The devastating earthquakes have wider repercussions for Turkey. The disaster has sparked an inward tilt, coupled with political and economic turmoil. As long as Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to tease a new date for the elections, he will come under fire from the opposition which wants to quickly take down the argument that a natural disaster gives the president the automatic right to push the vote further back from the June deadline.
On the other hand, according to safe estimates, it will take at least 150 billion dollars to restore some sense of normalcy in the long term given that the earthquake has damaged critical infrastructure and networks, and it is ultimately the country’s economic and social fabric that will have to be repaired. The Turkish government is therefore in search of donors/creditors because help from international organizations such as the International Monetary Fund (Ankara is anyway reluctant to turn to the IMF) is not enough to cover the country’s needs.
Amidst this climate and as memories still linger from 1999 when so-called “earthquake diplomacy” between the two Aegean neighbors led to the EU summit in Helsinki (where Greece withdrew its veto and the bloc granted Turkey candidate status) and subsequently to a provisional deal between Athens and Ankara in late 2003, there is talk of seizing the momentum, as it were, to kickstart efforts to normalize relations between the two countries. However, in order to pick up the thread we must first agree where it snapped: Was it the exploratory talks between the two countries which resumed after 2021 only to be interrupted in 2022 (and which were anyway conducted for appearances’ sake)? Was it the consultations between Greek and Turkish military committees (following Ankara’s decision to downgrade the role of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the abolition of the permanent secretary-general deprived Athens of an interlocutor at this level)? Was it the positive agenda in the areas of economy and commerce (which was successfully carried out by the deputy foreign ministers responsible for economic diplomacy before Ankara decided to suspend activity last May)? Or would it perhaps make more sense to hold top-level talks instead given the character-driven nature of Turkish foreign policy?
In any case, at the moment Greece has no reason to be in a rush on the bilateral front. After all, following Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ speech in the American Congress last May, the Turkish side has consistently poisoned the climate with warnings and threats, while systematically challenging Greek ownership of eastern Aegean islands by hinging sovereignty to their demilitarization. Even before that, Ankara had signed an accord with Libya’s Tripoli-based government creating an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from Turkey’s southern Mediterranean shore to that country’s northeast coast; it had adopted the “Blue Homeland” theory as a formal foreign policy dogma; and it had conducted seismic surveys in a non-delimited area south of the island of Kastellorizo in the southeastern Aegean. In light of the above, it is Ankara that must take practical steps to demonstrate what it understands by a thaw in ties. In other words, it must submit evidence that would certify any shift it intends to make.
Tensions ran high for about six months, violations of Greek air space by Turkish fighter jets skyrocketed and the number of overflights multiplied. Engaging in diplomatic niceties and showing a sentimentally driven interest in rapprochement in the aftermath of the quake is not enough unless it is backed by concrete actions or, at least, restraint.
Ankara must take practical steps to demonstrate what it understands by a thaw in ties. In other words, it must submit evidence that would certify any shift it intends to make
However, Athens cannot afford to wait and see how relations between the West and Turkey will evolve, because these will also affect Greek-Turkish ties. Athens must take a proactive stance in order to influence the setting of West-Turkey ties. Greek officials must examine Turkey’s needs, which have been drastically affected by the disaster, and tie it to specific rules. A rapprochement with the West now seems to be the only option for a leader who has politically invested in confronting the West. However, Erdogan has to accept that fixing his country’s economy (which had already been suffering from sky-high inflation, the decline of the lira, and low interest rates) requires that he first restores Western confidence.
Greece could make use of the EU institutional umbrella to assist Turkey, to examine the restoration of emblematic policies like the customs union agreement in order to apply a new framework for negotiations but only to the degree that Ankara is willing to reset its priorities. As far as the US is concerned, any conditions for long-term assistance in Turkey’s reconstruction must take into account Greece’s positions.
The period after elections in Greece and Turkey is expected to see an energy-related initiative aiming to tap into the natural resources of the Eastern Mediterranean, also in support of the security of the EU’s energy supply (Greece should have a say here). Meanwhile, Athens should hammer out a roadmap detailing the steps for a de-escalation of tensions and, subsequently, for the consolidation of its status (also through the development of partnerships on low politics issues) for the gradual building of a climate of trust before taking any decisive steps in the direction of a meaningful dialogue within a specific framework based on international law and a binding timeframe for a settlement and/or recourse to The Hague. The new, harsh reality obliges Turkey to adapt; Greece should await tangible proof as a condition for a restart.
Constantinos Filis is the director of the Institute of Global Affairs, associate professor at the American College of Greece and an international affairs analyst for Antenna TV.