Ankara always says what it does and does what it says, Turkish Ambassador to Athens Burak Ozugergin said in an interview with Kathimerini on Sunday, responding to a question about whether permits will be issued to the Turkish Petroleum Corporation for research in areas outlined in Turkey’s agreement with the Tripoli-based Libyan government.
The Turkish diplomat notes, however, that Ankara is open to a discussion on maritime borders with Athens, stressing that a delimitation would have to be “just, equitable and peaceful.”
Several Turkish officials have claimed that Athens has declined or avoided taking a clear position on proposals from Turkey for official negotiations on their disputes. When were these proposals made and what was their content? What would be their possible format?
It is not a secret that we have long-standing disputes in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece. These disputes are relatively older and more complicated compared to those in the Eastern Mediterranean (don’t forget that it took 43 years for Greece to come to an agreement with Italy, involving a much simpler maritime space from a legal point of view). This is quite normal between neighbors. What is not normal is refusing to talk about it. A deafening silence is what we heard from Greece all these years.
We already have well-established channels to discuss these issues. We also have the guidance of international law. Our discussions with Greece regarding the Aegean disputes go back to the 1970s – just like the “trans-generational” negotiations between Greece and Italy on the delimitation of maritime zones.
One problem is that referring to “Turkish delinquency” when it comes to international law has almost become a mantra in this country. Now that Greece has finally concluded its first EEZ delimitation agreement with one of its neighbors, did you know that we have already successfully finalized all kinds of delimitation agreements with all our neighbors (with countries not necessarily belonging to the same political camp as ourselves) in the Black Sea? On top of that, some of these agreements were made in the middle of the Cold War! Not based on coercion, or threats, or any other means, as the Greek public is led to believe, but based on mutual respect and international law.
Less than three weeks ago the Turkish Government Gazette published the coordinates of Turkish Petroleum Corporation’s (TPA) request for licenses in the Eastern Mediterranean (offshore Rhodes, Karpathos and Kasos) that Greece considers to be part of its continental shelf. Will the Turkish Energy Ministry grant these licenses for exploratory drilling?
You don’t need to read between the lines. Our messages at every level are always open and straightforward. We do not like fait accomplis against us and we do not act in this manner either. We say what we do, and we do what we say.
For example, for years we kept warning the Greek Cypriots (and their regional and other collaborators including Greece) that their unilateral line-drawing attempts in the Eastern Mediterranean were clearly in violation of our rights and those of the Turkish Cypriots. No country can just sit quietly when others are weaving cobwebs which so obviously affect its rights and interests. Especially a country like Turkey, which has the longest coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Our positions on maritime jurisdiction matters always take into account basic principles of the Law of the Sea, as well as the numerous practices and court decisions that together create legal jurisprudence and as such inform international law.
It is true that being a large country does not absolve you from your obligations in the context of international law. International law is for all countries, large or small, but international law in its entirety and in context – taking into account all relevant factors, not only those things that a first-year law student would know. That is why people spend years in law schools and that is why you never stop learning in the practice of law.
Do you think that it is possible to have positive developments in this context?
Yes. It is indeed possible to have positive developments, once paralyzing convictions can be put to rest and calcified postures can be abandoned. It is never too late for neighbors to not only talk, but also to listen to each other.
Do you believe that the agreement between Greece and Italy could work as a precedent to be taken into consideration in a possible dialogue between Ankara and Athens?
Thirty-five years ago, on my entrance exams for the ministry, I was asked what I thought the source of the problem was between Turkey and Greece over the Aegean. I answered that Greece in essence chooses to draw lines in the water and obstinately refuses to talk to us, and that it has made up its mind about what it believes its rights to be without considering what this means for others (I passed the test). Kismet has it that on the occasion of this agreement with the Italians I would see the day that the kind of absolutist thinking informing Greek policy is beginning to evolve. I find it very encouraging that Greece has finally begun to settle long-standing delimitation issues with its neighbors.
