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A need for earthquake diplomacy

Reconciliation between Turkey and Greece could be simple, despite historic enmities. But who has the political will?

Image: The New European

Anyone who knows a Turkish air force pilot will have been exposed to their preening about mock dogfights in disputed airspace. I remember a relative of mine who, after taunting an equally belligerent Greek counterpart at close quarters during a routine flight, returned home flushed and boasted: “We really rattled them today!”

Flying too close to the limits of disputed airspace and baiting your counterparts from “the neighbour” has long been considered great sport by such foolhardy young men. Despite the occasional death and crashes when these games of chicken go wrong, a secret air war has raged for decades in the skies over the two south-eastern European neighbours and Nato allies. With the Greece-Turkey relationship consistently antagonistic over decades of multiple disputes, the pilots need little excuse to get stuck in.

But this year, the skies – and the seas below them – seem even more dangerous, with Turkey claiming that Greece locked its air-defence system on to a Turkish F-16 jet and was illegally arming nearby islands, and Greece accusing Turkey of trying to provoke a war.

In a shockingly intemperate statement – even for him – Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, suggested in August that he might consider ordering a landing on Greek islands: “We can come suddenly one night … if you Greeks go too far, then the price will be heavy.”

Greeks say they live in terror that their country of 11 million will be overrun by Turkey, an 85 million-strong country with Nato’s second biggest army. As they clash repeatedly over everything from drilling rights in the Mediterranean, rearmament, airspace and territorial waters to refugees, maritime boundaries and the divided island of Cyprus, Turkey and Greece are arguably closer to conflict than at any time since 1996, when US intervention stopped a military buildup amid a row over an uninhabited rocky outcrop in the Aegean.

But then there’s rarely a moment when they aren’t trading barbs. Is this seriously going to blow up, I ask Panayotis Tsakonas, professor at the University of Athens and head of the Programme on Security at Eliamep – or is it just politicians spouting off again?

“Instinctively, I don’t think there will really be a war,” Tsakonas said. “It seems that Turkey especially went too far, at least rhetorically… to my mind Erdogan is careful that a hot incident doesn’t turn into a hot war. He is many things, but he is not a fool.” Even so, with tensions high, nothing is certain, he warned. “Greece has to be careful so as to avoid an accidental hot incident.”

Despite the ongoing issues, Baskin Oran, a veteran Turkish political scientist and Greek-Turkish relations expert, maintains that the current heightened alert is really about something quite different – Erdogan’s weakness ahead of next year’s general elections.

“Erdogan is using hostility towards Greece for electoral purposes. He had used Syria before but Putin won’t allow him to stage an attack there,” Oran told me. “This is not Turkish foreign policy, it’s Erdogan’s foreign policy.”

Greece’s prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose government is embroiled in a phone-tapping scandal, also faces polls next year. Given their fractious history, each is an easy target for galvanising domestic opinion in the other. For Greece, making Turkey look crazy shores up its status in the European Union after its role in the eurozone crisis; for Erdogan, screaming injustice over Greek plans shores up his own support – especially important going into a symbolically significant election in the centenary year of the Turkish republic.

To understand why, you have to go back centuries to unpick the rich seam of grudges that both countries mine for their ongoing rivalry.

If you believe both countries’ claims that there is a line from the pre-Ottomans and Ancient Greeks to modern Turkey and Greece today, their geographical overlap starts millennia ago. The Hellenes, whose pre-Christian city states made up Ancient Greece, lived across today’s Greece and Turkey – a significant number of Ancient Greek remains are now in Anatolia. This morphed into the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman empire, which survived the fall of Rome as Byzantium, centred around Constantinople. The pre-Islamic, nomadic Turks started moving in after the 1071 battle of Malazgirt in what is now eastern Turkey, pushing constantly westwards, founding the Ottoman empire two centuries later in north-west Turkey, and crossing over to Europe in the 14th century by expanding into the Balkans.

The first big fracture came on a Tuesday. On May 29 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II, “The Conqueror”, after a gruesome battle chronicled by the Venetian surgeon and eyewitness Nicolò Barbaro: “Blood flowed in the city like rainwater in the gutters after a sudden storm, and the corpses of Turks and Christians floated out to sea like melons along a canal.”

Greece still mourns the day Byzantium died. On this year’s anniversary, the Greek Reporter described “the darkest era in Greek history and in the Orthodox Church”. Tuesdays are still considered inauspicious.

