Istanbul, Turkey – The first visit by a high-level Greek minister to Turkey in more than two years comes months after the countries found themselves on the brink of conflict in the eastern Mediterranean.
Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias will arrive in Ankara on Thursday for a meeting with his counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu which aims, among other items on the agenda, to pave the way for a future summit between the leaders of the neighbors – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
Accepting the invitation last month, Dendias said the talks would also seek common ground to resolve the “only bilateral dispute” between NATO allies. “In other words, the delimitation of the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf of the Aegean Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean.”
Tensions erupted over the summer as Turkish research vessels explored oil and gas reserves in waters claimed by Greece and its close ally Cyprus.
The dispute led to a military standoff at sea as the navies of both countries darkened. At one point, a collision between Greek and Turkish warships heightened fears of an unintentional escalation.
Ankara’s relations with the European Union have also suffered and Brussels raised the prospect of sanctions in response to Turkey’s “provocative actions” against EU member Greece and Cyprus.
Since then, Turkey has suspended its investigative work on hydrocarbons in the disputed waters and two rounds of talks between less senior officials on maritime disputes have taken place in Istanbul and Athens – the first such negotiations since. 2016.
Erdogan and Cavusoglu have also sought to mend bridges with the EU, hosting European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel last week, though the visit was overshadowed by a sexism dispute on the seating arrangement.
Signs of hostility between neighbors, however, remain just below the surface.
In a tweet sent Friday evening, Erdogan’s communications chief, Fahrettin Altun, posted a video accusing Greece of harboring “terrorists” who have targeted Turkey, including Kurdish separatists and operatives. a group accused of organizing. an attempted coup in 2016.
Turkey has also accused the Greek coast guard of putting lives at risk by forcing migrants trying to reach the Greek islands to return to Turkish waters. Meanwhile, Greece has claimed that Turkey is facilitating such crossings in violation of a 2016 refugee agreement between Ankara and the EU.
Although observers see the Cavusoglu-Dendias talks as a significant development, they say there is little hope of serious diplomatic progress on the issues that separate the countries.
“The differences between Turkey and Greece are complex and intractable,” said Eyup Ersoy, faculty member at the Department of International Relations at Ahi Evran University in Turkey.
“Therefore, under current conditions, a comprehensive resolution of these differences is not practical. The prudent approach is to achieve a mutually acceptable modus vivendi based on common interests. “
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the Ankara office of the German Marshall Fund, said the talks marked the start of normalization between the countries.
“The best that both sides can agree on is de-escalation and no one expects anything else,” he said. “The two countries have adopted such maximalist positions that it will be really difficult to reconcile their positions, but they can commit to de-escalation and to keep talking and not to use the resources of the Mediterranean as a permanent problem.
While neither side appears ready to make meaningful concessions, both are keen to end the disruption caused by their disagreements, according to Karol Wasilewski, Middle East and Africa program manager at the Polish Institute of International Affairs.
“I am not so optimistic about the possibility of a permanent solution because it seems that currently the two sides are not yet ready for a compromise,” he said.
“On the Turkish side, we have a deeply nationalist government and a president who seems to regard the foundations of the republic – among which the Treaty of Lausanne which regulates the Turkish-Greek border – as a factor limiting the future development of the ‘New Turkey ‘in the 21st century.
“Greece, in turn, partly thanks to EU support and partly thanks to Turkey’s regional isolation, believes it has the upper hand and is therefore unwilling to give up on its demands. “
Years of animosity
Animosity between the two sides dates back centuries and is a central theme in the founding of the two states – Greece gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century while the defeat of Greek forces in Western Anatolia marked the formation of modern Turkey after the world war. I.
Neighbors have come to the brink of war on several occasions since the 1970s, most notably over the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and the maritime boundaries of the Aegean Sea.
The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne left most of the islands off the Turkish coast in Greek possession, heralding future arguments over maritime borders.
Athens claims that these islands – some are just a group of rocks – determine its territorial waters, a definition according to Ankara denies it fair access to resources off its Aegean and Mediterranean coasts.
Another topic that is expected to be discussed at Wednesday’s meeting is migration, with both sides keen to extend the 2016 deal that saw the EU give Turkey $ 6 billion in return for stopping the flow of migrants to Europe.
They may also seek to limit military exercises in the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean, which have often been the source of tension.
“Because others are watching, both sides will feel compelled to give positive messages and signals,” Unluhisarcikli said, referring to the EU and the US.
Wednesday’s talks, which Cavusoglu said would continue at a later date in Athens, came after Turkey sought to improve relations with other countries in the region, including Egypt, Israel and Arabia. saudi arabia.
The Eastern Mediterranean dispute over energy exploration has entangled other nations besides Turkey, Greece and Cyprus.
A maritime deal with the Tripoli-based Libyan government at the end of 2019 was seen as an effort to counter submarine gas pipeline projects by Greece, Cyprus and Israel.
The agreement, which came as Turkey sent military support to defend Tripoli from attacks by rival forces, created an exclusive economic zone between the Turkish and Libyan coasts that ignored major Greek islands such as Crete and Rhodes.
Mitsotakis called the deal “illegal” and the following year Greece and Egypt signed a similar pact between them.
The Libyan conflict, which ended with a ceasefire in October and the formation of a government of national unity last month, also attracted countries that supported the rival Tripoli-based administration. Is, like Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and France, in the maritime energy dispute. .
Erdogan welcomed the head of Libya’s interim government to Ankara on Monday, when he re-committed to the 2019 agreement. Dendias visited the city of Benghazi in eastern Libya the same day. , following a recent trip by Mitsotakis to Tripoli.
Greece has come to realize that its approach to excluding Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean is neither feasible nor viable, Ersoy says, and it has failed to secure the support it hoped for. get from other EU states.
Meanwhile, “Turkey’s commitment must be seen through the prism of a ‘pro-EU turn’ in its foreign policy,” Wasilewski said.
Despite the dim prospects of a “big deal” between the two, “better talk than not talk… and that’s how we should see it given the current state of affairs,” Unluhisarcikli said.
“As long as we talk and don’t deploy troops against each other, we can be happy.”
A future summit between Erdogan and Mitsotakis would offer a better chance to deal with the tensions, if not to resolve their underlying problems, Wasilewski added.
“Of course, this is not a perfect solution, but the sad truth is that politics is far more often the art of the possible and the achievable than the art of working miracles,” he added.