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.
The summer of 2020 may have passed with no war and Turkey-Greece relations may at least be “warless,” with “exploratory talks“ on the way, but they are now in a “cold war” period. Greece and Turkey have lost the peace between them somewhere deep in the Aegean — for the time being.
So far, the mutual “controlled crisis escalation” policy of Athens and Ankara has somehow worked. It has “worked” in the sense that there has been no war, but tensions have risen higher and higher. But what if things get out of control within this “controlled crisis escalation” policy?
Berlin’s intention was to pick up the Greece-Turkey negotiations in September and they are sticking to the time frame they set. So, all is fine and right on track for Germany. However, Greece’s patience is running thin, and instead of sitting idly by, Athens is trying to jolt Germany through its political rights within the European Union.
If there is one beneficiary of the Greece-Turkey crisis, it is France’s President Emmanuel Macron. Macron has a very clear stance on backing Greece, which stands in deep contrast to Germany and the European Union Commission, both of which are hesitant to do so.
Just as “détente” seemed to be in the cards for Turkey and Greece, things soured once more. And they soured big time.
The Istanbul Convention may become the new rupture point between the European Union and Turkey. Gender rights are just starting to be a battleground in Turkey, Poland and beyond.
The seismic research vessel Oruç Reis is now parked inside the port of Antalya. The magic behind the rapprochement is named “Merkel” — but the recent spike of the Euro (and the U.S. dollar) vis-à-vis the Turkish lira may have to do with the sudden change of hearts in Ankara.
Prior to the Hagia Sophia controversy, Turkey was already a “hot potato” issue both for the EU Commission and Germany. Some serious brainstorming has already been going on regarding what to do with Turkey as far as some EU countries are concerned.
Ankara wants to play the “Leader of the Muslim world card” — but there is more to Hagia Sophia’s conversion than just that. Just like the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “West Bank annexation” policy, Ankara banks on the strategy of “creating an international problem to overshadow debating domestic grievances and making national politics dependent on the existing government through isolation” strategy.
Ankara is more concerned with France’s involvement in Libya than either Greece or Cyprus at the moment. Is this a window of opportunity for a Turkey and Greece-Cyprus rapprochement? It might be, provided that the EU concedes to visa liberalization, the Customs Union, or both.
In the coming years, “Green Deal” policies for tackling the climate crisis will be the new contentious area between the EU and Turkey, replacing the traditional rupture point of human rights. It is not that Turkey will turn into a human rights bastion, but in its international relations, the EU has already backpedaled on prioritizing human rights.
Ankara has been readying for Germany’s EU Presidency in its own way. The first thing on Ankara’s agenda is brokering and concluding a new migrant agreement with the EU, and doing so by gnawing away some serious concessions. We may translate this as “money talks”.
Hagia Sophia means “Holy Wisdom” in Greek, and according to the holy wisdom of Turkish politics, if “reconquering the Hagia Sophia” is becoming the motto, the target to redesign the political, electoral and legislative scene is looming over the horizon in Turkey.
Relations between Turkey and the European Union may indeed be back on track, but which track is that exactly? Just when I had given credit to EU-Turkey rapprochement, despite my usually pessimistic self, the usual flare-ups with Greece started up again.
On Turkey’s side, there is renewed interest building up a new foreign policy front: not just with regards to the EU and but also the U.S., and even Israel. If there is a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey, why not between the EU and Turkey?
Rear Admiral Cihat Yaycı, who resigned yesterday, is referred to as the “architect of Turkey’s recent policy in Libya, and the Aegean and the Mediterranean.” Now that he is gone, there might be room for Ankara to maneuver and revise its Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean policies to win hearts (but maybe not minds) in Brussels.
Ankara’s newfound warmth towards the EU must have to do with its economic contraction and the foreign currency crisis Turkey is rolling into. Engaging with Europe for a possible bailout would be easier and more internally marketable than an agreement with the IMF. Will Turkey’s post-corona relations with the EU be substantially different than China’s pragmatic engagement with Europe?
The race for vaccine in the EU’s case does look like the race for the antidote nationalism, too.
After the current coronavirus crisis even if returning back to “normal” begins, it seems that the rest of the world will be like the “delivery guys” for Europe. In the new “normal,” Turkey’s citizens or not, regardless of nationality, the only non-Europeans entering the gates of the EU will be transport personnel (like drivers), residency holders and some very selective cases of business or service providers for some time to come.
While various countries including Turkey are now embarking on “corona diplomacy,” China was the first to begin attempts to win hearts and minds with direly needed aid. Beijing was the first to extend a helping hand to European countries suffering the worst from the pandemic— Italy and Spain—and to the economically most fragile one, Greece.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak several European leaders have called launching an all-encompassing Marshall Plan-style public investment program to mitigate the economic impact. Turkey was a part of the Marshall Plan as it was automatically considered to be a part of Europe and the Western bloc back in 1951. How about now?
Hungary’s new “COVID-19 State of Emergency Law” allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely. he COVID-19 crisis may pass, but the dagger in the back is there to stay. And Hungary’s new legislative turn may prove to be the real “epidemic”: draconian systemic changes going viral.
Schengen is one casualty of COVID-19, but not the only one. The European Stability Pact, which requires member states to uphold a less than three percent budget deficit is another casualty. The EU had to lift the budget cap on March 20, guarded by the European Stability Pact.
Is the first casualty of the coronavirus the European Union itself? There are now more confirmed cases of coronavirus globally than there are in China, and Europe has been defined as the “epicenter of epidemic crisis” by the World Health Organization. And when it comes to facing the crisis, it’s almost as though the European Union does not exist as an institution.
Money is an important part of the issue for Ankara; but so is its safe zone plan. The polls indicated that the public supported the military incursion into Northern Syria first and foremost because they believed that a safe zone for Syrian refugees to return may be created. As Turkey’s public opinion sours vehemently on the refugee issue, the “promise of sending back the Syrian refugees” is political gold in terms of returns in political capital.
This is our darkest hour with Europe and the European Union. And I do not think that either the public in Turkey or Turkish politicians in general are aware of the grimness of the situation. Turkey’s public psyche has gone berserk with all sorts of negative emotions, and are unable to recognize that relations with Europe are completely wrecked beyond repair.
While Ankara may not receive the solid backing from NATO that Turkey is seeking against Russia now, dialogue channels with NATO are stronger compared to other international institutions — for example, the European Union. Despite all the conflicts of interest and tensions that Turkey and European states, as well as Ankara and Washington, have endured, their links with NATO are still intact.
In Turkey’s case, beyond Ankara and Erdoğan’s foreign policy line, perceptions are changing, and the West is clearly not winning when it comes to public perception. A recent survey by MetroPOLL showed that Russia is the “most trusted country” in Turkey, followed by Japan, China, and Hungary, respectively. While love of Japan and Hungary extend back to Ottoman times and might be due to imagined cultural affinities, trust in Russia and China are novel developments in Turkey.
Várhelyi’s statement on a “revised methodology” for EU enlargement and the official document for this new approach do not even refer to Turkey. Or, in other words, as far as enlargement is concerned, Turkey is not remotely on the mind of the EU.
Since March 2018, obtaining a visa through the Ankara Agreement got increasingly harder. The UK Home Office made an unexpected announcement at midnight on March 16, 2018; declaring that new applications will not be accepted until further notice.Real impact of Brexit over Turkey may be on trade front though: Britain has signed 18 free trade agreements with 55 countries so far.
2020 seems already to be ridden with unexpected crises erupting all around the world: Turkey had to face one of its worst fears, an earthquake. The warmest responses came from the EU countries with which Turkey has the coldest relations: France, and at a far warmer level, Greece.
One of the most tangible outcomes of the Berlin Conference turned out to be worsening Greek and Turkey relations. Already the Eastern Mediterranean question was the elephant in the room in relations between two countries; now the state of crisis has become permanent and “East Med” issue is right in middle of everything. Troubles with Greece will lead to worsening of already dreadful relations between Turkey and the European Union institutions, too.
U.S.-Greece relations are on track despite Trump’s reluctance to condemn Ankara. Perhaps military sales compensate for that by producing tangible results that reduce Greece’s anxieties concerning Turkey.
Clear goal of the EU and the major European states is saving the nuclear deal. As Trump was threathening to bomb 52 sites in Iran in allusion to the same number of diplomats taken the 1979 hostage crisis in Tehran, the EU’s new foreign policy chief Josep Borrell invited Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Brusells. However, at the moment, there seems to be no clear European vision ahead or roadmap.
If I had one way to describe this year, it would be “bittersweet. While I am more optimistic about Europe in general, I am less optimistic about Turkey and Greece as we slowly step into 2020.
Can local governments and municipal leaders counter centralized, majoritarian populist national governments by creating an alternative “spaces to breathe” for politics? Looking at Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava, Prague and Istanbul’s determined struggle for “freedom”; it looks like we will comeback to this question more and more in 2020-and beyond.
Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made a formal comeback on Dec. 13 with the new party he founded, the “Future Party.” Former Finance Minister Ali Babacan’s new party is counting down the days to its launch and is due to take off either by the end of December or in the early days of January. There is also a surprise movement making its debut in Turkey: the pan-European movement DiEM25-Democracy in Europe Movement 2025.
While Turkey’s public clearly stands by the protection of human rights, they do not actively engage in any tangible act to actually support human rights organizations. They are neither willing to donate nor take part in advocacy campaigns.
At first glance, Turkey may seem to be missing the “climate activism” heyday that’s on-going in Europe. Afterall, it is not the best of the times for any sort of grassroots activism in Turkey. But if you probe deeper, you will come across a diligent and robust climate activist movement budding all over the country.
According to Sept. 2019 data, almost 90% of the public believes that violence against women has increased in recent times. And the public holds the judiciary and the political sphere culpable for increasing violence against women. Around 65% believe that the judiciary is not working effectively when it comes to cases violence against women, and 66% think that politicians are not doing enough to prevent such cases.
As Budapest’s new mayor (and also a political scientist by profession) Karácsony pointed out, maybe the cities are winning at the expense of the populist center specifically because “the correct answer is to strengthen representative democracy, complement this with the institutions which are part of the participative democracy and involve people more in decision-making.”
At the end of the day, the gist of the Erdoğan-Orbán camaraderie is displaying an image of strength to the EU. Their policies regarding Europe, popular domestically, aim to push their own agenda at the expense of Brussels.
The speed at which Germany’s “international safe zone plan” was thrown off the table was only matched by the speed at which it was proposed in the first place. While the proposal became passé almost as soon as it hit the headlines, it was useful for one thing: reflecting on the current state of political affairs in Germany and the relationship between Germany and Turkey.
All eyes were on Ankara’s relations with Washington after Turkey launched its “Operation Peace Spring,” and speculation abounded that the once-allies had parted ways for good. But in fact it is Turkey’s relations with the EU and Europe that took the real and probably most lasting blow.