On May 31 the Turkish General Staff (TGS) posted a statement on its website claiming that a boat belonging to the Greek coastguard had violated Turkish territorial waters close to the disputed island of Kardak/Imia off Turkey’s Aegean coast (Turkish General Staff website, www.tsk.gov.tr).
The incident once again demonstrated that despite reciprocal high-level visits by politicians and military officials and attempts to establish confidence-building measures (CBMs), many of the underlying problems in the relationship between the two NATO allies not only remain unresolved but have not yet even been adequately addressed.
Mutual suspicions between Greece and Turkey are rooted in history. The two neighbors are unusual in that each bases its official national myth on a “war of independence” against the other: Greece on the successful revolt against the Ottomans from 1821 to 1829, and Turkey on the successful defeat of the Greek invasion on Anatolia from 1919 to 1922. Although there is little doubt that on a daily basis, Greeks are considerably more preoccupied with Turks than vice versa, both sides have a tendency to regard perceived historical experience as revealing the unchanging, underlying intent of the other.
Such suspicions have made it very difficult to resolve a string of outstanding issues between the two countries, particularly conflicting claims related to air space and territorial waters in the Aegean and disagreements over the scope of provisions in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne on the demilitarization of some of the Greek islands in the region.
In early 1996 Greece and Turkey almost went to war over the sovereignty of Kardak/Imia. In February 2007 a planned NATO exercise close to the Greek island of Aghios Efstratios in the northern Aegean had to be cancelled when Turkey abruptly announced that the exercise would violate a requirement in the Treaty of Lausanne that the island remain demilitarized, a claim that was furiously denounced by Athens as being completely baseless. On May 16 Turkish objections again forced NATO to cancel another planned exercise close to Aghios Efstratios, leading Greek Foreign Ministry Spokesman Giorgos Koumoutsakos to warn that Turkish intransigence was having “negative repercussions” for NATO’s operational readiness (Athens News Agency, May 24). “This condition must change, and it is a standing desire on the part of Greece for this situation to change,” said Koumoutsakos (Athens News Agency, May 24).
Even if there has yet to be any concerted attempt to solve the disputes between Greek and Turkey in the Aegean, in recent years there has been an acknowledgement on both sides of a need for dialogue. From May 25 to 28 Greek Chief of Staff General Dimitrios Graspas paid an official visit to Ankara as a guest of his Turkish counterpart General Yasar Buyukanit, who himself had visited Athens in 2007. Graspas was preceded by Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis, who visited Ankara on March 7 and 8 and Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis, who from January 23 to 25 paid the first official visit to Turkey by a serving Greek Prime Minister in 49 years. His Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had himself visited Athens in 2004.
In Ankara Graspas and Buyukanit discussed possible further CBMs to add to the 24 already adopted by the two countries in recent years. On May 14 rescue teams from the Greek and Turkish armed forces even conducted a joint Natural Disaster Intervention exercise, called “NDI 08,” in Athens. A subsequent statement posted on the website of the Greek Air Force was careful to note that the exercise had been “conducted in a cooperative climate” (Greek Air Force website, www.haf.gr).
The continuing failure to address the underlying disagreements between the two countries in the Aegean, however, means that the current rapprochement remains vulnerable to accidents and miscalculations. According to the TGS website, since the beginning of 2008, there have been five violations of Turkish airspace by Greek warplanes and 40 violations of Turkish territorial waters by Greek vessels (Turkish General Staff website, www.tsk.gov.tr). The claims are disputed by the Greek military, which has frequently accused Turkish planes and ships of violating Greek airspace and territorial waters.
One of the main obstacles to opening direct negotiations over the disputes in the Aegean is that any agreement would necessarily require concessions from both sides and leave the governments in both Athens and Ankara vulnerable to nationalist accusations of selling out the country’s interests to their age-old enemies.
When Turkey again blocked the NATO exercise off Aghios Efstratios in May, the Greek Foreign Ministry came under pressure from nationalist opinion inside Greece to explain why it had not reacted more vigorously. In his ministry’s defense, Koumoutsakos noted that Bakoyannis had referred to improving Greece’s relations with Turkey as a marathon rather than a sprint. “For a successful finish, you need endurance, persistence and patience,” said Koumoutsakos (Athens News Agency, May 24).
But, even if the possibility of a repeat of 1996, when the two countries were very close to an armed clash over Kardak/Imia, seems remote at present, there is little doubt that the continuing reluctance of both Turkey and Greece to attempt to resolve their differences in the Aegean could not only increase tension within NATO but lead to the loss of lives. As recently as May 2006, a Greek pilot was killed when a Greek F-16 and a Turkish warplane collided over the Aegean during an apparent dogfight over ownership of airspace.