Greek-Turkish relations have always been a delicate balancing act and this has not been made any easier by the issue of the eight Turkish servicemen wanted by Ankara over their alleged involvement in the 2016 failed coup against Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime.
The Turkish president has made his annoyance at their being given asylum in Greece abundantly clear and even appears to take it personally. However, he needs to keep in mind two very important dimensions of the issue: Firstly, Greece was among the first countries in the wake of the coup attempt to express support for Erdogan as Turkey’s democratically elected leader – notwithstanding his regime’s civil rights violations which are another matter. Secondly, the Greek justice system is independent and Greece, as a member of the European Union, abides by certain rules and principles.
The fact that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras spoke with Erdogan privately for around two hours during his visit to Ankara can be interpreted as positive. The Turkish president puts a lot of stock in personal ties and in developing a climate of trust with the leaders of other countries. In this sense, Tsipras’s personal appeal – acknowledged even by his political rivals – may prove useful. The crux of the matter, however, is what the two leaders agreed or disagreed on and what this will ultimately mean for the country.
Foremost among the many issues dividing Greece and Turkey are Cyprus and the Aegean. Erdogan needs to understand that amping up tension in the Aegean does not bring him any benefits. With a lot of groundwork already accomplished, exploratory talks could result in tangible progress. Greece is right to insist on the principles of international law even though these may not always lead to decisions and results that we will be entirely happy with – and this is something the Greek public needs to bear in mind.
The Cyprus issue, meanwhile, needs to be resolved in a functional and just manner – with no foreign troops on the island or external “guarantors” – in order for any solution to be viable. Reunification will be to the benefit of everyone involved, while the area of energy is becoming increasingly important and now involves American and French interests.
Erdogan would be wise to acknowledge these facts and act accordingly. Threats, harassment and provocations may earn him points on the domestic public relations front, but they are not doing his country any favors.
Progress may also be achieved thanks to a line of communication being initiated between the two countries’ defense ministers, who have also served as the chiefs of their countries’ armed forces. We will soon have the first signs of what direction this new relationship will head in at next week’s NATO defense ministers meeting in Brussels.