Losing ground

The proposal by former president Costis Stephanopoulos that Greece takes its grievances with Turkey – that is, the various claims made by Ankara over the past 30 years – to the International Court at The Hague was not a new one. In many respects it was a repeat of the so-called Helsinki accords made by the government of Costas Simitis, a strong believer in the transformative power of European momentum. But the EU is not what it was a decade and more ago. Moreover, at that time there was a widespread delusion that Turkey’s European ambitions would prompt it to make concessions at the foreign policy level. In practice, the opposite happened. It is no coincidence that the champions of Simitis’s Turkey policy concerning bilateral and European issues have welcomed the ex-president’s proposal. After all, they are simply defending their past decisions. It is surprising, however, to see that certain conservative officials are also quite positive about taking all bilateral disputes to the international tribunal. And it’s surprising because from December 1999, the date of the pivotal European Council meeting, to March 2004 the New Democracy opposition never stopped lashing at the Socialist government, deeming that by signing the Helsinki agreement Greece actually acknowledged the existence of border disputes with Turkey. Even after the conservatives climbed back to power, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and his foreign minister, Petros Molyviatis, never seemed keen to refer to the court the bilateral differences – including the demilitarization of Greece’s Aegean islands. If Karamanlis decided to appoint Dora Bakoyannis as Molyviatis’s successor at the Foreign Ministry to revise the government’s Turkey policy, then he is shouldering a huge personal responsibility that reflects on the conservative party as a whole. The Helsinki agreement, which back then was attacked by New Democracy for being harmful to Greece’s national interests, was signed at a time when Athens appeared to have the upper hand in relations between the two neighbors (note that it did not have the binding character ascribed to it by the Simitis government). In contrast, the recent debate about going to the court was triggered after the deadly mid-air collision over the Aegean which resulted in the death of a Greek pilot. In other words, the debate about revising Greece’s Turkey policy begins under the pressure of a tragic event which has thrown the entire political system into panic. More paradoxically, the recurring phobic syndrome has hit Greece at a time when Turkey is embroiled in a crisis caused by the conflict between the Islamic-leaning government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the secular forces – made worse by a resurgence of fighting against Kurdish separatists. The truth is that Turkey has intensified its military activity in the Aegean. It seems that successive Greek governments have convinced Ankara that creating tension is a good way of promoting its interests. It is no coincidence that the 1987 crisis produced a mutual commitment to refrain from the search for oil reserves in the Aegean, where Greece enjoyed an advantage over Turkey. In 1995 the Turkish Parliament said that any decision by Greece to expand its territorial waters to 12 miles would be a cause for war (casus belli). The Imia crisis in 1996 was followed by allegations on «grey zones» in the Aegean. A period of tension followed and, two years later, in 1997, Greece signed the Madrid declaration by which it recognized «vital interests» of Turkey in the Aegean. Greece has been giving up more and more space. The recent accident near Karpathos will not, of course, mean that Greece and Turkey will take all their bilateral disputes to The Hague. Nevertheless, Athens and Ankara have speeded up efforts to establish a military hotline between the Turkish military base in Eskisehir and the Greek military base in Larissa to avoid dogfight skirmishes in the future. The hotline phone is to be set up by Saturday when Bakoyannis is expected to Istanbul to attend the Fourth Turkish Media Congress. The decision was made during Molyviatis’s visit to Ankara, which was overshadowed by a string of air space violations by Turkish fighter jets. Some may read in this a move toward joint administration of the Aegean air space.

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