‘New’ Turkey must resolve standoff with Greece
A new row between Turkey and Greece broke out last week over exploration rights in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey issued a NAVTEX (navigational telex) — a maritime communications system that allows ships to inform other vessels about their presence in an area. Turkey issued it because one of its seismic research ships, Oruc Reis, was planning to explore for oil and gas deposits in an area that it believes to be part of its own maritime jurisdiction area.
Greece was alarmed by this initiative and issued a counter-NAVTEX asking mariners to ignore Turkey’s notification. It also informed the EU, US and especially Germany and France, asking them to prevent Turkey from carrying out such exploration. The US issued a statement saying: “We urge Turkish authorities to halt any plans for operations and to avoid steps that raise tensions in the region.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, who rarely misses an opportunity to prevent any Turkish initiative in the Mediterranean, immediately denounced Ankara’s plan, saying it was “not acceptable for the maritime space of an EU member state to be violated or threatened.” He called for sanctions if Turkey started to explore the zone.
Turkey announced that the exploration was due to be carried out in its continental shelf and that Greece was basing its maximalist claim on the presence of a tiny island — Kastellorizo — located about 1 nautical mile from Turkey and more than 300 nautical miles from mainland Greece. The Turks insist the Greek claim contravenes international practice, as the International Court of Justice in 2009 handed down a verdict stating that Snake Island, which belongs to Ukraine but is close to Romania, could not have any effect on the demarcation of maritime boundaries.
Amid fears of an imminent full-fledged confrontation between these two NATO allies, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a telephone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the crisis was defused.
An exchange of polite words hardly dissimulates the deep-rooted differences between Turkey and Greece.
Presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said: “Greece over-reacted to our NAVTEX as if Turkey was going to occupy Kastellorizo. The planned exploration stood about 180 kilometers away from this tiny island. Nevertheless, our president decided to postpone the exploration for one month and see what happens after.”
It is unclear whether Greece’s reaction was an exaggeration or if it misread Turkey’s move, but the outcome was that Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias last week said: “We are ready for dialogue with Turkey without pressure or threat. Our only problem with Turkey is the delimitation of the continental shelf and maritime jurisdiction area.”
In turn, Kalin said: “Greece is an important neighbor for Turkey. In line with the instructions of our president, we are ready to discuss all issues: The Aegean, continental shelf, islands, airspace, research and screening efforts, and Eastern Mediterranean, along with other bilateral matters with Greece without any precondition.”
However, this exchange of polite words hardly dissimulates the deep-rooted differences between Turkey and Greece.
Dendias’ contention that Greece’s only problem with Turkey is the delimitation of the continental shelf and maritime jurisdiction area is an outright denial of a plethora of other thorny issues between the two countries. These include the sovereignty of islets, uninhabited islands, rocks and geographical formations that were not transferred to Greece by international agreement; Aegean islands that were transferred to Greece on condition of keeping them demilitarized; the distinction between the delimitation of airspace over the Aegean Sea and the notice to airmen line; and the absence of reciprocity between the rights that Turkish citizens of Greek origin enjoy in Turkey and the rights of the Turkish Muslim minority in Greece.
The Turkish government is taking pride in its recent move to convert the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque and claims there is now a new Turkey that efficiently defends its legitimate rights. Signing an agreement with the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Libya and the ensuing opportunity to carry out seismic exploration in offshore areas far from the country’s immediate borders has been cited as further proof of such a new and powerful Turkey.
If a concrete result could be obtained from the present standoff with Greece, the Turkish government will have every right to be proud of itself. If not, it will not be easy to sell this failure to the electorate.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar