The news of the release on Tuesday of the two Greek soldiers who had been held in a Turkish prison in Edirne since March was accompanied by the usual hyperbole and unrestrained reaction.
Apart from the Greek habit of tackling issues with overemotional responses, the reaction was due in large part to the government’s desperate need to shift the public’s attention from the deadly fires in eastern Attica last month which put it under so much pressure.
Hence the return of servicemen Angelos Mitretodis and Dimitris Kouklatzis was billed as a diplomatic success by the government in hopes that it will cancel out all the criticism it had come under for its failings and mistakes in dealing with the fires.
However, since the reality of any situation can never be avoided, the government would be well-advised to stop its triumphalist rhetoric and start evaluating the move by the unpredictable Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to release the soldiers.
Despite the role played by American pressure, it is obvious that Erdogan’s move was aimed at the European Union – as was confirmed by his phone conversations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
By the time of their release, the two soldiers were of little use to Ankara. Moreover, their release came at no personal cost to Erdogan, who can now seek to profit from the move.
Turkish-American relations are in the worst state since 1974 and the Turkish economy is on the ropes, so it stands to reason that Erdogan would look to Europe. The coming period will show whether this goodwill gesture pays off and whether it is part of a wider effort to smooth out Ankara’s relations with Washington.
As for Greek-Turkish relations, no one can claim that the release of the soldiers will work to defuse tensions between Athens and Ankara. On the contrary, everything points to a further escalation over Ankara’s plans to drill for gas off Cyprus.
Questions do remain as to whether the soldiers’ release was part of an exchange, as is the norm in international diplomacy. A response to this question should be provided in the coming period. In the meantime, other mundane and practical issues must be addressed. For instance, the government must ensure that all the necessary measures are put in place so as to avert a similar incident on the Evros border, or anywhere else for that matter, so Greece doesn’t find itself on the back foot again.