The coronavirus-immune Greek-Turkish conflict

The world stopped with the coronavirus pandemic, but the crisis between Turkey and Greece did not. In other words, the Greece-Turkey conflict is immune to COVID-19: even the coronavirus cannot smother the seething cauldron that is the Ankara-Athens axis.

The world stopped with the coronavirus pandemic, but the crisis between Turkey and Greece did not. In other words, the Greece-Turkey conflict is immune to COVID-19: even the coronavirus cannot smother the seething cauldron that is the Ankara-Athens axis. 

Since 2016, things have not been easy between Greece and Turkey, with sporadic eruptions between the two countries. Since 2018, though, things have really been going downhill, and 2019 was the year in which that “sourness” turned into a “cold war,” from occasional brushes to all-out open conflict with clashes between two country’s security forces. 

What went wrong after decades of rapprochement? One explanation is that the forging of the ruling nationalist alliance in Turkey between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) may have rendered its engagement in “low-intensity political warfare” with Greece inevitable. Another is the feeling of betrayal President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan felt after eight pilots from the Turkish Air Force involved in the 2016 coup attempt fled to Greece and were granted asylum by Greek courts. 

In any case, so far, casting Greece as the usual suspect for fanning the flames of conflict in the Aegean and Mediterranean region, as well as scratching old wounds, has proven to be costless for Ankara. It is lucrative for Ankara to demonize Athens: there is a lot of fertile ground for that in Turkey’s psyche. A survey by MetroPOLL in December 2019 verified that Greece was among the “least-trusted countries” in Turkey, ending up roughly as low on the list as Saudi Arabia, the U.S., and Syria.

At the beginning of March 2020, when our agendas were not stricken by corona-related issues, one of the biggest news items was the refugee crisis between Turkey and Greece. Even in Turkey, the land of “breaking news”  and a notoriously mercurial public agenda, tensions with Greece and the plight of the refugees heading to the border dominated the agenda for weeks. But then the “corona crisis” made the debate on refugees wither away. Even though, refugees stayed around the border area into the beginning of April, they were far away from the eyes and minds of the Turkish public. Silently, the refugees who camped around the Greek-Turkey border for weeks disappeared, and it was as if the conflict had gone away. 

That’s not really the case, though — at least for Greece. Possible conflict with Turkey continues to plague Greeks to the extent that the coronavirus may be a secondary worry. It was that way back on March 6, according to an opinion poll by Pulse/Skai. According to the poll, a total of 83 percent of the Greek public was worried about the conflict erupting at the border with Turkey, out of which 62 percent were “very worried.” The “coronavirus pandemic” was a far less pressing concern among Greeks, with only 42 percent of the public worrying about it. And it was mostly the elderly respondents who were worried. As a reminder, carnival festivities were canceled back on February 27 after the detection of the first local COVID-19 cases. So, the coronavirus debate was very much present in the country back then. Nevertheless, fears about Turkey won over the coronavirus.

An editorial in the newspaper Kathimerini at the beginning of April read as follows: “Unlike the coronavirus, Turkey is here to stay.” That may be the sentiment of many Greeks as they become more and more optimistic about overcoming the coronavirus. This optimism is reflected in a DiaNEOsis think tank/Metron Analysis survey that indicated that around 86 percent of Greeks think that their country is headed in the right direction: a first since austerity times. Comparatively, the Turkish public is much less optimistic, with around only 35 percent thinking that the country is headed for better days. 

As I was writing this, Turkey’s media started to buzz with reports of harsh statements from the Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and angry reporting regarding a military exercise plan by the Greek military around the islands of Farmakonisi/Bulamaç and Pserimos/Keçi. Both are a stone’s throw away from Turkey, at 5.8 and 4.3 nautical miles (around 10 and 8 kilometers), respectively, from Turkish shores. It is alleged in the Turkish press that Greek soldiers will be shooting real bullets towards Turkey as a part of the planned exercise. 

Meanwhile, Çavuşoğlu’s angry remarks about Greece concerned the evacuation of Greek sailors from Djibouti, as the Turkish Foreign Minister bashed Greece for obscuring Turkey’s role in the rescue. Çavuşoğlu argued that his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias thanked European Union officials for the evacuation of three Greek sailors from Djibouti, bypassing that it was Turkey who actually executed the operation.

These are the burning issues popping out of the seething cauldron of Greek-Turkey relations today, but every other day, there is an issue regarding the conflict in Libya (in which both Ankara and Athens are actively engaged), dog fights over the Aegean Sea, security forces around the Thracian borderline fuming and brushing off their shoulders, and the “imaginary” Eastern Mediterranean pipeline project — which is ironically taking place at a time when energy prices are crashing.

In Greece, commentators are questioning whether worsening economic conditions in Turkey due to a “coronavirus recession” will hinder Ankara’s funding of military operations. There may be a point in that: polls already indicate that up to 30 percent of the Turkish public may have been affected by unemployment after the “corona crisis.”

It is sad that schadenfreude is winning on both sides of the Aegean; in other words, the misfortune of one side becomes the joy of the other. Once upon a time, not so long ago, we had learned to live in peace and solidarity.

September 29, 2021 A post-Merkel Turkey