Relations between Greece and Turkey are one of the few areas that do not pose a risk for Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For Greece and Cyprus, though, Turkey is always dangerous. In Turkish public opinion, Greece and Cyprus do not figure to the extent that Turkey does in their public debate. This does not mean that Ankara’s threats are empty: On the contrary, Turkey is predictable, as it usually carries out its threats. The question is when it chooses to act and what can prevent this.
On Tuesday, in Turkey, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will have an opportunity to sound out Erdogan and members of his government. The Turkish leadership, however, has already issued clear statements of its intent toward Athens and Nicosia. On Wednesday, the National Security Council announced that it is following developments closely on Cyprus, in the Eastern Mediterranean, in the Aegean and the Black Sea. It also criticized “certain countries” that “do not extradite members of terrorist organizations who have fled to them,” a clear reference to eight alleged coup plotters who found refuge in Greece in 2016. Yesterday, the Foreign Ministry in Ankara criticized the leaders of seven European Union member-states, the Med7, for making a statement in support of the Republic of Cyprus’s drilling for hydrocarbons in its exclusive economic zone.
The references to Cyprus, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Aegean and the “Eight,” all against a backdrop of revisionism that includes criticism of the Treaty of Lausanne which established Turkey’s borders, are in line with Ankara’s consistent pursuit of reasons to keep the tension with Greece and Cyprus high. (Let’s not forget the cynical hostage-taking of two Greek soldiers who crossed the border by mistake last year.) In this climate there is always the danger of conflict.
The second danger is Erdogan’s constant need to present himself as a winner, infallible and unquestioned. But Turkey faces serious problems on crucial issues: the economy, the campaign against the Kurds and relations with the United States and Russia. Despite the impending exit of American forces from Syria and Turkey’s alliance with Russia, neither power agrees with Turkey’s wish to attack Kurdish forces in Syria. All these issues pose a threat to Erdogan’s prestige.
As the local elections of March 31 approach, the Turkish president will be pressed to present victories to the electorate. This raises the danger of his seeking a way out at the expense of Greece and Cyprus. Tsipras should not expect that a mutual friendship with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro will stay Erdogan’s hand. Only fear of the consequences will do that.