After many months of nail-biting tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey and Greece now appear to be ready to sit down to hammer out a negotiated settlement over exclusive economic zones and other areas of disagreement. But these sorts of negotiated settlements never play out exclusively in the international arena; there are always domestic considerations. How can the Turkish government balance the demands of its people and the demands of international cooperation?
Adnan R. Khan: Where do negotiations stand right now?
Ilter Turan: It seems that after much encouragement from Germany and NATO, the negotiations are about to commence. But as is customary, what is being done at the moment is simply engaging in exploratory discussions. This is an exercise in which you actually try to separate the various issues with which you have to deal and state your positions to get a sense of what is possible.
The interesting thing is that the exploratory talks regarding the Aegean had advanced to a significant stage as late as 2004 before they were discontinued. So it’s not as if negotiations will start from point zero. A number of things have already been agreed upon. Presumably, apart from this debate over exclusive economic zones, much consensus had already been achieved as to how to address outstanding problems.
Adnan R. Khan: The negotiations seem to have ignited some domestic political fires. The opposition, for instance, is accusing the government of weakness. What do you make of the opposition’s position?
Ilter Turan: We might begin by noting that in both countries, Greece as well as Turkey, the governments are under heavy criticism by their oppositions. In both cases, the critics are questioning whether their leaders are fully defending the interests of their country.
In the case of Turkey the withdrawal of the Oruç Reis to Antalya Harbor for “scheduled” maintenance services was interpreted as simply a reason for withdrawing the exploration vessel from the field. I think it the opposition might have refrained from criticizing the government for having made such a gesture, because you cannot start negotiations without demonstrating – on both sides that you are ready to make some concessions.
On the other hand, I think the Turkish government set itself up for this sort of criticism by claiming to be the unyielding defendant of national interests. When you express yourself domestically in such hard line terms, it is not surprising that the opposition will use the same tone in its criticisms. But it would still have been more prudent on the part of the opposition to ask themselves what they would have done under similar circumstances.
Adnan R. Khan: Often this is the case: domestic politics, which can be highly nationalistic, can be at odds with geopolitics, which requires compromise. How do you balance these two competing tendencies?
Ilter Turan: It takes some political acumen, but a good rule to go by is that when you state a position, you should always have a way to get out of any corner in which you put yourself. The Turkish government has affected a turnaround by emphasizing that it is willing to negotiate with Greece.
Adnan R. Khan: As negotiations get under way, could Turkey have had a better position if the EU accession process was still moving forward?
Ilter Turan: As long as Greece and Greek Cyprus are members of the EU, the EU will be under pressure to accede to some of their demands. However, to the credit of some EU members, the insistence that the entire organization be mobilized against Turkey has not worked in this instance. Clearly, if Turkey had made progress toward EU membership, it might have been easier to persuade some of members of its positions, which are in most instances highly defendable anyhow.
Adnan R. Khan: As for domestic politics, how can the government balance nationalism with the need for concessions during negotiations?
Ilter Turan: It’s understandable that at the beginning, both parties will express maximalist positions, but this is with the understanding that maximalist positions are not achievable. In fact, if parties insist on their maximalist positions, there will be no room for negotiation and compromise. The problem is that as you state your maximalist positions, you have to persuade the public that some concessions are necessary to move toward a peaceful solution while at the same time protecting the essence of national interest. You can do this by emphasizing that you are avoiding more conflict or war, which would be disastrous for all parties. So, the idea is to persuade the public that the deal you have reached is well balanced and serves your national interests and has contributed significantly to the avoidance of war.
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