Friction between Greece and Turkey is accentuated by the approaching elections

Friction between Greece and Turkey is accentuated by the approaching elections


19 | 12 | 2022


Neighborly tensions over migration conflict and maritime disputes rise with the prospect of Greek and Turkish elections in mid-2023

In the picture

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting held before the latest tensions [Gov. of Greece].

In recent months, the verbal escalation between the governments of Turkey and Greece has strained relations between the two neighboring countries, which share not only a land border subject to migratory flows, but also a disputed maritime delimitation, in an increasingly complicated Eastern Mediterranean.

The episode of a hundred migrants found naked in October in the Evros River, which separates Turkey and Greece, has stoked tensions between the two countries. Athens accuses Ankara of using migrants to create problems in the European Union, while the Turkish government accuses the Greeks and other Europeans of refund migrants indiscriminately.

On the other hand, several recent Greek moves to militarize some Aegean islands have raised Turkish alarm. With various maritime delimitations in question, Ankara may interpret some of these moves as provocation by its neighbors.

Next year's elections in the two countries (Turkish presidential elections are scheduled for June and Greek legislative elections for August) may be fueling both governments' interest in cultivating the nationalist vote.

In fact, statements by the political leaders of both countries show how Greek-Turkish relations are mired in the rancor of past conflicts. The speeches are replete with comments on historical disputes such as that of Smyrna in 1922, mentioned last June by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who referred then to the expulsion of Greek troops from the present-day Turkish city of Izmir, "throwing the infidels into the sea" and thus ending the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923).

While an armed confrontation between Turkey and Greece, partners in the Atlantic Alliance, seems unlikely, the evolution of nationalism and the realization of a growing enmity opens up uncertainty about the future. Below, we examine here three possible scenarios on the development of the underlying conflict.

Migratory tension

The political status between Turkey and Greece has again become tense after 92 people were found trying to cross the border of the two countries across the Evros River on October 17. These people, who claimed to be asylum seekers in Turkey, were mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, and accused the Turkish government of a "humiliating" attention towards them. They were found naked and without belongings.

The Turkish government's communication director , Fahrettin Altun, responded to the accusation with the phrase: "The Greek fake news machine is at work again". In this way, the Turkish government denied having treated its refugees in a derogatory manner, without ever clearly explaining how 92 people were abandoned in Evros, apparently stolen and placed there without their consent.

Turkey and Greece do not exactly enjoy a good reputation when it comes to the reception of migrants. They are internationally recognized for their mutual accusations of mistreatment of migrants. Frontex, the European Union's border agency, has been accused of not accepting migrants on European soil and turning them back at the border of countries bordering its territory. But the Greek government and Frontex strongly deny carrying out these illegal returns of migrants, while Ankara emphasizes them, affecting the image of Frontex and the Greeks.

To address this irregular migration that has been occurring for years, in 2016 the EU established several principles such as, for example, that all new illegal migrants arriving on the Greek islands be returned to Turkey if they do not have proper documentation. The EU decided on this policy in light of the dramatic increase in human trafficking through the Eastern Mediterranean migratory route.

Maritime conflict

The maritime boundary dispute between the two countries dates back to the first third of the 20th century. Since then the sovereignty claim over 6 nautical miles from the coastline has pitted Athens and Ankara against each other, as many Greek islands (some disputed by their neighbors) are very close to the Turkish continental shelf.

The United Nations proclaimed in 1982 the Convention on the Law of the Sea, which entered into force in 1994. The Convention grants states the possibility of claiming sovereign waters up to 12 nautical miles from their coastline. If Greece were to claim the 12 nautical miles, the Aegean Sea would become, 'de facto', a Greek lake. Turkey would be greatly harmed in the short, medium and long term deadline by this possible decision, so the Turkish government has stated on several occasions that it considers this possibility as a 'casus belli'. This has caused numerous diplomatic clashes between the two countries.

This maritime dispute has several nuances, since the continental shelves of these countries overlap, a problem that makes it advisable to apply customary tradition in default of the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Among several ways accepted by the UN to delimit a line average final , Greece prefers to establish a median line provisional between the Greek and Turkish island coasts, while Turkey is more inclined to take into consideration subjective factors relevant to the parties and maintains its initial position on the measurements of the median line, according to which the median should be calculated from the continental coastline.

This conflict has been especially alive since the 1970s. The delimitation of territorial and maritime areas, which could be of great financial aid for the Economics of both countries, is a point core topic of dispute. The control of airspace is also of great importance, since, militarily speaking, controlling flight information and air activity in the area is a great asset for any power.

From the prospect of EU membership to the present escalation

The frictions between the two countries have known moments of certain détente that invited optimism. The beginning of the present century was core topic in improving relations, as Turkey sought accession to the European Union, agreeing to introduce various reforms to facilitate its accession. This led the European Union, which in fact remained ambivalent about Turkey's future accession, to work towards a rapprochement between the two countries, suggesting that the conflict would not again experience the peaks of tension seen decades earlier.

That earlier optimism was dashed in 2016 by the stalling of future EU membership negotiations, and Turkey is now accused from Brussels and by EU member states of various human rights violations. Turkey's status and the actions of its government forced the EU to fail accession talks in 2019 through a vote that was not welcomed by the Turks, who called the vote "absolutely unacceptable." After this failed attempt at diplomacy, both Greece and Turkey continued their threats and disputes.

