Reviving a crisis kept frozen
The move was cited by some as just what was needed. Its follow-up made even some of Turkey’s most experienced centrist diplomats, known for extreme prudence in matters of national security, react with warnings.
The issue was the sudden revisit of a tiny, rocky islet just off Turkey’s south-western shores, 7km from the coast of Bodrum peninsula. At the end of January, there were reports that Greek and Turkish warships off the Kardak/ Imia rocks had come close to ramming each other. A violent incident was averted but a battle of words between Ankara and Athens ensued.
In a way, it was expected because it was bound to be seen as an attempt to melt a frozen conflict about the status of the uninhabited and rugged islet. A series of military moves 20 years ago, due to a stranded Turkish freighter in its vicinity, had brought the two countries — both NATO allies — close to war. Thanks, however, to emergency efforts by the Clinton administration and diplomats on both sides, this was averted. This issue has been frozen since then.
Among the nearly 3,000 islands in the Aegean, almost all of them part of Greece, there are disputes about very few. Kardak/Imia stands out because of its closeness to the Turkish coastline. The conflict concerns grey areas in the Aegean where treaties left some issues open to interpretation.
Soon after the naval incident, Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos visited the air space around the islet, dropping a wreath to the seas. In a response, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu issued a warning to Athens “to pull itself together” and not to escalate the conflict. Military activity, on the seas and in the air, rapidly increased.
This transpired after a Greek appeals court refused to extradite eight Turkish soldiers who had defected to Greece after the failed coup attempt last summer.
In Turkey, the opposition read the incident as an attempt by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to retaliate for the court’s decision and hunt for more nationalist votes to cement his power before a referendum that could grant him more powers.
Faruk Logoglu, a former Foreign Ministry under-secretary and deputy of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said this was a harbinger for similar foreign policy moves linked with the referendum to introduce a presidential system to Turkey. Unal Cevikoz, a former ambassador to Azerbaijan and Iraq, said “these were moves that lack substance, moves that mean a reflection of domestic issues into foreign policy”.
The diplomats are right. This was an attempt to create an artificial crisis at a time when the world seems to lack proper, pro-stability leadership.
“That’s why Turkey’s main opposition party argued that the Imia show was intended to bolster Erdogan in his campaign. The threats against Greece may serve to get citizens’ minds off Syria, where, despite air support from Russia and the United States, Turkey has not made great gains,” Nikos Konstandaras wrote in Greece’s Kathimerini newspaper.
“The threats against Greece, however, serve more than domestic needs nor are they simply aimed at forcing Greece to bend to Ankara’s will,” he said. “They show that Erdogan intends to act as he pleases, even against a country whose border is the European Union’s border. The time favours leaders who are driven by emotions, as seems to be Erdogan’s permanent condition.”
Indeed, these are the times when many powers seem to be flexing their muscles. The Aegean Sea, offering high risk of death for refugees fleeing war and destruction, is seen as useful for provoking nationalism. The concern is, as history teaches, once you set a pattern of mutual threats, you find yourself in lethal escalation. Seen in the same geopolitical context with a divided Cyprus, it keeps the tensions high in the entire Eastern Mediterranean.
Environmentalists have pointed out that the more than a dozen disputed tiny rocks and islets in the hard-to-navigate Aegean Sea provide opportunities for Greece and Turkey to cooperate on building lighthouses and, even more wisely, on wind power, which the two neighbours would jointly benefit from. Sadly, the times do not seem to favour such constructive thinking.