Periods of political instability have often been accompanied or followed by major a crisis in Greece’s relations with Turkey. A power vacuum following the death of Marshal Alexandros Papagos led to the persecution of Istanbul’s Greek minority in September 1955. In 1967, the Greek junta’s apparent weakness brought the country close to war in Cyprus, a situation that was averted following the – criminal – withdrawal of Greek troops. What happened in 1974 is popular knowledge. Then came the Imia crisis in 1996, staged just as Costas Simitis became prime minister and thus still not in full control of the state, a portion of which contributed considerably to the incident’s escalation.
Greece has now reached a delicate stage. Cyprus has played its geopolitical cards very well and has developed considerable alliances, notably with Israel as well as the United States. However, the moment of truth has arrived, as pressure for a solution to the Cyprus issue is escalating, in conjunction with a formula regarding the use of natural gas reserves. Meanwhile, Turkey is feeling strong again, but also under pressure. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears drunk on his and his country’s power. Acting like a sultan of a bygone era, often appears not give a dime about Washington and other world powers. Nevertheless, he has come under considerable pressure from all fronts and he’s not drawing any winning cards. Experts in Turkish affairs, and on Erdogan in particular, believe this is a particularly dangerous time because Ankara may believe that a small, symbolic “victory” in the eastern Mediterranean would give him a boost. American and European reactions to Turkish provocations in Cyprus are lukewarm and that could strengthen this rationale. The Turkish president has tried to smooth his relationship with the US and now he might be thinking that they need him because of ISIS and would turn a blind eye to a fresh provocation.
Athens and Nicosia must act with prudence and determination. The fact that Greek officials are not communicating with their Turkish counterparts is a major mistake. This is what incumbent Defense Minister and newly appointed European Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos used to do, following the advice of senior diplomats who always stressed the importance of a non-stop, direct channel of communication with Turkey. Coming up with a plan in case of escalating Turkish aggression is also vital and that is why opposition leader Alexis Tsipras’s visit to the Defense Ministry was a positive, if not an obvious, move.
What we’ve learnt in the past 50 years is that preventing a crisis is far more important that handling it once it has erupted. When it comes to prevention, besides meeting with officials abroad, talking to Ankara and a clear, proactive display of Greece’s power, what happens back home is also crucial. This means putting up a front of unity and political stability.