Greece and Turkey: The Status of Aegean Aggressions
Polls now indicate that 92% of Greeks believe Turkey is their largest threat. This comes after centuries of disagreements, a decade of rising tensions, and a year of disputes which have incited questions about the consequences of the hostilities.
The two mediterranean countries’ most recent conflict occurred in early March when Turkey refused to release two Greek soldiers. The two soldiers were caught across the Turkish border and detained on charges of espionage and illegally entering the country. A Turkish court ruled that there was sufficient evidence to hold both men without bail because of fears that the soldiers would flee. Both the European Union and Greece have pressured for the soldiers’ return.
Recent Greco-Turkish tensions have been rising amid the context of a series of disputes and nationalist sentiments in the past year.
For example, in December, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was invited to visit Greece. He became the first Turkish president to visit Greece in the past six decades. However, this opportunity to mend relations was not fulfilled. During his visit, Erdogan spoke of revising the Treaty of Lausanne. Signed in 1923 at the conclusion of WWI, the Treaty of Lausanne recognized the modern borders of the state of Turkey. This peace accord was pivotal for relations between the two countries. The treaty defines borders and guarantees rights for the Muslim-Turkish minority in Greece and the Greek Orthodox minority in Turkey. Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, said this treaty was “non-negotiable”.
Following this meeting, there have been continued violations of Greek air and sea territory by the Turkish military. In February, Turkish air crafts violated Greek airspace 36 times in one day. The F-16s and CN235s were identified and intercepted.
On February 15th, there was a collision between a Turkish and Greek coastguard vessel near the Imia Islands. While Turkey claims this crash was accidental, Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos says, “Turkey is provoking and violating Greek and EU waters”.
After continued territorial conflicts, Greek accuses Turkey of reviving nationalist and expansionist ideas. Turkey openly disputes not only Greece’s jurisdiction but their ownership of these islands in the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea.
In exchange for the two Greek soldiers, Athens has offered eight Turkish soldiers that Greece has been refusing to extradite after granting them asylum. These eight soldiers fled to Greece, after the failed Turkish coup in July 2016. Greece claims that these soldiers were extradited to Turkey without being offered a fair trial, and therefore any such release would violate their human rights. Thus, Turkey refused the prisoner exchange offer, and both sides claim that the other side is holding their citizens hostage.
These events have not only stirred political tensions, but sparked nationalist sentiments among citizens. On March 5th in Athens, protesters burned a Turkish flag. Turkey is infuriated at this international hate crime and demands that Greece finds and punishes these protestors.
The EU council on Turkey-EU relations met on March 22, condemning Turkey for its recent territorial transgressions which violate EU and international laws. The council expressed concerns over the two Greek soldiers and called for an immediate diplomatic resolution, demanding that Turkey must maintain “good neighbourly relations [with Greece] and normalise relations with all EU member states”.
Diplomatic relations between Greece and Turkey are crucial due to each country’s arsenal of weapons. According to a recent article, the Aegean sea between Turkey and Greece has one of the “world's largest concentrations of high-tech weaponry”. Kostas Gricas, professor of advanced weapons system at the Hellenic Army Academy told reporters that an Aegean war would resemble “a mini-nuclear war because there will be so much high-tech ordnance discharged it will cause a huge amount of damage”.
This fear of military escalation was echoed by US Ambassador to Athens, Geoffrey Pyatt, who shared that “What [he] worr[ies] about is the risk of an unintentional confrontation”. During this heightened moment of Greco-Turkish tensions, a single event could spark unintended consequences. The EU and international community are keeping a close eye on these developing issues.