Alpha males in Turkey-Greece relations

Greece and Turkey’s war of words during a recent press conference of their foreign ministers in Ankara last week was indicative of the limits of rapprochement between the two countries. The leaders of both countries may be constrained by rising nationalist rhetoric in their countries. So, what awaits Greece and Turkey at the upcoming 5+1 talks? A 2004 scenario could play out again in the coming months if nationalism on both sides does not block their ‘alpha-type’ leaders.


Greece and Turkey’s war of words during the press conference of their foreign ministers last week was indicative of the limits of rapprochement between the two countries. This time around, it was Ankara who sought to diffuse the tension-actual spat between Nikos Dendias and Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, which was far fierier than was reported in the Turkish press. Dendias’ harsh retort raving chanting “Mevlüt, Mevlüt, it is Greek territory you are violating; Greek territory,” would be hard to swallow for any government.

Dendias switched tones as soon as he landed in Athens, though in his interview with Sunday Kathimerini, he commented that “Though problems between Turkey and Greece are hard to solve, it is not impossible.”

Although it was reported that Dendias pursued every step in his Ankara visit in constant communication with Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, his tone was so harsh that it was also speculated that he was also investing in his own political future. So much so that Dendias had to ward off suppositions by explicitly stating that he is in total harmony with Mitsotakis.

Alexis Papachelas of Kathimerini wrote that “Nine prime ministers – Konstantinos Karamanlis, Georgios Rallis, Andreas Papandreou, Konstantinos Mitsotakis, Kostas Simitis, Kostas Karamanlis, George Papandreou, Antonis Samaras and Alexis Tsipras – were unable to untie the Gordian knot.” The knot being tackling relations with Turkey.
The spat between Dendias and Çavuşoğlu may have the uncalculated outcome of propelling Mitsotakis to the forefront and allowing him to negotiate with President Erdoğan personally. So far, Mitsotakis has been commenting coolly from the sidelines and emphasizing that he is dealing with Turkey from a position of power.

It may be time for the idea of a Erdoğan-Mitsotakis summit to materialize. The two previously met in September 2019 in New York, during the United Nations General Assembly.

Both leaders may be constrained by rising nationalist rhetoric in their countries. Mitsotakis must overcome his right wing conservative Nea Demokratia’s (New Democracy) legacy and Erdoğan is facing a strengthened opposition even keener to use nationalism as a foreign policy than he is.

Meral Akşener, leader of the Good (IYI) Party, a rising star of Turkish politics recently, finally started paying attention to foreign policy. However, her foreign policy vision used two forked tongues to “usual suspects” like Greece and China. In February, she was hissing to Mitsotakis over the Cyprus Question calling him “not to delve into matters bigger than his own height”. Akşener seemed to be unaware that Greece is one of the guarantor states alongside Turkey and the United Kingdom designated by the Treaty of Guarantee of 1960.

But then again, she recently made calls to “Free Eastern Turkistan,” meaning the Xinjiang state of China. That is ‘no go’ territory, even for Donald Trump, as the U.S. endorses a “One China” policy just like the rest of the world by and large. If Akşener managed to discuss the Xinjiang issue within the context of human rights, but not blatant Turkish nationalism, she would have a point. As she pursues the same raw nationalist line also regarding the Kurdish Question, Akşener is reducing her chance drastically of being a future president of Turkey, although she already gets nil from Kurdish voters according to polls.

As one reader recently commented, the opposition in general seems to frame their foreign policy vision according to the “meet the local folk visits” they have been conducting frequently for a few months now. All puns aside, it seems to be the case that “blaming the government for not being nationalist enough in foreign policy” has been a general line among the opposition. That sort of ‘coffeehouse’ talk was something that ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was criticized for, but is there anything else to offer?

Foreign diplomatic circles in Ankara are well aware of the fact that, had the opposition been in charge, things may have gotten worse in Turkish foreign policy. Maybe that is too harsh of a judgement, but public perceptions among Turkey’s population also involve questioning the opposition’s credentials in foreign policy. In-depth interviews and focus groups representative of the population always feature the same question: Is the opposition capable of representing Turkey in international relations?

Now, the Cyprus 5+1 talks under the sponsorship of the United Nations on April 27-29 in Geneva will be a litmus test for Mitsotakis, Erdoğan, and Turkey’s opposition. Turkey and the Turkish-Cypriot side will be opting for a two-state solution and have Northern Cyprus internationally recognized. Dendias summed up the Greek position as strictly pro-bicommunal federalism and not an inch off that. In personal talks with Çavuşoğlu, Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades is known to have been warm towards a ‘two-state solution.’

Will the 5+1 talks lead to a new 2004 moment for Greece and Turkey? At the December 2004 European Union Summit, Greece chose to accept the nomination of Turkey as a formal candidate for membership even if the bilateral problems between the two countries were far from being resolved. Meanwhile, Turkey averted eyes to the fact that the Greek-Cypriot state became an EU member. That scenario may play out once again in the coming months if nationalism on both sides does not block their ‘alpha-type’ leaders.

March 26, 2021 Living on borrowed time