Are we close to a new era in Turkish-Greek relations?
The Greek daily newspaper To Vima claimed last week that Turkey had acknowledged Greece’s decision to extend the width of its territorial waters from six to 12 nautical miles. The newspaper said this was agreed in a meeting of delegations from the foreign affairs ministries of both countries.
If confirmed, this will be a big shift in Turkey’s policy on this subject. Turkey and Greece have a big inventory of problems pertaining to their claims and counterclaims on the Aegean Sea and elsewhere. The issues on the Aegean include the question of the continental shelf of the Anatolian mainland. The boundaries of this shelf are not yet delineated and Turkey claims that the shelf extends beyond the Greek islands located close to the Anatolian mainland. The continental shelf is important for oil and gas explorations and the extraction of other natural resources.
Another problem is the demilitarized status of the Greek islands in the eastern part of the Aegean. When the Ottoman Empire was defeated in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, it had to cede almost all of its Aegean islands to Greece, on condition that they would be demilitarized. But, as the years passed by, Greece militarized them.
A third problem is the line dividing the air traffic control zones over the Aegean. This is the line where, when crossed, pilots have to identify their aircraft to a ground control station. Greece uses this line as the boundary of its national airspace and harasses the Turkish military aircraft that cross the line, claiming that they have violated Greece’s airspace.
Fourth is the status of the uninhabited islets, rocks and geographic formations off the Aegean islands. Turkey says that, if the name of such an outcrop is not mentioned in any of the international agreements, it should remain Turkish territory, because all these islands belonged to the Ottoman Empire and only the ones named in the agreements were transferred to Greece.
The fifth problem is the subject of this article and is related to the width of the territorial waters of the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. The Greek parliament in 1995 authorized the government to extend the width of the territorial waters to 12 nautical miles when deemed appropriate. The Turkish parliament reciprocated by declaring that, if Greece did so, it would consider this a “casus belli” — a legitimate reason to declare war.
The reason for Turkey’s sharp response is that many Greek islands on the Aegean Sea are so close to the Turkish coast and to each other that, when you draw a circle of 12 nautical miles around each Greek island, Turkey’s Aegean harbors will be entirely cut off from the high sea and Turkish ships will not be able to sail even from one Turkish harbor to another without crossing the territorial waters of the Greek islands.
This agreement leaves outside its scope a number of other outstanding issues between the two countries, including the status of the uninhabited islets, rocks and geographic formations; the delineation of the exclusive economic zones in the high seas; the demilitarized status of the eastern Aegean islands; and the question of the islands’ continental shelf.
Turkish ships will be able to cross the Greek territorial waters only by using their right of “innocent passage,” which means that the Greek authorities will have the entitlement to board and inspect any Turkish ship that uses this right. Turkey says that such restrictions will become a serious impediment for the free movement of Turkish ships and will strangle the nation.
To Vima also says that the Greek decision will not apply to Turkey’s northern shores around Canakkale, on the Dardanelles strait; the width of the territorial waters will be kept as six nautical miles in the Dodecanese (the so-called “Twelve Islands” region) in the south Aegean; and that the territorial waters in the eastern Aegean will not be extended to the full 12 nautical miles.
Greece will also adjust the boundaries of its airspace to the new width of the territorial waters.
The two delegations are said to have agreed that, if the agreement on territorial waters and airspace is finalized, the parties might refer the question of the delineation of the continental shelf to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
This agreement leaves outside its scope a number of other outstanding issues between the two countries, including the status of the uninhabited islets, rocks and geographic formations; the delineation of the exclusive economic zones in the high seas; the demilitarized status of the eastern Aegean islands; and the question of the islands’ continental shelf. None of these will be easy to solve. Strong objections may be expected from opposition parties in the Turkish parliament when it comes to the ratification of this agreement, but the dominance of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over his own ruling majority party, the AKP, may secure the ratification without acrimony
If finalized, this may be the beginning of a new era in Turkish-Greek relations and may lead to the solution of the other problems.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Twitter: @yakis_yasar