A composed mindset is always necessary in foreign policy. Neither exaggerating nor downplaying things is good. Rejecting good compromises is not helpful, nor is bowing to pressure or accepting a rotten deal. Our country is harmed by an attitude of inaction as much as it is by submissiveness. What it needs is a strategy of energetic, democratic, multidimensional foreign policy.
The first 20 months of the New Democracy government was a period during which the party downplayed Turkey’s actions. No matter how many provocations and violations, New Democracy’s ministers saw nothing but failed efforts to establish precedents and an outdated version of gunboat diplomacy. They spoke sarcastically of Turkey’s provocations in Cyprus and its violations of international law in Greek seas, and avoided using the word “occupation” in reference to the divided island like the devil avoids holy water. Turkish ships violating Greek maritime zones were either described as being blown off course by “General Wind” (the same mystery force cited in the Imia crisis) or as having suffered interference from the “noise” of other Turkish ships.
The Turks occupied a sandbar in the Evros River for a few hours, and officials like Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias dismissed the incident as minor because it “concerned just a few meters for a short period of time.” For the first time, the Turkish Air Force conducted violations not just over islets and islands but also over mainland territory, like Thrace, yet the government tried to convince us that nothing remarkable had happened.
All the above point to a government stance of undermining Turkish actions and their long-term consequences. What’s more, this was combined with a tendency to downplay Turkey’s political capabilities. “It has no policy,” said those blindsided by the Turkish-Libyan memorandum of understanding. These were the same people who expelled the then ambassador of Libya in Athens, even though he was a friend to Greece and was not aligned with either side of the Libyan civil war. What is the expelled envoy doing today? He is Libya’s president. Recently, moreover, he traveled to Greece to visit his family, who live here. I wonder, was the expulsion foolish? Was it rash to allow third-party demands to dictate our foreign policy? To this day, many who are otherwise very outspoken with their opinions are silent on this matter.
This policy of downplaying Turkey’s actions was accompanied by a lack of understanding of the essence of its foreign policy, as well as of our partners’ stance toward Ankara. As we all know, Turkey was not sanctioned or excluded or even warned that the customs union would not be renewed by anyone except Cyprus, which exercised its veto as a member of the European Union, without support from Greece. The Greek government, in fact, had said on three occasions that it would use its veto on a series of issues that it never brought up. This is why it is not being taken seriously by third parties assessing its actions.
The government is also acting just like many of its predecessors did for decades on the Macedonian issue, back when they were clueless of the changes taking place in Yugoslavia and later in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Likewise, it is behaving toward Turkey as though it does not understand the geopolitical game. Just take the fact that for months it believed that Turkey was “isolated” and that “nobody in the EU wants to talk to the Turks.”
Certain circles within ND discovered earlier this month that they need to treat Turkey in a different manner than they have done so far – at least in terms of influencing public opinion.
Turkey’s provocative policy is, of course, the reason why Greek-Turkish relations have reached the point they have. What the present Greek government is to blame for is that by behaving in such a lackadaisical manner for 20 months, it failed to pull the brake on Turkey in time. It is no coincidence that Turkey had no leeway to act as it is doing today under the previous government in Greece. So when I hear government officials saying that it is high time we started putting all the issues with Turkey on the table instead of “sweeping them under the rug,” I feel compelled to remind them that they’re talking about their own actions and not earlier ones. And what good are they now? Should we be congratulating them for getting us where we are? Of getting us to a point where even they find the consequences of their own policy unbearable?
No problem can be solved – even if some of the right things are said belatedly – when the politician doing the talking is not focused on solving the problems at hand, but has his mind, instead, on the domestic front and the situation inside his party. ND, I remind readers, was unable to contribute to the resolution of the name dispute with Skopje, despite the efforts of Konstantinos Mitsotakis, because infighting overshadowed the national issues; because from one point on, every faction within ND that was in conflict was wholly engrossed in inner-party competition, even above the domestic political scene.
This is why ND’s foreign minister must finally reveal what was, in his opinion, the true purpose of his recent trip to Turkey. Whether his goals were accomplished or not. And if so, how. And if not, why. These are questions that demand concerted answers and proper discussion. What we got instead was an unprecedented attack on the people asking the questions, a bid to create a climate similar to that over the Prespes name accord. Developments since the name deal have not confirmed ND’s position and I am very much afraid that developments in Greek-Turkish ties will not reward the government either if it continues to prevent a productive dialogue in Greek society and if it doesn’t wake up and stop making concessions, unproductively downplaying matters, allowing inner-party politics to prevail and adding more problems to a Greece that is already at risk of decline.
Nikos Kotzias was Greece’s minister of foreign affairs from 2015 to 2018.