Greek-Turkish Relations: A New Era?

Greek-Turkish Relations: A New Era?, Byron Theodoropoulos

By Byron Theodoropoulos

Have we really entered a new era in Greek-Turkish relations? Do we really see a “window of opportunity” open before us, a chance for peace and constructive neighbourly coexistence?
I suggest that this is a gate rather than a window, albeit a gate standing ajar. We find ourselves at the threshold and it is now up to us, Greeks and Turks, whether we throw this gate wide open and step beyond or whether we hesitatingly (or stubbornly) refuse to make this step.

This is, therefore, a moment of decision and it would seem imperative on the one hand to look back and take stock of what we have done in the past and on the other hand to look forward and envisage what we can do in the future. I have been following the course of Greek-Turkish relations for the last 55 years, since I first entered the diplomatic service. I still remember the time when our two countries were both apprehensive of the growing Soviet aggression along our borders.

We both gratefully accepted the measure of security which was offered to us through the Truman Doctrine. We both benefited from US economic assistance. We both joined simultaneously the Council of Europe. We both took part, with the other UN members, in the Korean War. We both were admitted at the same time to NATO as full members. We both concluded in 1953 and 1954 the Tripartite Pacts with Yugoslavia. It was a time when no problems seem to trouble our coexistence and cooperation. And then … then all hell broke loose!

The reason was Cyprus. I have followed the Cyprus conflict for years, even for decades, as it continued to widen, spilling over into bilateral Greek-Turkish relations, the Greek minority in Turkey and the Aegean. It started with the ‘pogrom’ against the Greeks living in Turkey and their mass expulsion. It then widened into the Aegean, where new claims were raised by Turkey against Greece, first on the continental shelf, then in air-space, then in maritime space, then even on the land territory of the islands, until it culminated with the casus belli threat, from which Turkey has not yet withdrawn. Each time I wondered: Where were all these claims before?

Turkey and Aegean Sea

How can it be that Turkey has neglected for decades to make known and to safeguard her alleged ‘rights’ in the sea- or air-space which she now invokes? How could she so belatedly discover the ‘correct’ interpretation of the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, more than 70 years after the Treaty was signed? Of course there was no neglect on Turkey’s part. These were all new claims. The effort to change the status quo in the Aegean started as a tactical decision by Turkey. It seems that when the Cypriot question arose in the early 1950s, Ankara considered it more expedient not only to localize the differences between Greek and

Turkish Cypriots on Cyprus, but also to widen the area of confrontation to include the totality of Greek-Turkish relations, in the belief that exercising direct pressure on Greece would weaken Greece’s position in the Cyprus problem. However, what had begun as supposedly useful tactics of Turkish diplomacy over the question of Cyprus has in the course of decades acquired an existence and an impetus of its own. Thus, Turkey now maintains that the Cyprus question has been solved once and for all and there is nothing left to negotiate, while the only pending problems are the bilateral Greek-Turkish ones.

Only recently a statement was issued by the Turkish Foreign Minister to the effect that ‘Cyprus has nothing to do with Greek-Turkish bilateral problems’! This is surprising to somebody who has followed the course of Greek-Turkish relations since the end of the war.
It is also misleading, and above all shows up the absurdity of the situation. It means that in the minds of Turkish policy-makers the question at the heart of Greek-Turkish tension has been settled according to Turkey’s aims and what remains is only the bilateral confrontation originally adopted as a tactical expedient in a dispute now ‘solved’.

This, however, has lead the Greeks inevitably to suspect that the Cyprus problem was only the beginning of a larger scheme to establish a dominant Turkish position of quasi ‘co-sovereignty’ in the Aegean and to gradually reduce Greece to ‘junior partner’ status. Needless to say nobody in Greece believes that Turkey is acting defensively against Greek ‘aggression’, since Greece has not raised any claims on Turkey. It is, however, a sterile, even counter-productive, exercise to go into the past and continue with mutual recriminations about the responsibility for starting the conflict.