In Istanbul, especially under Erdogan, who fancies himself as a neo-Ottoman, there have been celebrations, with Turks dressed as Ottomans parading the streets carrying boats – as Mehmed II’s troops did to avoid a sea blockade on the Golden Horn.

The Ottomans continued to conquer lands that make up modern Greece, including many Aegean islands. Mehmed reinstated the Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul – a multicultural city with many ethnicities and religious groups, called “millets” – and it became an important Ottoman institution, with bishops tasked with tax collecting. It is there still, a powerful body among Orthodox Christians at the heart of Muslim Turkey.

But the roots of Turkish-Greek conflict lie primarily in two significant historical factors – the fact that they fought their independence wars against each other and, later, the mid-20th-century division of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. And playing a decisive role in all of these was Britain.

Greece made a bid for independence in the early 19th century, after the American and French revolutions whetted general appetite for nationalist rebellions. From 1821 to 1830, they sought secession from the Ottomans in a fractious process of infighting and setbacks, helped by a decisive naval intervention in 1827 by the big powers – France, Russia and Britain.

Beyond the pragmatic support for Christians against a Muslim empire, western support was also entwined with classicist fantasies of Ancient Greece. Romantics such as the British poet Lord Byron and other Philhellenes depressed by the soulless industrial revolution projected those hopes on these 19th-century revolutionaries, offering support and popularising their struggles. Byron helped to bankroll the uprising and died, delirious, after 100 days in the town of Missolonghi, saying: “I have given her (Greece) my time, my means, my health… And now I give her my life! What could I do more?”

As with everything else in this tale, the view across the Aegean was different. Turkey uses the language of perfidy, treason, revolt and massacre – the latter described by the historian William St Clair, who meticulously chronicled atrocities on both sides. This was, for the Ottomans, both a geopolitical and a public relations blow, as the romanticising of modern Greeks as the heirs of Euripides endures. European Union officials and diplomats have told me that Greek membership and the controversial accession of still-divided Cyprus was partly coloured by this view.

“On the one hand, the Greek national history that developed in response to the European Enlightenment and neoclassicism of the 18th century emphasized the classical, pre-Christian origins of Greek politics and culture–modern Greeks were introduced as the direct heirs of Classical Athens. On the other, the desire to maximize territory once the small Greek state was established in 1830s meant a shift to the Orthodox Christian, Byzantine character of Hellenism” Christine Philliou, history professor and Ottoman, Turkey and Greece specialist at UC Berkely, told me. “There was a contradiction between the Classical and the Byzantine, and the Greek nation developed a kind of split personality in the 19th century – promoting to some audiences the pre-Christian classical past and to others the Byzantine Christian medieval identity.”

This contradiction was brought to a resolution in the 19th-century“continuity thesis” – emphasizing the language and civilizational links between Ancient and modern Greece, with the Byzantine period playing an important role and the Ottoman period presented as a dark age when the Church kept the light of Hellenism. That didn’t fully explain the complex relationships of the Patriarchate and Orthodox Christians who were integral to the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. “They were well aware that the political case for expanding into Anatolia/Asia Minor and ultimately claiming Constantinople would be made through their Byzantine, not Classical past. This project of expansion, was known as the Megali Idea, or the Great Idea, and this is what brought the Greek army to the shores of Anatolia in May 1919.”

But this characterisation didn’t only harm Turkey’s prospects. According to the author and playwright George Zarkadakis, it created a psychology of vulnerability in Greece. In a piece in the Washington Post as Greece struggled with its financial crisis a decade ago, he wrote that the newly independent Greece became like the children of famous people, lacking the self-confidence needed to make its own way in the world.

“Burdened with the improbable weight of forefathers who supposedly laid the foundations of western civilisation, driven by strong cultural undercurrents that undermine the authority of the state, (Greeks) long for the realisation of a dream promised by their political class: that Greece can somehow be something different from the rest of the world, a utopia where mortals can live like Olympians.”

Greeks needed to redefine themselves, he wrote, if they didn’t want to live in “a country designed as a romantic theme park two centuries ago, propped up with loans ever since, and unable to adjust to the crude realities of 21st-century globalisation.”

Geopolitically, the shock of the Greek breakaway symbolised the Ottomans’ gradual and embarrassing decline since their peak in the 16th century under Suleyman the Magnificent. They had lost land before, but that was to other powers. Despite rebellions from “millets” such as the Serbs, nobody had seceded until now.

