are yet to make a lot of efforts to overcome mutual contradictions.



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