Questions for Greeks 

If I have gone into the history, it is only to show how absurd the origins of today’s tension are, how artificially they were brought about and how the present Greek-Turkish relationship is plagued by a number of problems which one might call contrived or simply ‘pseudo-problems’. We certainly do not want to continue looking back. Our task ought to be to look ahead beyond the threshold of that half-opened gate. This is the time to think about the future while learning the lessons of the past. One might then in that spirit ask a number of questions of all the sides involved.

I would for example ask my fellow Greeks:

  • Does the Greek air defence really need an air-space of 10 nautical miles?
  • What are the benefits Greece expects to derive from eventually extending her territorial waters to 12 n.m. along the totality of her Aegean coastline? .
  • Does the Aegean continental shelf have any economic significance? Or is Greece only anxious to prevent the enclavement of her Islands of the Eastern Aegean in a Turkish continental shelf in order to preclude further Turkish claims on the islands themselves?

I would also turn to my Turkish friends and ask only one question, which is, admittedly, much more difficult to answer:

  • Is the confrontation with Greece really and seriously the first priority of Turkish foreign policy?

Questions for Turkish 

This single, seemingly simple question implies of course a series of other questions:

  • Does Turkey not have other, more weighty problems?
  • What about her three neighbours, Iran, Iraq and Syria, who would seem to require more vigilance?
  • What about the Caucasus, where the situation continues to be rather fluid and where the Russian presence makes itself more and more felt?
  • Do other internal problems, such as the Kurdish one, deserve a higher priority than sovereignty over some rocky islands of the Aegean?
  • Are the chronic problems of the Turkish economy, such as high inflation and low GDP~ less pressing than the conflict about the Aegean continental shelf?
  • Does the confrontation with Greece improve or worsen the prospect of Turkey’s eventual accession to the EU?

In other words, why does Turkish foreign policy consider the confrontation with Greece her main preoccupation? Would a climate of peace and friendship with Greece not prove beneficial for Turkey, in particular in view of her desire to accede to the EU?
Both Greece and Turkey could, no doubt, find reasonable answers to these questions and thus step beyond the threshold into the opening gate of peaceful neighbourly relations. Nevertheless one cannot ignore the fact that – whatever the Turkish side maintains about the Cyprus question having been solved – Cyprus is still a problem and that there is no solution in sight.

Questions for Cypriots

It would, therefore, seem appropriate to ask some questions of both Cypriot sides:

Are the Greek Cypriots determined to pay any price in order to achieve the re-unification of the island, even if that price proves to be unbearably high? The perspective of only minor territorial modifications of the present ‘Green Line’; the possibility of a new constitution under which the Turkish Cypriot side would have practically the last word in all vital problems; the fact that the prosperous south will have to assist for an indefinite period the poorer north; the very remote possibility of the Greek Cypriots enjoying within a reasonable time freedom of movement, of establishment and of property in the north: does all this seem to the Greek Cypriot side a fair price for the island’s re-unification?

The question to be asked of the Turkish Cypriots might be: If one day the Greek Cypriot side come to the conclusion that the price asked by the north for re-unification is too high and therefore final separation preferable, what then? The south fulfils all requirements to become a full member of the EU. What would that mean then for the north if they are excluded from such a development?

Would northern Cyprus qualify for EU accession? What will be the future prospect for an independent Turkish Cypriot state let separated from the south not by a ‘Green Line’ but by an international border? Another question: How to explain the fact that a great many Cyprus-born Turks have emigrated from the north in increasing numbers? Is this perhaps a sign that they have preferred to ‘vote with their feet’, thus indicating that the future of the north does not seem promising as long as the present separation continues?

Different word

These may all be ‘rhetorical’ questions. Still, rhetorical questions have their rationale. In this case it is to show that in this game, which has lasted for decades, both sides are losing. This is the reason why I would suggest a time for reflection at the threshold of the new era, in order to evaluate what we on both sides have to win or lose by continuing this game. Mutual recriminations about the responsibility for this situation may go on and on, as they have already ad nauseam. What should we now reflect upon? My answer would be to reflect about two things closely connected to one another. Firstly, consider the world around us as it is taking shape at the beginning of a new century. Secondly, think about the real, long-term interest of our two countries.

