The New Motto Between Athens and Ankara: “Harsh Words But No War”

On July 7th, 2019, Greek people elected a new prime minister, the leader of the New Democracy Party, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Meanwhile, in the eastern Mediterranean, a second Turkish drillship, Yavuz, was sailing towards Cyprus to begin drilling for oil and gas by adding more flames to the already hot dispute, between Greece, Greek Cypriots and Turkey, stemmed from the drilling rights over Cyprus. Just a few hours after the announcement of his landslide victory against his rival Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras, Mitsotakis received his first phone call as a prime minister from a head of state, a rather unexpected name. President of Turkey Recep Erdogan congratulated Mitsotakis on his great victory and wished him good luck. Erdogan wished that the results will contribute to the relations between the two countries, and to the regional prosperity.

The next day, before departing to Bosnia-Herzegovina for the Balkan Summit, Erdogan vowed continued oil and gas drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean. He followed this up by stating:

“My wish is to run this new process with Greece in peace and in solidarity. After the polls, we will carry out our talks through our relevant officials. Our desire is not to experience any sort of difficulty in the Mediterranean and in the Aegean in the upcoming period.” 

Ankara reportedly hopes to start a new era with Athens. That might seem a little naive within the light of harsh announcements already fired up between Ankara and Athens just after the elections regarding the tense situation in the eastern Mediterranean, and long list of unresolved disputes between the two countries, not to mention the deep-rooted historical hostility. Yet according to the seasoned observers of Greek-Turkish relations, after the former coalition government which had included ultra-nationalists such as former defence minister Panos Kammenos, who created tension between Ankara and Athens, Mitsotakis’ election as prime minister regarded as a positive development.

To begin with, the Mitsotakis family, which has a long political heritage, have always maintained cordial relations with Turkey. When Constantine Mitsotakis, Kyriakos’ father, was arrested by Greek military junta in 1967, the then Turkish Foreign Minister, Ihsan Sabri Caglayangil, helped the family escaped to Turkey to flee to Paris. Kyriakos was just one year old at that time. As a prime minister senior, Constantine never followed a pro-Turkey policy, yet always had warm personal relations with Turkish leaders. Thus, it is considered that Kyriakos will follow in his fathers’ footsteps – he knows the importance of Turkey and won’t follow an adventurous policy.

The New Democracy Party is a nationalist party, and used hawkish rhetoric regarding Cyprus, energy issues in the Eastern Mediterranean, and relations with Turkey during the election campaign. Unlike Syriza, it has the absolute majority in the parliament, and doesn’t have to cooperate with the ultranationalists. This means that they can exert pressure on the Greek Cypriot government, not vice versa, unlike the situation during the tenure of Tsipras. 

Despite their stormy relationship during Tsipras’ government, Athens and Ankara were succeeded to maintain dialogue channels. In addition to high-level meetings, they have been talking at a technical level on confidence-building measures especially on the security issues in order to avert a hot conflict.  Ankara already invited the new government to swiftly revitalize existing dialogue channels and start contacts as soon as possible to address issues on two countries agenda. Mitsotakis also reportedly expressed his readiness to have an honest discussion with Turkey and Erdogan while fighting for EU to apply tough sanctions on Turkey in order to put an end to her drilling in the eastern Mediterranean.

Therefore a new set of technical talks might resume shortly if not a high-level meeting between the two countries despite the war of words and rising tension on drilling rights over Cyprus and exactly because of that too. Since the risk of accidental confrontations at sea or in the air is seen higher than it has been for decades at the moment.  

Yet even the two sides luckily will be able to prevent a hot conflict the possibility of calming the crises completely and start a detente as in 1999 is vague as so many other dynamics are involved. Such as Mitsotakis’  performance as a prime minister and if he will succeed to bring welfare to his people, domestic policy developments in Turkey, Turkey’s relations with the Western block especially with the US after the deployment of Russian made S-400 missiles, Turkey’s relations with Russia therefore the situation in Syria, the future of “Mediterranean Pact” between US, Greece and Israel, Turkey’s relations with Israel,  the interests of global powers over Cyprus such as natural resources, sea, and air bases; what will happen with Iran and so on… But it is a possibility. Comprehensive negotiations between Athens and Ankara might start during the reign of Mitsotakis.

It is necessary to note that the main problem between Turks and Greeks, who have many cultural similarities,  is psychological. Greek people were under the control of the Turkish Ottoman Empire for 400 years then achieved their independence through a series of bloody wars. Afterwards invaded a large part of declining Ottoman Empire’s lands with the backing of Britain only to got a very humiliating defeat.  A lot of bloodsheds. Those memories rooted deeply in their psyche. Similar traumatic events took place in Cyprus between Turks and Greeks and resulted in the “intervention” of Turkish troops in 1974.

Besides history,  geography is also an important fact. Conflicts  such as territorial waters, delimitation of the continental shelf, exclusive economic zone, and  air space, between Turkey and Greece mainly stem from the unmarked demarcation lines  because of the unique  characteristics  of the Aegean which is “a semi-enclosed Sea located in between the Turkish and Greek mainlands and is dotted by thousands of islands, islets, and rocks.” Turkey wants an equal share while actually saying, “ I have to be strong” but Greece says, “ No, I own many islands so it is not fair for you to have equal share” meaning, “You are already stronger than me.”

The latest crises in the eastern Mediterranean has sparked with the finding of the reserves of oil and gas around Cyprus which are probably not rich and feasible enough to compete for. Yet the core of the problem is political. Greek Cypriots  claims that as the internationally recognized The Republic of Cyprus they have every right to give licenses to the foreign companies such as America’s Exxon Mobil and Noble Energy, France’s Total and Italy’s Eni  to drill in the blocks in Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Turkish Cypriots can only get their share when the island will be united.  Turkey, who send its troops to the island in 1974 “because of the military coup backed by Greek junta to protect the Turkish Cypriots there”, says first they have to reach an agreement with the Turkish Cypriots on how to share the resources. Moreover, Turkey claims part of the EEZ is lie within its continental shelf and already send 2 drilling ships to the region “to protect its rights”. Perhaps resuming of Cyprus talks might help to ease the situation and there are already signs in that direction even both sides have preconditions.

It was announced that Mitsotakis will visit Greek Cyprus between July 20-22, at the 45th. year of  Turkish intervention.  So be ready for more bellicose rhetoric from both sides. Since neither Greek nor Turkish people want war but like harsh words, “Harsh words but no war” seems like to be the new motto between Ankara and Athens.