It has been more than a week since the Turkish and Greek heads of government met in a congenial atmosphere to announce that the countries are friends determined to settle their differences by peaceful methods. This is an interesting turn of events since earlier the Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis had complained about Turkey to the US Congress while President Erdoğan had announced that he recognized no person named Mitsotakis. In marked contrast to such remarks, their meeting was surprisingly warm. Yet, these contradictory forms of behavior are hardly surprising. Greek leaders cannot resist the opportunity to criticize their neighbors in international councils, while the Turkish President likes to talk in an exaggerated fashion about his rivals to satisfy domestic constituencies.
What really happened? Not particularly under the pressure of soon-to-be held national elections, both sides find it desirable to conduct their business in a friendly, peaceful way. There were persuasive reasons for Turkey’s leadership to tone down the loud, threatening tone it had been employing against its neighbor. To begin with, the neighbors are NATO allies. All members, but particularly the US, would not tolerate active hostilities between two of the members. Equally importantly, active hostilities would trigger the EU to rush to the support of its member. This is no time to pick a fight with the EU when the Turkish economy continues to be in tatters and hoping to attract foreign capital, especially from Europe. The EU is also the largest market for Turkish products. Furthermore, Turkey has a customs union with the EU which it would like to expand and improve.
Next, a front has formed against Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean in delineating exclusive economic zones and exploiting the undersea riches, particularly natural gas. The front, despite its disadvantageous position vis a vis Turkey, enjoys European and American backing, enticing Turkey to shift to a more cooperative position. Finally, possessing problematical relations with many countries including neighbors, Turkey may have felt that it is preferable to improve relations with some. As ready indicated, improved relations with Greece may also lead to positive outcomes in Turkey’s relations with other countries such as the US.
Similarly, Greece has a number of reasons for preferring better relations with Turkey, One reason has become manifest right away. The Greek islands close to the Turkish coast have been suffering major economic losses deriving from Greece’s membership in the Schengen visa system that the EU has recently been employing to reduce travel of any kind between member countries and Turkey. Turkish citizens will now be able to get seven-day visas at the border of ten Greek islands. Another reason pertains to the extensive cost of arming against Turkey which has turned into a major burden on Greece’s national budget. Thirdly, the two sides feel that expanding their mutual trade is both possible and desirable. The leaders have agreed to double the volume of trade between the two countries. Fourth, both Greece’s allies and EU members are rather tired of its ongoing efforts to stage complaints against Turkey. This may not be welcome at a time when the EU in particular, is looking for ways to improve relations with Turkey so that it may remain within the Western orbit.
There are four types of problems between Greece and Turkey. The first that we may call the historical problems include questions about maritime borders, those of the continental shelf, the arming of islands close to Turkey, the ownership of uninhabited islands close to Turkey’s shore some of which have already been claimed by Greece, airspace of islands and flight information region questions. These can be settled in part by negotiation and in part by taking the matter to the International Court. The second set of questions relates to Cyprus, These are insoluble as long as the Greek side refuses to accept the idea there is a Turkish state in the North that will unite with the South only as an equal, not as a minority. Third is the question of the Eastern Mediterranean that might have been solved by negotiation and the sharing of resources but the solution has become more complicated by the unsettled status of Cyprus. Finally, there is the question of illegal migration. Turkey has agreed to prevent it to the extent possible but it is likely to continue and create periodical problems.
To supersede all, there is an overarching problem of lack of trust between the two countries. From a Greek perspective, Turkey is a much bigger and powerful country that is to be feared. From a Turkish perspective, Greece is a small country that other countries support in part for historical reasons and in part as a proxy to advance their own interests. With the prevailing mutual suspicions, are good, stable relations between them a dream? Fortunately no. The two countries have chosen to agree that they have many disagreements and to work, to the extent possible, to solve them by peaceful means. Building trust, however, is a long-term process.