It is self-evident that any negotiation process should include an exercise of give-and-take, and public opinion needs to feel comfortable with this fact of life. The cooperation models put forward by the agreement itself, as well as the accompanying documents signed by Greece and Italy, as two European Union members, offer further ideas.
The way I see it, the agreement is further proof that international law does not consist of simply drawing median lines, giving full effect to islands and ignoring all other factors. In fact, international law of the sea is a very complicated field of study. As for third parties, and especially for third parties, I would say that it is not a good idea to volunteer comments when offered a microphone, no matter how confident you feel about the subject. It is precisely because of this that so many lawyers, academics and experts are busy interpreting international law. Otherwise, a ruler would do the job.
In fact, do you think that if maritime delimitation were as simple as drawing a median line between two coasts, with effect given to islands “just like mainland coasts,” the delimitation in the Gulf of Maine between the United States and Canada look like it does today? What would the English Channel look like? Ask our Romanian and Ukrainian friends how they managed to delimit their zones in the Black Sea given the presence of a small island belonging to one party, but curtaining off the coasts of another. So no. Life is not that simple.
Are there any steps that can be taken in the immediate future, on a political, diplomatic, or even military level? Could we see a fresh meeting between the leaders of the two countries?
As I said before, neighbors cannot and should not avoid dialogue, no matter how difficult it might be. It is not possible to solve disputes if there is no face-to-face dialogue. Pretending to have dialogue but still treating each other as ghosts doesn’t help either.
The agreement with Italy is an excellent example that neighbors should sit face to face – just like their coasts – and iron out the issues between them. That is what international law is there for, once one decides to climb down from one’s supposed high moral walls and start respecting his or her neighbors’ rights. Without interference, without theatrics.
There is a caveat from the Greek perspective concerning the memorandum of understanding signed between the Turkish government and the Tripoli-based Libyan government, at least regarding the part of it that settles the delimitation of maritime zones. How can Athens and Ankara accommodate their differences when this MoU is being implemented as we speak? Are you afraid that we may be reaching a dead end of some kind?
We diplomats don’t like references to “dead ends.” History never ends, it always has a way of reinventing itself.
What, in your opinion, could improve sentiment between Greece and Turkey? Do you see a part being played in this effort of bringing the two sides closer from third parties such as the EU or the US?
We might indeed have an opening here. But complaining to third parties does not lead to solutions, at least not in our case. Trying to exert pressure with the help of other actors will simply not work. Civilized countries do not solve their issues by screaming from the rooftops. The UN Charter is there; it lists in an almost exhaustive manner all the ways in which disputes can be solved – negotiation, mediation, arbitration, judicial settlement… you name it. We are open to any and all of these methods; let’s use them. Our mantra has always been that delimitation must be just, equitable and peaceful.
Do you believe that there can be a solution over the Cyprus issue in this context?
Ever since the 60s, there have been plenty of plans and negotiations to find a solution to the Cyprus issue. No stone has been left unturned. All kinds of UN secretaries general, presidents, facilitators and national teams have spent countless accumulated years in the pursuit of a solution. All methods have been exhausted. For decades, all arguments and counter-arguments have been brought to the table. So, it is not from a lack of good people or good ideas that the final solution remains elusive.
It is clearly and squarely because the Greek-Cypriot side does not intend – or cannot bring itself – to share governance and wealth, recognize the political equality and address the security needs of their Turkish-Cypriot counterparts. As Einstein puts it, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” We will not allow another 50 years of meandering, procrastination and stalling by the Greek Cypriots while the Turkish Cypriots are kept in a chokehold. There will be no “picking up from where we left off in Crans-Montana,” because where we left off in Crans-Montana was a snapshot of where we had been for all those years. The ball is not in our court.
In terms of the refugee crisis, shouldn’t Athens and Ankara be working together more closely? Do you see a fresh round of refugees and migrants leaving Turkey to cross the Greek borders, at Evros or by sea?