The mutual antipathy continued through the Greco-Turkish war in 1897, which the Ottomans won, and the Balkan wars, where they lost the bulk of their territory in Europe. In 1913, the Ottomans gave Greece the Aegean islands that it held – some less than a mile off the Turkish coast and at the heart of current verbal spats over territorial waters.

The first world war, which Turkey lost along with its ally Germany, ended with Turkey’s desperate fight for its own independence. Led by Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the charismatic military leader who had pushed back the allies at Gallipoli, it rebelled against the humiliating occupation of Istanbul by the British, other territories by Britain, France and Russia, and the western port city of Smyrna (Izmir) by the Greeks, who decided to push further inland to take more land. In 1922, Turkey “spilled the Greeks into the sea” – an event still celebrated in coastal towns – and founded their new nation. This time the West, which went on to celebrate the man who became Atatürk – father of the Turks – didn’t help Greece, which executed those responsible for the failed invasion. Greece calls this and its tragic aftermath “the Asia Minor catastrophe”.

The flight of petrified ethnic Greek Christians from Turkey and ethnic Turk Muslims from Greece, already in train during the wars, intensified as Greek troops retreated. As troops and refugees filed through Thrace, a young Ernest Hemingway chronicled the horrors as war correspondent for the Toronto Star.

“Water buffalo and cattle were hauling carts through the mud…The old men and women, soaked through, walked along keeping the cattle moving…. Women and kids were in the carts crouched with mattresses, mirrors, sewing machines, bundles. There was a woman having a kid with a young girl holding a blanket over her and crying. Scared sick looking at it.”

He also depicted a scene with a Greek soldier beating a Turkish peasant during this great displacement, formalised as a population exchange in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Louis de Bernières, the author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, was inspired to write Birds Without Wings by a village in western Turkey that remains abandoned since its ethnic Greek inhabitants were some of the 1.5 million people forced to move to Greece. Around 400,000 Muslims from Greece moved to Turkey. The newcomers didn’t speak the language and felt they didn’t belong in their new countries, in what has been described as a legalised form of mutual ethnic cleansing.

“Anthropologists are very quick to condemn what happened and the people who made the decision,” Philliou said, but the context of massacres and incarcerations during and after the war changes things. “If you really understand what had just gone on and was still going on you would start to grasp the reasons why they took that desperate measure of uprooting a couple of million people on both sides and forcibly moving them… These people were sitting ducks… A lot of people died in the process, but many more could have been killed if they hadn’t taken the measure.”

The trauma and psychological pain of the expulsions had profound implications for both countries and for the international community, with the need for homogenous, functional nation states leading to an exaggeration of their differences and underplaying similarities. A divisive national mythmaking defines their continued animosity.

“From the moment Turkish and Greek children first go to school they’re programmed with the ideas and feelings that these two peoples are enemies,” says Sükrü Ilicak, a fellow at the Institute for Mediterranean studies in Crete. “These aren’t just fixed narratives, they’re kept alive. These thoughts and feelings are transmitted down the generations even when there’s no current problem between the countries. So when there is a problem, the formula that ‘well, we are eternal enemies’, is ready to be deployed.”

Relations settled down for a while. Both countries joined Nato in 1952, admitted partly in the hope that their membership of the alliance would pacify their behaviour towards each other. Tensions were never far away. “Greece and Turkey became independent nation states a century apart by fighting each other. Of course that leaves its mark,” Oran says.

The next big flashpoint came after 1960, when the British finally left Cyprus, which had been a British protectorate since the 19th century. Greek Cypriot EOKA guerrillas, who wanted political union with Greece, had waged a long campaign to get them out. The power sharing between Greek and Turkish Cypriots inevitably fell apart, as Turkish officials were pushed out and protections for minorities reduced. Intercommunal violence led to horrific attacks on the Orthodox Christian or “Rum” community in Istanbul. In 1974, after a coup engineered by the military junta then ruling Greece, Turkey invaded the northern third of the island.

In the following decades of bitterness and stalemate, this entirely separate country became the most intractable problem between Ankara and Athens, poisoning bilateral relations and likely to keep doing so unless a federation is formed there.

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is recognised only by Turkey, which in turn refuses to accept the internationally recognised Nicosia government. All reunification and reconciliation efforts have failed, most tragically the 2004 United Nations peace plan, which Erdogan, then new to his job and eager to abandon old taboos, persuaded the Turkish Cypriots to support. But Cyprus was headed for European Union membership regardless, so Greek Cypriots rejected it, preferring to join the EU in sole charge of the legal government.

