Military tensions are back on the rise in the Aegean. Last week, Turkey accused Greece of harassing a Turkish research vessel operating in international waters after its fighter jets released chaff near the ship’s position. The Greeks denied the accusation but the flare up exposes just how fragile exploratory talks are and the looming potential for their collapse. Why are the talks facing such strong headwinds?
Adnan R. Khan: What’s happened to the talks and why are we seeing this escalation in military engagements?
Ilter Turan: Let us first be clear that Turkey has in fact been pushing for the talks to move forward. After experimenting with different approaches to its foreign policy, it is beginning to realize that its Western connection manifest both in its relations with NAT• and the EU is crucial. Therefore, Turkey does not want to allow its problems with Greece to be a spoiler in these relations or an impediment to improving them. Therefore, it has a strong incentive to de-escalate. Turning to the EU and the U.S., neither wants to be dragged into a conflict through Greece’s initiative. This is the background under which the exploratory talks were launched.
The reason progress has been slow is that Greece has been engaging in activities that do not conform the spirit under which these talks are supposed to be held. It appears that Greece is trying to take advantage of the atmosphere to advance its own causes. If Turkey reacts to its provocations, it can say: “Look, we told you so. Turks do not really mean to negotiate.”
But, in interpreting Greek behavior, as always, it is important to consider the context that appears to give Greece a certain degree of freedom of action. The key here is analyzing the growing American interest in developing Greece as a major base for its own operations, both in the Balkans and in the Mediterranean. This raises the question as to whether the U.S., which already operates an airbase in Turkey, is trying to develop a Plan B, since it may have come to the conclusion that relations with Turkey may become more problematical rather than improve significantly in the short to medium run.
Adnan R. Khan: Are you saying that the Greeks feel emboldened by the incoming Biden administration?
Ilter Turan: I do not think that the plan to develop a stronger link with Greece in America’s defense network started with Biden. Steps had already been taken by the Trump administration to develop a major naval base in Alexandroupolis. There has also been work on expanding the Souda Bay facilities in Crete, and some military exercises had already been held in the area. Biden is likely to continue these policies and be even more sympathetic to Greek positions.
Adnan R. Khan: Today Greece is, both economically and politically, a weak spot in the Western alliance. What are some of the negative forces there that help explain its actions?
Ilter Turan: It seems that aggressive nationalism, which had developed in part amid the economic crises, is now a global trend that affects the domestic politics of many countries. In fact, in this context, we must remember that the previous “socialist” Greek coalition government included an ultra-nationalist partner. In the case of Greece, the nationalist parties display territorially expansionist orientations and constantly create reasons for contesting one piece of rock, territorial waters or other air or maritime demarcation lines in the Aegean and the Mediterranean. •wing to the configuration of parliamentary parties in Greece, coalition governments often need the support of extreme nationalists to be able to stay in power.
This is a universal dilemma not necessarily confined to Greece. Parties of the center-right, including those in Turkey, in order not to lose votes to the extreme right, tend to move their own center toward the extreme right. The Greek prime minister is pursuing a nationalist line in part to accommodate the ultra-nationalists.
Adnan R. Khan: Hasn’t the AK Party done the same thing? Can the growing confrontation between Greece and Turkey be explained through the lens of growing rightwing nationalism?
Ilter Turan: To a degree. As I said, right wing ideologies are on the rise everywhere. But I think being a larger country that frustrated Greek territorial expansion plans after the First World War and simply being a much larger country, Turkey has historically been a bit more relaxed about Greece than Greece is about Turkey. That may explain Turkey’s somewhat calmer responses to Greek provocations.
That doesn’t eliminate the danger of escalation, of course. When there are tensions and when they are caused in part by the employment of military instruments, the potential for accidents goes up and the ability to manage conflicts come down. In the end, both sides need to show a willingness to accommodate. Unfortunately, at the current time, Greece appears to be much less interested in accommodation.