How long is the break in tensions with Turkey going to last? It’s a good question with no easy answers. It is possible the Oruc Reis survey vessel may never sail out to the area around Kastellorizo, but it is also possible that it will be there before the end of the year.
Ankara is proceeding according to a very well-laid plan. It pushed the envelope, causing alarm bells to ring in Washington, Berlin and Brussels. It militarized the crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean but eventually got the message – from the Greek armed forces as much as from the world’s major centers of power – that it would have to stop such strong-arm tactics. It stopped and now it is trying to convince the world that it is the one that wants dialogue with Greece.
This is where things start to get tricky. Turkey publicly insists and takes every opportunity to stress that any exploratory talks with Greece must include a discussion on the sovereignty of certain Greek islands and islets that Ankara regards as “gray zones.” It also insists on the demilitarization of a large group of Greek islands in the eastern Aegean. These are both issues that have been on the Turkish agenda for some time, but are inviolable red lines for Athens.
Turkey has also changed its negotiating tactics, resorting to frequent leaks and often appearing to want to expose its Greek interlocutors. This attitude makes it all that much harder to even raise the issues Greece wants to put on the table. The very idea of losing a rock, much less a small inhabited island, is intolerable to the Greeks, as is the likelihood of having to watch the Hellenic Army leave Kastellorizo or Chios.
But these are things we understand among ourselves. Outsiders – even those with expert knowledge of Greek-Turkish relations – cannot understand or pretend not to understand why Athens is not willing to put everything on the table. It takes conviction, skill and effort to convince them that when it comes to a demanding and expansionist neighbor, you can only discuss where the fence is, not who owns a piece of your house.
The danger, therefore, is that once the exploratory talks get down to the nitty-gritty, the Turks will insist on these two issues and we will say that the discussion is over. In this case, Greece will have to finally get serious with its public diplomacy because the battle of impressions will be fierce. At the same time, it is likely that the crisis will become militarized again.
Only this time, talks will no longer be an alternative. The Greek prime minister will have some extremely difficult decisions to make.