Greece-Turkey: A thorny bilateral dialogue

The first exploratory Greek-Turkish meeting, held last Tuesday in Ankara (the second will be in Athens this April), confirmed predictions that the Turks would bring all their expansionist demands concerning the Aegean to the negotiating table. The Greek Foreign Ministry is waiting on 3-4 meetings between Ambassador Anastasios Skopelitis and Professor Argyris Fatouros and Turkish ambassadors Ugur Ziyal and Deniz Bolukbasi, before drawing firm conclusions about the other side’s real intentions. In contrast to the non-controversial issues, where Greek-Turkish dialogue produced specific agreements, the approach to the difficult issues is more likely to end in an impasse. Besides, these issues have been discussed repeatedly in private meetings between Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou and his Turkish counterpart Ismael Cem but, as the Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman says, «It has been established that there is not a common approach to resolving these matters.» Inevitable In fact, both sides are starting these exploratory contacts following the failure of the two ministers to bridge the gap dividing their positions. But the start of dialogue was made inevitable in December, 1999, when the Greek side accepted the conclusions of European summit in Helsinki. This decision not only provides for the accession of Cyprus, regardless of whether the Cyprus issue has been resolved by then, but also indirectly advises Greece and Turkey to enter negotiations over their existing border disputes and other related matters. It also stipulated that if they did not manage to resolve them within a reasonable time, the European Union would look into the situation and settle the differences by 2004 at the latest. Indirect recognition With the Helsinki decision, Athens indirectly accepted that unilateral Turkish expansionist claims concerned existing border disputes. The government’s claim that it accepted the formulation because the issue of the delineation of the continental shelf was a border dispute was just a pretext, as is the present claim that they will only discuss signing a mutual agreement to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. In reality, Prime Minister Costas Simitis and Papandreou judged it worthwhile to make a concession on this issue so as to involve the EU directly in Greek-Turkish bilateral issues. The dialogue that began last week will spread to all concerns. The first exploratory meeting touched on basic issues in addition to the formalities. Nobody can prevent the Turks from presenting their claims. Since there is no agenda and no records are kept, there are no consequences. But when the time comes to keep minutes, these claims will inevitably take on an air of legitimacy, even if the Greek side rejects Ankara’s claims categorically from the outset – unless, of course (and this is highly unlikely) the dialogue never goes beyond the exploratory phase. All-inclusive Ever since the start of the dialogue was announced, however, the Turkish Foreign Ministry representative has allowed no doubt as to Ankara’s intentions: «Dialogue between Turkey and Greece and the search for solutions must include all the problems.» Besides, the Turks have been trying consistently for years to drag Greece into all-encompassing negotiations about the Aegean. Remember their written proposal in January 2000 – which Athens rejected – for the formation of a mixed diplomatic-military committee with the task of discussing the Aegean. Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit put the matter in his usual blunt fashion recently: «The issue of the Aegean is not legal, but political.» He asked for the existing regime «to be redefined in view of changing circumstances,» and he emphasized the need for «political compromise.» Simitis and Papandreou are not aware of Turkey’s intentions, nor are they prepared to sell out sovereign rights. They are entering this slippery process in the hope that if there is an impasse they will be able to invoke the Helsinki decision and ask for the EU to intervene and have the matter settled by the International Court. But it is by no means certain that this will be the outcome. A few weeks ago, Cem told CNN in Turkey, «As for the question of the Aegean, we accept all the proposals enumerated in the European Union’s Agenda 2000, and Article 33 of the United Nations Charter. «Those documents enumerate six methods of solution: settlement by discussion, arbitration, indirect talks, mediation, and include an appeal to the International Court. We accept all of them.» Referring to his talks with Papandreou, however, he clarified his position: «First we find the points on which we agree. As to the points on which there is dispute, we resort to the other methods, in the order listed.» They want arbitration This statement means that if bilateral talks fail, Turkey will request arbitration before discussing an appeal to The Hague. Remember that arbitration solves a difference on the basis of political, not legal, criteria. Clearly no Greek government can allow arbitrators to deal with its sovereign rights. It is precisely for this reason that Ankara is requesting arbitration, so as to create an impasse and in this way avoid the International Court, whose jurisdiction it has not acknowledged on this issue. The Turks do not object to arbitration, because there is no Greek claim challenging their sovereign rights. The dialogue is linked to internal disagreement in Turkey over the country’s path toward Europe. Those who favor the EU are definitely more open and flexible on Greek-Turkish matters than the hardcore wing of the Kemalist establishment, but experience has shown that the latter determine policy. Hence it is unlikely that Ankara will relinquish its main expansionist claims, even in the highly unlikely case that the EU strenuously demands that it does so. The European force The matter of the European defense force is indicative of the current climate. Athens is largely responsible for this awkward situation, given that Greek diplomacy was remiss during a crucial phase in behind-the-scenes negotiations. Nevertheless, it is still unacceptable for our partners to violate the autonomy of the EU by accepting the text that the US and UK negotiated with Turkey, which concedes to a non-member country the right to participate in decisions concerning European defense policy. Simitis raised the issue in Barcelona as a matter of principle, but the Greek side might only succeed in having two crucial points amended by threatening to apply the veto. In addition to the matter of the European defense force and the looming impasse concerning Cyprus, Turkey is exerting military pressure through its massive violations of Greek air space over the Aegean. The simultaneous invasion of Greek air space by dozens of Turkish fighter planes is not simply a reminder that they do not recognize the 10-mile limit, but is also a display of strength. This is their standard tactic for putting pressure on Athens during any bilateral dialogue. Framework of principles It is in this environment that the Greek side will try to formulate a framework of principles in which it will ask for the negotiations to be conducted. But Ankara has no difficulty in stating that it respects general principles, such as the inviolability of borders and the sovereignty of each country, international justice and international treaties (which it has co-signed). Besides, these are all included in the joint communique of Madrid five years ago and in earlier documents. The Turkish method is not to directly dispute international justice and treaties, for which they would have to pay the price, but to base their claims on their own interpretations. For example, when they claim the rocky islets, they say they are not impinging on Greek territorial integrity or sovereignty, for the reason that these are not part of Greek territory but «gray areas.» Ankara will probably try to put this across in the attempt to turn the dialogue into across-the-board negotiations from which it has nothing to lose, since the only issues up for discussion are Greek rights.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.