Greece: Endlessly Caught Between the East and the West

The Balkans keep being the powder keg of Europe in 2020 as in 1914, and Greece is no exception to this geo-philosophical rule. The neverending rivalry with Turkey, the evergreen appeal exerted by the concept of Orthodox brotherhood, and the troublesome relationship between Athens and its Western allies are all set to further influence the country’s path in unpredictable ways that may reshape the regional landscape and make old hegemonic battles appear once again.

The Anatolian Question

Greece has a millennia-old problem: Anatolia. In fact, since the times of the Trojan war, Greek peoples have been fighting for hegemony over the Aegean sea against the city-states and empires settled in the neighboring Anatolian peninsula, from the Achaemenids to the Ottomans. These two distinct civilizations shared only three elements: they came from Asia, they looked West, they turned out to be the Greek world’s life-threatening rivals.

The identity of modern-day Greece is the result of such millennia-enduring confrontation and not even the fall of the Ottoman empire and the subsequent Western-driven birth of a new nation, based on secular and republican values, proved capable of defeating that force whose name is historic recurrence. Greece and Turkey should be allies, in light of their common belonging to the Atlantic Alliance, but they act as if they weren’t. And it would be anti-historic and erroneous to blame Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan for resuming the Greek-Anatolian rivalry. It wasn’t him the head of state at the time of 1996 Imia crisis. Erdogan’s neo-ottomanism is, more simply, the latest expression of a history that started millennia ago.

Spotlight: Disputed Territories in the Aegean and East Thrace

On May 21, 2020, 35 Turkish troops invaded a Greek-controlled 1.6 hectare strip of land located on the eastern bank of the Evros River. Since then, the Turkish flag has been waving on that small piece of Greek territory, and neither the European Union nor the United States has intervened. Athens’ appeasement line isn’t going to work: Ankara knows no language but gunboat diplomacy. The invasion was designed to oblige the Greeks to reopen the negotiating tables about disputed territories in the Aegean and East Thrace: the sovereignty over dozens of islands and of square kilometres is now questioned and under threat.

Greece is finding itself encircled militarily and even spied upon internally. Documents proving the spy activities carried out by Ankara’s powerful secret services, the Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MIT), have recently emerged and have become of public dominion, highlighting the countrywide “monitoring, illegal information gathering and intrusive surveillance” network set up by the Turkish Embassy in Athens in the last years.

Greece’s Western allies had nothing to say in both cases about the small-scale military invasion or the leak, and Athens’ legitimate feelings of discouragement and abandonment may show up their effects in forthcoming future. The not-so-unlikely outcome of the EU’s and the US’ silence — which is counterproductive since it strengthens Erdogan’s self-belief of impunity and invincibility — may be Greece’s realignment and return to its age-old defender: Russia.

Belonging to the West, Flirting With the East

Greece and Russia are divided by politics but united by the Orthodox Christian faith and such ties don’t die off easily as history teaches. The concept of pan-Orthodox brotherhood keeps exerting some degree of cultural influence in the Balkans despite the recent outbreak of the intra-Orthodox schism. Last October, Athens gave in to pressure and eventually decided to take the side of the newborn autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church, but the choice wasn’t taken easily and came after months of internal clashes among the clergy.

In any case, it would be wrong to read that decision as the breaking point of the centuries-old relationship between Athens and Moscow, especially now that the latter returned to play its ancient role of the “Third Rome“. After all, it was Russia’s decision to help Greece and the Balkans get free from the Ottoman rule and on March 25 of every year Greece’s strongly-felt independence day marks the occasion with a chance for the two chancelleries to exchange greetings, blessings and other forms of kindness.

In an echo of the past, Greece needs to be freed again. Russia, too, has not been exempted from the law of historic recurrence, and it is battling against Turkey for hegemony over the same lands disputed during imperial times. Accordingly, a temporary and strategic partnership may rise and some signs seem to confirm the likelihood of this scenario.

Greece is trying to speak with the Kremlin

In early May, Tasia Athanassiou was appointed Special Envoy of Greece’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Syria and, although the news went unnoticed it represents a watershed moment for Russo-Greek bilateral relations. A look at Athanassiou’s curriculum is enough to understand why her appointment is a message addressed to the Kremlin: she has previously served as the Greek ambassador in Russia.

With this move, Athens is clearly sending a message to the Kremlin: there is full openness to restore and normalize diplomatic relations with Syria, which were suspended on December 2012, and therefore to accept Bashar al-Assad remaining in power. Athens is further signalling that it is ready to recognize the Russian-friendly division of power which has resulted from the Syrian civil war.

Re-entering Syria means re-establishing the links with the conspicuous Orthodox minority living in the country as well, a population whose faithful respond in large part to the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, which is in turn part of the Moscow Patriarchate-run Middle Eastern network which protects persecuted Christians and provides the Kremlin with strategic information and tips.

Closer Greek-Russian Military Cooperation

According to the Greek City Times, several months before Athanassiou’s appointment, Athens and Moscow would secretly resume military exchanges of information due to Turkey’s increasingly aggressive behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean. Professor Vaggelis Bachar Moussa, interviewed by the same newspaper, explained why these actions should not be under-evaluated:

Reopening demonstrates a deepening division among the European countries. The EU still insists on maintaining anti-Syrian pressures and sets up hurdles ahead of the return of the Syrian refugees and still continues its policy of hostility against the legitimate Syrian government. Greece is dissatisfied with EU policy in its confrontation with refugees pouring towards its borders and also the EU’s dissatisfactory economic aid to Athens when the country struggled with the economic crisis. Moreover, the EU is no longer a united body in taking common decisions and its alliance is experiencing disarray.”

Furthermore, Moussa anticipated that a Greek-Syrian Chamber is to be inaugurated in Thessaloniki as part of a wider effort to constitute a maritime bilateral partnership. The aims, here, are clear too: to encircle Turkey by sea with the blessing of Russia.

Then, in June, another very meaningful piece of news came from Athens: the industrial conglomerate Mytilineos inked a ten-year contract with Gazprom Export for the import of Russian gas. Mytilineos started purchasing Russian gas three years ago and since then it signed only short-term deals renewed on annual basis. The decision to end the practice of year-per-year small purchases in favor of a decade-long contract is readable as another sign of Greece’s move toward Russia.

The Evergreen Russophilia Undercurrents of Greece

Overturning Greece’s pro-Western geopolitical positioning is out of the question for Athens, but this doesn’t mean that the country will stand by immovably as its national security and territorial integrity are threatened by Turkey. The silence and inaction of the EU and the NATO over Ankara’s expansionist agenda will consolidate two existing and ever-increasing Greek trends: Euroscepticism and Russophilia.

The former dates back to the outbreak of the debt crisis and seems to grow year after year. According to a 2018 study of the Pew Research Centre, 65% of Greeks expressed negative views of the European Parliament and 62% expressed negative views of the EU as a whole.

Mounting Euroscepticism is counter-balanced by the centuries-old popular attachment to Russia, due to its role in the wars of independence and the two nation’s common faith in Orthodox Christianity. According to a 2017 opinion poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre, Greece was the only country in EU where the majority of the interviewed voiced positive views of Russia, 64%, and of Vladimir Putin, 50%.

These numbers are not going to change the country’s geopolitical alignment, since there is no political force willing to change the status quo, but they do clearly depict what the Greeks think of international relations and how they perceive their surroundings. These numbers tell an interesting story: Greece is one of the birthplaces of Western civilization but it hasn’t forgotten its millennia-old links with the East, and if the West does not find a solution to the Anatolian question, then Greece will — if necessary, with the help of the East.