Recently, relations between the two countries have again been hanging by a thread. One of the triggers for this worsening were the allusions of the Greek Prime Minister, Kiriakos Mitsotakis, during the celebrationof Armed Forces Day inNovember, to the Turkish "threat" and the risk of destabilization in the Eastern Mediterranean. "In times of international instability, wars in the heart of Europe, and constant threats to our borders, the Armed Forces Day is an opportunity for the country to unite even more," Mitsotakis said. The Greek Prime Minister assured that his government is making efforts to strengthen the Greek Defense capabilities and to overcome the economic crisis in which Greece finds itself.

Apart from the Prime Minister, several high-ranking Greek officials have made statements on status. One of them, the Chief of Defense Staff of the Hellenic Republic, General Konstantinos Floros, commented onthe same day that whoever underestimated the power and will of Greece to defend its sovereignty would be making a big mistake. "We are at peace and we work for peace", he wanted to specify. Historical references were not left out of the dialectical battle: Floros referred to the battle of Marathon in 490 BC, suggesting the end that "anyone who makes the mistake of attacking at night" would suffer, in a clear reference letter to the worrying statements that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had previously made threatening Greece with a possible "night attack".

In other statements on the topic, Erdogan said that the Greek presence on certain Aegean islands "does not bind" Turkey's position on the recognition of sovereignty. "When the time comes, we will do what is necessary," he noted. In this context of warning towards its neighbors, the Turkish president also indicated that the new 'Tayfun' ballistic missile had managed to reach a range of 561 kilometers over the Black Sea in tests conducted on October 18, 2022, implying that Athens was within the long range of its missiles.

This verbal escalation has increased the discomfort between Greece and Turkey. Given this status, it is timely to ask whether this subject of incidents could trigger a larger scale conflict or even a war between the two countries. It is true that the Greek-Turkish status is not as tense as at certain times in the past; however, when tensions are heightened, any action seen as particularly negative by the other side could trigger a conflict.

Possible scenarios

1. Armed conflict between Greece and Turkey

This would be the first possible scenario following the recurring migration crises affecting both sides. After years of accusations of mistreatment and refoulement of refugees, one of the two countries could finally take the first step towards an armed attack and start a conflict. However, this conflict would have a major development problem: Greece and Turkey are both part of NATO. A conflict between two NATO members would force the other members to either 1) settle the conflict or 2) choose one of the sides to support. Moreover, considering the fact that Greece is a member of the EU, Athens should count on the more or less unconditional support of all member states, from agreement with article 42.7 of the Lisbon treaty.

If a possible armed conflict between Greece and Turkey did not enter a phase of negotiations soon, it would pose a clear risk of international escalation due to existing alliances. EU support for Greece would leave Turkey at a great disadvantage, which although it has a larger army would be forced to seek alliances with other states.

The President of Turkey declared in October at a lecture in Prague that Greece should be prepared for a possible invasion by the Turkish army. His words were possibly intended to encourage nationalism, to which the Greek authorities have also appealed, both governments needing to appeal to their respective populations on such sensitive issues as migration, although in the case of the Turkish president this is more pronounced. In any case, although the possibility of a war should not be completely ruled out, both countries would probably stop before starting one, as it would not benefit either of them.

2. Tensions escalate without exploding

The second possible scenario is that the accusations and incidents between the two countries continue without reaching the point of no return of an armed conflict. However, an evolution of that subject financial aid to the diplomatic relationship between Ankara and Athens and damages the perception of their governments by the international community. This is the most likely scenario, which constitutes a prolongation of the current status, albeit with a further escalation of words and tensions.

3. Distinction

There is also, however, a scenario of détente, in which diplomacy eases and resolves tensions. For the time being, it would have to be labeled 'idealistic', as neither country has so far shown any genuine interest in resolving the differences that separate them. Moreover, some reasons for mutual discomfort, such as the migration crises, are beyond the full control of the respective governments. Still, it should not be forgotten that tensions such as the Aegean Crisis of 1987 have already been resolved in the past through diplomatic action.

Looking ahead to the next elections

Beyond these future considerations, for the moment the verbal escalation between the Greek and Turkish governments could be interpreted as core topic electoral. Elections will be held in mid-2023 in both Greece and Turkey, which conditions the actions of their governments, which are moving more in line with public opinion. Thus, they have begun to rekindle old tensions in order to gain the support of their respective nationalist sectors.

In the case of Turkey, the population blames the current government for the economic crisis. In addition, there is growing discontent among Turks regarding the nearly four million Syrian refugees the country is hosting. Erdogan is aware of this and is trying to win greater popular favor by returning migrants. For his part, the Greek Prime Minister, the conservative Kyriakos Mitsotakis, also faces this sticking point by seeking greater approval from his management.

The cultural, ethnic and religious differences between these two nations have created problems since the Ottoman occupation of Greece; the conflicts of that time continue to appear centuries later. Previously, the reason for friction between the two was territorial and maritime sovereignty for the most part; added to that today is also migration, which also affects people in emergency situations. This class "game" with migrants has been called by many as a ping-pong game; a status where the rights and physical integrity of thousands of people are at risk, while nationalism is fed in two countries close to their elections.