On the first question, the world is now a very different place than 50 years ago, when Greece and Turkey started their confrontation. The word ‘globalization’ may be overblown and overused nowadays. The fact, however, remall1s that the traditional concept of the territorial boundaries of the states is continually losing its power and that sovereign rights of the single states are either ignored by technology or willingly transferred by the states themselves to bigger entities such the EU.

Who would have believed 50 years ago that news and ideas no longer know frontiers? Who would have believed that huge amounts of capital, disregarding national boundaries, would move freely around the world within seconds? Who would have anticipated that the European national states would cede sovereign decisions on monetary policy to a European Central Bank? Can we, in this new global environment, really insist on pursuing narrow ‘parish’ politics?

These facts alone should convince us that our peoples deserve a different perspective on their future. Of course, some voices may be raised asking why we should, in the name of globalization, neglect our national interests. TJ1\s answers the second question mentioned above. It is obvious that decades of confrontation have brought no advantages, but only losses, to our peoples. The enormous burden of military expenditure on both sides of the Aegean should alone suffice to show that both Greece and Turkey have been playing a ‘lose-lose game’, while believing or pretending that they are defending their Interests. A game, moreover, that continues at a crucial tune when Turkey wants to undertake the important step of becoming a full EU member and Greece is joining the Euro.

Historical-psychological background

It is understandable that an outside observer might POl11t out that the French-German relationship after the last war is the proper example for Greece and Turkey to follow. This sounds very reasonable, but it ignores the historical-psychological background. Franco-German rivalry may go back to the partition of the Carolingian Reich, but it has always been a rivalry among equals, where each side in turn won the upper hand for a certain time.

In the case of the Greek-Turkish relationship the decisive historical-psychological fact is that the major part of Hellenism was for almost five centuries held in slavery by Ottoman masters and that the Greeks had to fight hard for decades to recover their independence. From the Turkish side history may look different, namely that the former master can hardly tolerate an upstart, former subject, people at his borders. Therefore the historical-psychological context is totally different. One should refrain from drawing misleading historical parallels, such as the Franco-German one.

Besides, neither France nor Germany raises claims on each other’s territory any longer, as Turkey does on Greece. Other outside observers may remark that, since this is admittedly a ‘lose-lose game’, both sides, Greece and Turkey, ought to try somehow to ‘meet each other half-way’. This may sound reasonable, but ignores the fact that by piling up claim upon claim Turkey has over the years pushed the middle line of the road more and more towards the Greek side, leaving an extremely narrow margin for a meaningful negotiation.

Practically all Aegean problems have indeed been successively raised unilaterally by Turkey in her effort to change the status quo in the Aegean at the expense of Greece, while on the other hand Greece is asking nothing from Turkey. (Greece has even abstained until now from extending her territorial waters to 12 n.m., although this would be in conformity to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.) One should further note that while the Greek minority living in Turkey has, through pressure and intimidation, been practically reduced to a handful of people, the Muslim minority in Thrace is multiplying and thriving.

EU accession

It is obvious that there is an ever-smaller space for any kind of a meaningful do ut des deal between the two countries, and this asymmetrical situation makes a future negotiation extremely difficult. This is the reason why Greece considers that Turkey should be the first to take a number of steps to restore a climate of mutual trust. After all, it is Turkey who still threatens Greece with casus belli, raises claims even on Greek land territory and refuses to have the dispute concerning the continental shelf resolved by the International Court of Justice in conformity with international law.

Unfortunately, while Greece has by positive action facilitated the opening of EU accession negotiations for Turkey, the only Turkish gesture in response was to reduce the number of violations of Greek air-space. Moreover, only recently the Turkish Foreign Minister raised questions about the Muslim minority in northern Greece, thus signaling the re-activation of yet another area of confrontation. (It is, to say the least, surprising to hear minority problems in another country raised by Turkey, who is well known for the treatment she reserved over the years to the Armenian and the Greek minorities while still having a huge open problem with the Kurds.)