“I strongly doubt that the Greek Cypriots are very much in favour of a solution in the island,” Tsakonas says, describing Greece as a “hostage” to Cyprus. “What Greece is mostly interested in now is to make sure there can be a decoupling of the Cyprus issue from the Greek-Turkish relationship, allowing Greece to develop its own policies vis-a-vis Turkey.”

The division of Cyprus has led to numerous related problems. Turkey’s refusal to allow Cypriot ships into its ports sabotaged its EU accession right from the start. Since 2020, rival energy hunts in waters around Cyprus – with the Cypriot administration granting drilling and exploration rights near the island to European and regional companies and alliances that exclude Turkey, and Ankara and North Cyprus disputing these claims to seas close to their shores – have twice raised the spectre of conflict.

Recently, Turkey, which has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, has raised the stakes further by invoking a naval expansion doctrine called Mavi Vatan, or Blue Homeland, accompanied by a map that ludicrously claims waters around most of the Greek islands in the Aegean.

“Why on earth did they have to do that? It’s created so much unease,” Stelyo Berberakis, a “Rum” journalist who lives between Athens and Istanbul, complained to me in exasperation. “It was first put about by some naval officer, it doesn’t recognise anybody’s continental shelf and it’s illegal. You can’t just define your own territorial limits when you’re so close to another country.”

He worries that Greece will now respond by trying to increase the reach of its territorial waters, provoking Turkey further.

“We’re all tired of this. We all worry about the cost of living and want to be left in peace,” he said. “The Aegean islands are full of Turks on holiday, there’s a new ferry route between us. We’re very similar. Yet media on both sides exaggerate everything, talk to non-expert alarmists and create tensions.”

Politically, the reasons for antipathy pile on. The 2015 refugee crisis, when Syrians tried to flee to Europe through Turkey and Greece, caused arguments, as did the 2016 attempted coup in Turkey, especially when some suspected plotters fled to Greece. Erdogan’s volatility is well known, but, Berbarakis said, Greece’s centre right prime minister is not immune to a bit of stirring. Mitsotakis dined with Erdogan last year and they agreed to address their problems together, he said, but he then went to the US Congress and proceeded to complain about Turkish threats, which Erdogan saw as a betrayal.

“Mitsotakis made a mistake – if you have the ear of Congress of course you are going to speak, but he could have mentioned their agreement. Then Erdogan wouldn’t have been so upset.”

Greece and the US – which has stalled the sale of fighter jets to Turkey – have also increased their military cooperation, with Greece buying US weapons and allowing an increased US military presence on its islands, although some of this activity is related to Ukraine. Some sources suggest Turkey’s posturing is in part a message to the US: “Restart the F-16 sales as promised or you’ll see what we can do.”

US-Turkish relations are cooler under President Biden than they were under Donald Trump. That’s only partly because Trump appreciated a fellow populist. The US has been very critical of Turkey for limiting the rights of non-Muslim religious groups, the continued closure of the Greek Orthodox Halki seminary and its refusal to recognise Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I as leader of the world’s approximately 300 million Orthodox Christians.

There is much ill will about the current state of Istanbul’s Rum community, which has shrunk to a mere 2,000, mostly elderly people. Greece’s treatment of its much larger Muslim community is also a problem.

The frustrating thing is that, while Turkish-Greek reconciliation is near-impossible, it is also simple.

Everyone I interviewed said if Turkey and Greece wanted to sit down and solve their problems like grown-ups, they could – since many battles are based on technicalities, confected disputes, deliberate provocations and historical misconceptions. They could apply for independent arbitration if necessary, as Greece has done with Italy and now seeks with Albania.

This was amply demonstrated in 1999, in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that hit north-west Turkey, including Istanbul, and killed more than 17,000 people. Greece was the first to send aid and rescue teams. Less than a month later, Turkey reciprocated when an earthquake hit Athens. “Earthquake diplomacy” was enthusiastically embraced by both sides, leading to a thaw in official relations and new friendships among the public – there were even reciprocal visits by the descendants of those deported in the population exchange.

Proper peacemaking is simply a matter of political will. But which leader will countenance accusations of “backing down”? Unfortunately, in Greece and Turkey, what’s more commonly on offer at the moment is a whole lot of political “won’t”.

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