Increased migratory pressure toward Europe is a constant phenomenon of the last decade. Turkey is one of the frontline states withstanding the worst of this pressure. Therefore, it is not only a matter of rounds of refugees leaving Turkey, but the very conditions that force these people to flee from conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and elsewhere in the first place. As long as the root causes remain unaddressed, Turkey and the EU will continue to face such pressures.
Under these conditions, I totally agree that Turkey and Greece, two NATO allies, as well as the rest of the EU can and should cooperate on the refugee issue. The EU must clearly and unequivocally understand and appreciate that it is Turkey which actually bore the brunt of the migration flows. For 10 years. Involving 4 million people. I ask you, where would these people have ended up if we didn’t host them? A pat on the back is not enough.
The March 18 agreement, developed under difficult circumstances to temporarily address an extraordinary situation back in 2016, provided a useful blueprint. Our experience in the last four years, however, left a bitter taste for us. This is not just because of the unfulfilled financial aspect – as some want to minimize the issue to. It is about the delinquency or incredible delays on the part of the EU to make good on commitments regarding the customs union upgrade, visa liberalization, our accession process, on top of the well-known financial assistance benefiting the Syrians under temporary protection. You must understand that the March 18 agreement contains a delicate sense of balances.
Turkey is ready and willing to continue closely cooperating with Greece and the EU, not only on migration, but also on a number of issues. Greece, as an EU member could genuinely trigger a change in this direction. A renewed commitment in Athens and elsewhere in the EU, to take the March 18 agreement forward in its letter and spirit, could be a good starting point.
Indeed, we have a wide range of issues, which need constant dialogue: From economic cooperation to tourism-related topics, from coordination of counter-terrorism efforts to technical meetings regarding our common land border. And obviously the Aegean and Mediterranean issues. We shouldn’t have to wait 43 years.
Turkish ministers or diplomats often refer to the trilateral partnership between Greece, the Republic of Cyprus and Israel as an alliance against Turkey. Yet this format has openly stated that there is room for more partners. Do you see Turkey entering a regional group of countries, maybe at some point alongside Egypt and/or other players?
After the end of the Cold War, the bloc-based world system became history. The latest developments in the global political and economic landscape make it all the more important for all us to enhance our cooperation, especially at the regional level. The world is more transactional, people are more connected and trade is more global. That obviously includes the Covid era, too. We will have to work hard to claw back to at least the pre-Covid days and we have to do that together.
So, it is a positive thing to form regional cooperation schemes as well as trans-regional consultation mechanisms. Every country does it. Turkey herself is party to a great number of such trilaterals, quadrilaterals or intercontinental cooperation platforms.
But let’s be honest. Neither Turkey nor Greece is new on the international relations scene. We can read each other’s eyes, as they say. Show me in your paper an article or a piece of news about the trilaterals – or whatever incarnation of it – without any mention of “a stern message to Turkey” being trumpeted. Well, it so happens that Ankara does indeed get the message.
If you want to build a house, you don’t start from the roof. No plan, program, organization or scheme designed to twist our arm – whether intended or not – will work. You cannot move a boulder with a toothpick, no matter what the laws of leverage say.
We often wonder about the status of your cooperation with Russia, especially in Libya. Would you say that Turkey is defending NATO interests in Libya? Or is its involvement solely a part of Turkey’s strategy to enhance its regional influence?
Turkey has a principled foreign policy. We are a staunch NATO ally and a central player. We are sensitive to human suffering and this human-centered state tradition makes us the largest humanitarian donor in the world and the most generous country in terms of per capita humanitarian spending. And we never shy away from taking initiatives with relevant countries to stop civil wars and human suffering. That is the rationale behind the constant dialogue and engagement with Russia on a very wide range of issues, from Syria to Libya.
We never support warlords or putschists. Turkey is looking to Libya through the glasses of conscience: That is why we responded positively, back in November 2019, to the request of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya. That is the reason we worked hard to bring about a ceasefire in January to facilitate the political process. Over the last couple of weeks, apart from some irrelevant voices echoing the spirit of colonial times, the international community finally recognized the value of Turkey’s contributions in Libya – not only for bringing stability to that country, but also for Euro-Atlantic security.