No dearth of challenges as Greece observes bicentennial of 1821 revolution

No dearth of challenges as Greece observes bicentennial of 1821 revolution

No dearth of challenges as Greece observes bicentennial of 1821 revolution
The national flag is positioned ahead of bicentennial celebrations, Athens, Greece, March 23, 2021. (AP Photo)
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This year marks the bicentennial of the Greek Revolution, or the Greek War of Independence, which led to the creation of the modern Greek state.

The revolution that began in 1821 resulted in the establishment of a nation that the Ottomans recognized in 1829, leading to its international recognition in 1830.

Since then, the Greeks have much to be proud of: The country’s territory constantly grew between 1864 and 1947 and, in 1981, it became a full member of the European Community, enhancing the stability of the country’s democracy and establishing it as a critical state in the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean.

Nonetheless, this anniversary finds Greece facing internal and external crises. This is not an unfamiliar position. For most of its modern history, Greece has been deeply polarized, financially dependent and indebted to foreign creditors, and facing external threats and a tumultuous international environment. These three interconnected crises — internal, financial and external — defined the early Greek state, even when it was in the process of creation, and can describe Greek politics ever since.

Currently, the pandemic is hitting the fragile Greek economy hard. The country was in the process of a slow return to growth after years of austerity when the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) arrived. Politics and society have since become increasingly polarized due to how the government has handled the pandemic.

Despite the successful management of the first wave of COVID-19 in March 2020, segments of Greek society accuse Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of an illiberal turn marked by police repression.

Recently, many Greeks have taken to the streets protesting police brutality in the country’s two major cities, Athens and Thessaloniki. Of course, this view is contested by supporters of the right-wing New Democracy administration, which is still far ahead in the most recent polls.

The two interlinked crises at home coincide with another turbulent period of Greco-Turkish relations. The two states have a long and troubled history that essentially kicked off in 1821.

A century later, modern Turkey was established on the back of a victory against Greek forces in the aftermath of the First World War. The participation of both states in NATO since 1952 has not eased relations since they each have outstanding issues concerning the Aegean Sea and the Cyprus problem.

The current crisis, which saw their naval forces engaged in a standoff for more than two months last year, centers on recurrent maritime disputes. The two do not agree on the boundaries of their territorial waters and, in turn, do not agree on the extent of their exclusive economic zones (EEZs). The introduction of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982 has not provided any legal pathways to a solution to these maritime disputes since Turkey is not a signatory.

One might argue that the ongoing dispute and the occasional flare-ups are not a new characteristic in the two states’ relations. They came close to war due to the same issues in 1973, 1987 and, more recently, in 1996. However, this time things are different due to a changing geopolitical environment.

The uprisings that swept parts of the Arab world in the early 2010s, the declining US presence in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, and the discovery of hydrocarbons in the region have complicated matters. This has revived old conflicts, including the Greco-Turkish confrontation, along with new ones in Syria and Libya.

As a result, Turkey is exhibiting a more assertive foreign policy, expanding its military presence from Syria to Libya. In response, Greek diplomats have succeeded, along with their Greek Cypriot counterparts, in creating a series of trilateral partnerships in the region, most notably with Egypt and Israel.

The creation of these partnerships coincided with the discovery of hydrocarbons in the Israeli, Cypriot and Egyptian EEZs and the breakdown of relations between Turkey on the one hand and Israel and Egypt on the other. Hydrocarbons, which initially seemed like a way of solving the Cyprus problem, have increased the benefits of a favorable maritime zone delimitation for both sides, thus decreasing the likelihood of a compromise.

Greece and Turkey this month embarked on their 62nd round of exploratory talks, with the previous round held in January. The positive point is that the two sides are talking to each other, which will hopefully keep hostilities at bay for the time being. However, this series of exploratory talks began in 2001 and has failed to produce any concrete results, even when relations between the two countries were in a much better state and Turkey was still vying to become an EU member.

So far, neither side has shown any willingness to move away from its long-held positions, although there is a possibility the foreign ministers of the two states will meet in Ankara next month. In this respect, the prospect of achieving any results now seems dim. A failure will most probably reignite the crisis.

Meanwhile, NATO has shown some willingness to provide mediation between the two sides, with Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg offering to hold talks under his auspices. However, the alliance has been unable to defuse tensions in the past. Additionally, the EU has not been able to play a conciliatory role, with the confrontation becoming a source of dispute between members.

In previous EU summits, both Greece and Cyprus and, to some extent, France have advocated for a tougher stance on Turkey. In contrast, Germany and Spain, along with other states, have objected to sanctions or any other measures that would create friction in the bloc’s trade relations with Turkey. These dynamics will likely be on show once more during this week’s European Council summit. Overall, although the EU and NATO can help defuse this crisis, for now their role is limited.

The two interlinked crises at home coincide with another turbulent period of Greco-Turkish relations.

Alexandros Zachariades

The best hope for a significant improvement in Greco-Turkish relations is not in the Aegean but Cyprus. A solution was within reach in 2017 but, at the 11th hour, negotiations faltered. Now, the EU and the five parties involved — Greece, Turkey, the UK, the Turkish Cypriots and the Republic of Cyprus — have agreed to an informal conference in Geneva between April 27 and 29 under the auspices of the UN. Even though Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot leadership come to the negotiating table with a proposal for a two-state solution, this is an unacceptable position for the Greek side and the international community.

Therefore, given the right persuasion, the negotiations could be back on track. A solution to the Cyprus problem will eliminate one of the perennial issues between Turkey and Greece and provide the impetus for a settlement in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean.

This year is proving to be another challenging one for Greece and the Greek people. However, despite the crises, there is still hope that a degree of normality will have returned by the end of this anniversary year and the economy will be bouncing back once more.

In the realm of foreign policy, the prospect of a breakthrough in the confrontation with Turkey remains dim, with the best bet being a restart of negotiations on the Cyprus problem. A solution to that dispute would make 2021 a momentous year in its own right. Nonetheless, the road ahead is not an easy one.


• Alexandros Zachariades is pursuing a Ph.D. in international relations at the London School of Economics with a focus on the foreign policy of Greece and Cyprus in the Middle East. He is also the head of research for 89 London, an LSE-based think tank.

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