ATHENS: Greek authorities are not being naive about their exploratory talks with Turkey but they “will not fall in the trap to undermine the dialogue” by withdrawing from it, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said last week.
His comments came as Ankara faced criticism from some quarters that it was acting provocatively toward Athens on a number of fronts.
The Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs had proposed to Ankara that the next round of exploratory talks on the maritime boundary dispute between the two countries take place between March 1 and 5. However, Turkey failed to reply to the invitation.
If the meeting does eventually go ahead it will be the 62nd round of the talks, which began 2002 but broke down in 2016 when Ankara froze discussions. Negotiations resumed in January this year amid pressure from the EU, and Germany in particular, to defuse escalating tensions in the eastern Mediterranean.
In the meantime, Ankara last month sent out a notice advising that the research vessel Cesme would be carrying out a hydrographic survey in international waters in the central Aegean from Feb. 18 to March 2. This prompted protests from Greek authorities and claims that Turkey was acting illegally.
Last week, Ankara accused Athens of sending F-16 fighter jets to harass the Cesme and published a video to support its claims. However, the Greeks said the Hellenic Air Force aircraft did not violate the “protection bubble” around the vessel. Additionally, the Turkish video did not prove that Greek jets flew directly over the ship.
During the first half of this month, Ankara will also conduct a major military exercise in the Aegean Sea. Called Mavi Vatan (Blue Homeland), it will involve about 80 ships.
Ankara is enraged by the growing military cooperation between the US and Greece. Athens and Washington are also in talks to update their Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement. The Americans are requesting a five-year extension of the agreement, and propose the addition of more military bases on Greek soil to a list of those that are available for US forces to use.
Turkish officials and media have also complained about the presence of US forces in the port city of Alexandroupolis. The US plans to send soldiers and equipment from there to take part in NATO’s upcoming Defender Europe 2021 military exercise.
Alexandroupolis is in Western Thrace, a region that is home to a Muslim community that is the only officially recognized minority in Greece. It includes people of Turkish, Roma and Pomakh backgrounds, but Ankara characterizes it as an ethnic Turkish minority. Recently, the Federation of Western Thrace Turks in Europe submitted a written statement to the UN Human Rights Council about the attitude of Greek authorities toward those of Turkish origin.
Additionally, Ankara complained to Greece over the handling of the discovery of an Ottoman cemetery at a construction site in Greek northern region of Chalkidiki. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Feb. 23 that Turkey should have been informed when about 200 tombs were found.
Greek diplomatic sources dismissed the complaint as another effort by Ankara to push a neo-Ottoman narrative of being the protector of Muslims abroad.
Ankara is also focusing part of its public diplomacy on efforts to discredit Athens on the issue of migration. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Sunday accused Greece of illegally turning away migrants trying to cross the border from Turkey.
“Push-backs and unlawful practices that Greece has been carrying out in a systematic policy — where in some cases the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency/Frontex has also been involved — have been continuing for years,” it said. “In the past four years, more than 80,000 asylum-seekers were pushed back to our country.”
The Turkish reaction came exactly one year after thousands of migrants, encouraged by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, tried to forcibly cross the border into Greece at the Evros river.
Relations between the EU and Turkey will be the focus of the next European Council Summit in Brussels on March 25 and 26, as Brussels examines a renewal of the March 2016 EU-Turkey Statement on migration.