Alexis Papachelas ALEXIS PAPACHELAS

Dangerous times in the Aegean and Cyprus

COMMENT

The concept of gray zones (the claim that the sovereignty of a number of islands and islets in the Aegean is undetermined) was a novel idea that Turkey came up with 20 years ago.

At some point, Ankara reached the point of including the Greek island of Gavdos in its gray zones list.

Whenever Athens made an official request regarding the islands or rocky outcrops that Turkey had on its list, the answer was always very vague: “Anything that is not clearly included the bilateral agreements that set out Greece’s borders with other countries.”

At first, many people thought this was a bargaining chip that Ankara would trade as part of a grand bargain. They were wrong.

The failure to settle differences between Greece and Turkey gave Ankara the opportunity to add more issues to the agenda.

Over time, these have become permanent and ever-expanding. Currently, Turkey considers significant parts of the Aegean to be gray zones. This includes islands that have been inhabited for decades.

It is questioning Greek sovereignty through its actions, not just its words, by the frequent presence of naval vessels in Greek waters and overflights by fighter jets. Over the last few months, it has being doing this more systematically and openly.

Greece’s approach has also changed. The doctrine that existed in the wake of the Imia crisis in 1996, when the two countries almost went to war, was based around not building up tension following various incidents and maintaining a low profile.

Apart from the government of Costas Simitis, this policy was also followed by his successor as prime minister, Costas Karamanlis, and others.

The current government, however, is following a different tactic, with visits by officials to islands that are in Turkey’s sights. Often, the temperature rises, and sometimes it reaches dangerous levels. Experienced diplomats are surprised that this has not yet led to a “hot incident.”

While this is going on, Turkey is trying to asphyxiate Kastellorizo in order to deny Greece’s claim to a continental shelf that borders Cyprus’s.

A dangerous situation is also playing out in Cyprus. The Turks are trying to impose the concept of gray zones there as well.

July (when a new round of drilling for hydrocarbons is due to begin off Cyprus) promises to be a difficult month.

Ankara will attempt before then to intimidate the companies that plan to start drilling or try to obstruct them if they are not scared off by threats.

The international community can see the danger and will make another, possibly final, effort to solve the Cyprus issue.

Things are going to get serious. And all this will be taking place within an uncertain and unpredictable international environment.

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