Exploratory Talks between Athens and Ankara: Prisoners of Geography

In the eastern Mediterranean, geography, and geopolitics, along with historical grievances, conflicting views, and narratives about national sovereignty, make a resolution between Athens and Ankara difficult, if not impossible. Their collective identities that are built on demonizing the “Other” also pose obstacles in a settlement between the two. (Heraclides 2012) The conflicts and political crises that took place between the two neighbors, from the Greek Independence War (1821-1829) and the Greek-Turkish War of 1922 to the Imia crisis in 1996 that almost took the two countries to the brink of war, have further hardened their ethnic identities through the centuries.  However, what is the main differences between the two countries that complicate their relations and threaten peace and security in the Eastern Mediterranean?

Even the scope of the differences between the countries is a source of division, as they have only agreed that they disagree. For instance, Greece insists that the only issue that needs to be addressed between the two countries should be a delimitation agreement concerning the continental shelf and an agreement for a possible Exclusive Economic Zone in the Aegean Sea. (Gavouneli 2020) However, Turkey disagrees by presenting a list of unresolved issues, which includes questions over the Greek sovereignty of certain islets, named Imia in Greece and Kardak in Turkey, and questions the sovereignty of other “grey areas” regarding uninhabited islets and rocks. Moreover, Turkey has also stressed other issues during the years; the militarization of the Eastern Aegean Islands, the Athens Flight Information Region (FIR), and airspace jurisdiction over the Aegean that is closely related to Turkey’s desire to extend its jurisdiction to the Aegean sea’s media line. (Ηρακλείδης 2020) More precisely, in 1931, Greece claimed a 10mm zone “as regards matters of air navigation and its policing”, while Turkey rejects that Greek National Airspace is extended more than 6mm as the Greek National Airspace should be the same as its territorial water, which is 6nm in the Aegean. (Martin Pratt and Clive Schofield 1996) (Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs n.d.).

Apart from the confrontation between the two countries concerning the Aegean, a variety of other issues also complicates their relationship. The Cyprus Issue is hanging over them like a sword of Damocles since the 1950s; Greece was opposed to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in July-August 1974, and hence, it condemns the occupation of the northern section of Cyprus. (Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs n.d.) On the other hand, Turkey has complained about the international acceptance of the Greek Cypriots as the sole representatives of Cyprus, as it violates the rights of the Turkish Cypriot community. (Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs n.d.)  Even though it goes beyond the scope of this article to further analyze both countries’ arguments concerning the aforementioned issues, one must take them into account in order to better understand the complex nature of the dispute.

Contacts between Greece and Turkey have been a strategic choice of the Greek foreign policy for more than two decades since 2002. Exploratory talks began as a trust-building measure after two major crises between the neighbors, during the Imia crisis in 1996 and Ocalan’s capture in Kenya where he was sheltered by the Greek ambassador which brought their bilateral relations into a deep crisis. However, exploratory talks do not, in any case, mean a formal negotiation between the two parties. (Υφαντής 2021) The process had been frozen since January 2016 after a significant increase in tension the last five years due to the Turkish-Libyan Memorandum about their maritime zones that was rejected by Greece, the hybrid operation that took place in Evros in February-March 2020, and research operations by Turkish ships in maritime areas that Greece considers it’s own. (Dokos 2020) Turkey has protested against a deal between Greece, Cyprus, and Israel for an undersea cable that links their electricity grids as it argues that it violates its territorial waters. Moreover, Ankara was against the so-called “Philia Forum” between Greece, Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Cyprus that Turkey has condemned as an alliance against her. (Soylu 2021)

In view of the above, it is no surprise that exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey in the past have ended up in vain. Greece and Turkey have held more than 60 meetings with the aim of reaching an agreement on the commencement of negotiations over the delimitation of maritime zones. However, the parties have not even managed to agree on an agenda given that Ankara supports the talks should be unconditional and include everything, while for Greece, many of those abovementioned issues are considered a matter of national sovereignty, and they are automatically out of the discussion. (Stamouli 2021) (Dokos 2020)

The talks were resumed on January 10, with the 61st round of exploratory talks ending up with no concrete results. However, the same day, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) spokesman Omer Celik blamed Greece for forming anti-Turkish regional alliances, by referring to the alliance between Greece, Cyprus, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Egypt (Fotiadis 2021). The 62nd round of exploratory talks between Athens and Ankara took place on March 17, when a variety of bilateral, regional, and international issues were discussed between the two. However, Greece is neither optimistic nor enthusiastic about the process, but it will be difficult for Athens to break the table in the eyes of the major powers, including the EU, especially Germany, and the US. (Demirtas 2021)

While the agenda for these talks is unknown, given that Greece and Turkey have been at odds in the Aegean Sea for a long time, it is easy to speculate or at least imagine what is being debated. The Aegean chain of problems is at the top of the list of serious issues in Turkish-Greek relations, and therefore it monopolizes the two countries‘ interests; the agenda includes the delimitation of maritime boundaries between them. More specifically, Greece’s ability to extend the breadth of its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles in the Aegean, where Greek islands can be seen from the Turkish coast with the naked eye, is incompatible with Turkey’s perception that such an extension would erode Turkey’s interests, and therefore the expansion to 12 nautical miles constitutes a casus belli. (Boyraz 2021) In such a scenario, diplomatic means and exploratory talks would give their place to military confrontation, where everything will be decided on the ground.

Several developments unrelated to the Greek-Turkish dispute have also complicated the situation, and increased instability in the area as more countries are not getting along with Turkey due to the latter’s desire for a more active role in the international arena which was manifested both in Libya and Azerbaijan. As such, the crisis is more perilous than other times as the bilateral tensions between Greece and Turkey are interrelated with the evolving tensions between United Arab Emirates, France, and Egypt. For instance, in November 2019, Turkey and Libya’s United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) signed the Delimitation of Maritime Jurisdiction Areas in the Mediterranean Sea and the Security and Military Cooperation Agreement, which established Turkey’s maritime boundaries with Libya, creating a reciprocal EEZ stretching from Turkey’s southern Mediterranean shore to Libya’s northeast coast. The deal disregarded some Greek islands such as Crete and Rhodes and consequently was condemned by Greece, while it also opened the way for Greece to sign a similar agreement to the Turkish-Libyan Memorandum with Egypt in August 2020 to delimitate their respective maritime jurisdictions. (Dalay 2021)

In sum, the fundamental principle of these talks is to solve problems through diplomatic means instead of resolving them on the ground. It remains doubtful that exploratory talks will be able to resolve issues that are considered highly emotional in both states due to historical grievances. In conflict resolution and negotiation, the notion of ripeness, which refers to the timing of the resolution, is the key to any possible viable agreement between parties. Turkey and Greece will eventually resolve their conflict when they are ready to do so; that means that both the leadership and their populations are keen on finding a compromise. (Zartman 2000) Until then, exploratory talks and pre-negotiations serve the aim of a cold peace between them in order to avoid any direct confrontation. Greece needs to buy time to be better equipped, but time seems to be running out under the pressure of the EU and NATO.

Written by Christina Chatzitheodorou



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