Therefore, it is understandable that it is a difficult decision for Turkey to revert to the status quo ante Cyprus in the bilateral relations. Neither the present policies of the West nor the past history of the Turks makes it easy. Some Western countries, in particular the US, do not assist Turkey enough to realize the benefits of peaceful neighbourly relations with Greece. On the contrary, Turkey is being given the impression that the West needs Turkey so badly that it would be willing to tolerate any behaviour by Turkey on the international scene. This was the case in the decades of the Cold War. Since then the West has given the Turks to understand that even now Turkey is the ‘indispensable nation’ and that the West is willing to close both eyes if Turkey violates the human rights of her citizens or bullies her neighbours.

On the other hand, the past weighs heavily on Turkey’s public policies. A series of enlightened reformers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have fought to bring Turkey into the mainstream of Europe. The results have been patchy. In more than one aspect Turkish public policy is still far below the accepted European standards. We see this today in the Greek-Turkish context. Turkey, for example, IS threatening a neighbour with war in case this neighbour applies an internationally valid Convention (UN on the Law of the Sea).

International treaties

Turkey further refuses the authority of the ICJ. Last, but not least, Turkey challenges the validity of international treaties (1923 Lausanne; 1931 Dodecanese) and seeks their “re-interpretation”. This tendency to ignore generally accepted standards of international law is particularly worrying. On the subject of the Lausanne Treaty, I recently heard an eminent retired Turkish diplomat maintaining that the Treaty is not a legal, but rather a political and military document which is, therefore, subject to ‘re-interpretations’!

This position was repeated in a text by the Chief of the Turkish General Staff, sayll1g that ‘no legal concept or rule can justify Turkey’s limitation inside her territorial waters and her exclusion from a sea which she alone was using for centuries and with which she has unbreakable ties of geography, history, economy, society and security’!

There is indeed a profound dichotomy between the East and the West in Turkey’s body politic. It was and still is an arduous and demanding task to bring Turkey closer to Europe. Kemal Ataturk said: ‘We come from the East and we go to the West.’ He thus expressed in a few words the deep identity problem within modern Turkey. This is a problem not easy to overcome. All the more so because the West, towards which Kemal and all the reformers before and after him aspired, is not a stationary construction but rather a moving train which Turkey has to catch.

Those striving and struggling today Turkey to overcome the natural inertia of traditional thinking, who work to propel Turkey towards an eventual full membership in the EU with all the advantages but also obligations that this entails, deserve encouragement and assistance. The commitment to EU membership as regards democratic governance and respect of human rights may indeed cause second thoughts among the Turkish political establishment. It should not be taken for granted that Turkey will want to take the European route under any circumstances If accession requires full compliance to European standards as regards respect of international law.

Western standards

This should be taken into account by some European governments. If they, for reasons of their own bilateral interests, signal that they are inclined to ignore Turkey’s disregard of Western standards and values and offer her ‘a bargain price’ for EU accession, they will have given Turkey the wrong message. They will have encouraged Turkey to remain thinking of and acting out an outdated past, believing that she can accede to the EU on her own terms.

Recent statements heard in Ankara against Greece should sound a warning. All the more so because they come from the Foreign Minister and the Chief of the General Staff, as quoted above. These are signs possibly marking a reversal of the recent hopeful trend, and they should alert at least the EU governments that Turkey may revert to the tactics of bullying Greece in the belief that she can count on the Europeans’ desire not to estrange Turkey. This may have the opposite effect and encourage Turkey to continue her old ways rather than converge towards the standards and values of the EU. This would be bad for the EU and bad for Turkey.

I have tried to point out the dangers on the road ahead, not in order to discourage the pursuit towards the new era but in order to show the difficulties and pitfalls which lie ahead. It is my firm belief that we have both, Greece and Turkey, suffered enough from decades of confrontation. We definitely have other priorities in our national lives beyond the dispute about the “grey areas” in the Aegean.

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