By Charalampos Tsitsopoulos
As of late, Greek-Turkish relations have been characterized by the same “contained tension” that has dominated for the last twenty years. The last chapter in the neighbors’ turbulent coexistence was written in early December, when Greece’s Council of Appeal engaged in a charade of self-contradicting rulings.
On December 5, the court ruled against the extradition of three of the eight military officers that fled Turkey after July’s coup and entered northern Greece via helicopter. Just one day later, the same court –albeit with a different composition- ruled in favour of extraditing another three.
All six were acquitted of the charge of plotting to murder the Turkish President but were charged with the attempt to dissolve the country’s polity, obstruction of the country’s parliamentary session and unlawful seizure of a helicopter. Bizarrely, while the plotters’ extradition was greenlighted, the court ruled that they would remain in the country.
Another proposal currently making the rounds is the referral of the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. For the moment, however, the cases are pending adjudication in Greece’s Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Turkish government has been calling for the plotters immediate extradition.
Despite the ongoing kerfuffle over the fate of the “8”, its broader impact on Greek-Turkish relations has been hard to gauge. It is impossible to confirm whether recent skirmishes off the coast of the islet of Imia between Greek fishermen and the Turkish coastguard owe to Turkey’s vexation at Greece’s stance on the plotters.
In the background, Greek-Turkish relations are now entering a new era of uncertainty, pulled into chaos over the fate of the 8, by President Erdoğan’s verbal revisionism regarding the Treaty of Lausanne, perennial tensions over the Aegean and the negotiations over Cyprus, which have thus far failed to bear fruit.
Two factors that will shape the future
From a Greek standpoint, relations between the two countries have always been characterized by a number of staples: Turkish violations of Greek airspace and subsequent dogfights, disputing the Greek Islands’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and the Aegean continental shelf, and meddling in Thrace’s Muslim politics. Despite concerns, a ‘hot incident’ has thus far been avoided and this is often cited as proof of the benevolent nature of Greek-Turkish relations. But the situation is unlikely to remain static for much longer.
The failed July 15 coup attempt has unleashed a furious response on the part of the Turkish government: the military purge, the sacking of academics, journalists and civil servants on a massive scale. Deemed by some a witch-hunt and by others a legitimate response to a cloak-and-dagger operation to take over state mechanisms, the post-coup purge has the potential to transform Turkey’s social and political fabric for the foreseeable future.
In light of this, Turkish foreign policy is bound to be unpredictable and unstable. Two prominent Turkey analysts, Emre Caliskan and Simon Waldman, pointed out in late November that the country’s foreign adventures in Syria and Iraq represented a firm message to the world that the country’s post-coup military remains ‘a strong and capable fighting force.’
Embroiled in so many regional conflicts, the coup’s spill over effect on Cyprus is yet to be fathomed. Thus far, reactions have been mixed. Some analysts see Cyprus as already touched by Turkey’s troubles. Investigations into officials tied to Fethullah Gülen – the religious leader who Ankara blames for instigating the coup – have already been launched in the Turkish controlled north of the country, while some of the generals arrested in Turkey had previously served on the island.
This comes at a time when some, such as prominent Turkish Cypriot scholar and former negotiator Ahmet Sözen, argue that Turkey has increasing political, cultural and educational sway in the area it controls. On the other hand, some see President Erdoğan’s increasingly tense relations with the EU leading to a possible olive branch for Cyprus; as the theory goes, Cyprus could become Erdoğan’s only democratic success story westwards. Although plausible, this remains an unlikely outcome. As Sözen says, “a more authoritarian Turkey will have different plans for Cyprus”.
The Cypriot conflict is also entering a new ambiguous and precarious phase. As Sylvia Tiryaki, a well-known legal scholar at Istanbul’s Kültür University recently told this correspondent, “Cyprus is the main reason for Greek-Turkish woes.”
Whether one agrees or disagrees with this statement, the conflict’s importance for the political psychology of the two countries’ bilateral affairs cannot be overstressed. However, since 2014, too much hype has accompanied coverage of the Cypriot conflict. This hype has proven to be artificial, as the talks are mostly foreign-imposed, with intersocietal understanding remaining insignificant, and very little progress being made on the ground. In many ways, the trajectory of the Cypriot conflict has not been too different to that of Israel/Palestine: stagnation on the ground, framed by mutual recriminations, finger-pointing and exaggerated promises.
UN backed talks over the island have been taking place on and off for the last two years, but two developments mean we are in a very different place now than in 2014. First, the energy spent over these two years, preceded by conflict fatigue on both sides, means that a failure to reach a solution soon will most likely lead both sides to take extreme, even irreversible, measures. For the Turkish side, this could mean an overt, or more subtle, annexation of the North. For the Greek side, it could amount to an end of support for Turkey’s EU accession talks, or a hardening of its position on the issue (which has thus far been quite pragmatic).
Secondly, and more worryingly, conflict fatigue has led to sourness between Greece and the Greek Cypriots. After the recent collapse of the Switzerland talks, Greek Cypriots accused the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias (in tandem with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras) of “rejectionism”. The latter’s sin was predicating an eventual solution to the conflict on the complete withdrawal of Turkish troops (around 40,000) from the island, while also calling for the abolition of the system of guarantees. The latter ensures the territorial integrity and security of Cyprus and affirms the right of guarantor powers to re-establish the status quo on the island, if this state is altered by either side.
To make matters worse, at the annual memorial for deceased Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos, Angelos Syrigos, a prominent analyst of Greek, Cypriot and Turkish relations made the assertion that any potential annexation of Northern Cyprus by Turkey would force the Greek side to face the simple reality that the real interlocutor in the Cypriot negotiations is Turkey.
A storm of accusations and insults was unleashed against Syrigos, including by the Cypriot President himself. In alluding to the former in a TV interview, the President talked of “Greek visitors” to Cyprus, who fail to realize that the island is not their own “town or village”. Papadopoulos’ statements, rejected by a large chunk of the media and political establishment of Cyprus, could nevertheless not fail to point to a loss of equanimity.
An uncertain future
Relations over Cyprus have always been volatile. But while the Greeks weakly rely on international law, the Turkish seemingly prefer to engage in brinkmanship, for example by threatening to fill Europe with refugees or by asserting that the Cypriot city of Morphou will never be given back.
While welcoming outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama in his last overseas trip, Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos stressed the importance of European and international law for a Cyprus resolution. In his pompous speech, devoid of any real political substance, before departing, the American President reduced the resolution of the Cypriot conflict to a simple equation: “a negotiation between Cypriots – Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots”. It is clearer now more than ever that the discourse surrounding the Greek-Turkish-Cypriot issues is indeed a dialogue of the deaf.