As Turkey and Greece took a recourse back to the channel of diplomacy this year by renewing long-stalled talks over the disputed zones in the Aegean Sea amid ensuing tension in the Mediterranean recently, both sides seem to be fighting against a windmill. The lingering discord could not be revealed more clearly when foreign ministers of Turkey and Greece publicly sparred in front of cameras in a mishandled press conference in Ankara on Thursday.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias was in Ankara for talks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu to explore ways to mend tense ties between the two NATO allies. But what started as a promising initiative unexpectedly devolved into a trade of barbs between two diplomats when they set out to inform the press over the latest state of relations.
In his opening remarks, Cavusoglu sought to portray a positive meeting they held prior to the press session. The Turkish chief diplomat exuded ample optimism about moving beyond the rancor of the recent years that came close to a boiling point when Turkish and Greek navy ships set on a collision course on more than one occasion in the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean, the major hub of conflict between Turkey and Greece.
The disputes, he asserted, would be resolved via constructive dialogue without creating a fait accompli on the ground. On another divisive issue that bedevils ties since the onset of the Turkish Republic, Cavusoglu stressed the wellbeing of the minorities living in both countries.
“It is in our interests that minorities in both countries live in peace, it will have a positive impact on our relations,” he underscored, according to Al Jazeera.
Oddly enough, his casual emphasis on the dialogue for conflict resolution appeared to have provoked his guest — Nikos Dendias — who unleashed a series of accusations against the Turkish foreign minister. Dendias’ fiery charges unwittingly set the stage for a tense press conference that resembled more like a verbal contest between two rivals on a reality TV show than a serious meeting between two high-profile diplomats.
Dendias lamented Turkey’s unilateral drilling efforts for gas search in the Eastern Mediterranean and Ankara’s unfair treatment of its Orthodox Greek minority. He unreservedly chided Cavusoglu for Turkey’s foreign policy endeavors in its near vicinity in a tense showdown within the span of a 35-minute conference.
“Greece’s position is clear and this is not the first time you have heard it,” the Greek diplomat told his Turkish counterpart.
His remarks set off a backlash from the hosting minister.
“If you heavily accuse my country and people before the press, I have to be in a position to respond to that,” Cavusoglu said in a chilling response.
If the Greek part is willing to maintain tensions, the Turkish minister exclaimed, Turkey would be willing to do so. “If you want to continue tensions, we can,” Al Jazeera quoted him as saying.
While both sides sought to salvage what remained of the meeting at the end, it offered little reassurance. The ministers’ dispensing with diplomatic and civic decorum in the press meeting was more than a verbal clash. The impromptu spat, in a sense, was a public manifestation of all the ills that came to define the tumultuous relationship between the two NATO allies.
To put it more directly, it is only a tiny fraction of a larger conundrum that doggedly undermines the mutual trust essential for confidence-building measures to keep conflict of interests in the Aegean Sea and Eastern Mediterranean under control.
How things would spring forward from this public relations disaster remains to be seen, although both sides agreed for further talks in Geneva over disputes between two neighbors.
The mutual recriminations did not escape the attention of scholars who were left to make sense of the press war that was on public display in Ankara.
The last time the countries saw tangible progress in relations was in March 2016 when the E.U. (and Greece) and the Turkish government brokered a deal that significantly curbed the refugee flow from Turkey toward Europe through the Greek islands. But the subsequent course of domestic politics in Turkey and Greece generated a hiatus until earlier this year.
Dendias’ visit came at a time when Turkey and Greece have been locked in a fierce geopolitical tension over the former’s gas-drilling efforts in the Eastern Mediterranean, something that tempers any exalted hope over a lasting settlement in the contested claims in the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean pretty soon.
At the heart of the tension lies maritime agreement between Turkey and Libya in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Greece’s subsequent deals with other countries such as Greek Cyprus, Egypt, Lebanon, and Israel. This and other conflicts such as the lingering ambivalence of the peace talks over the reunification of Cyprus, the Turkish intervention in Libya, the ill-managed encounters between the Turkish and Greek navy vessels currently constitute the main body of issues that bedevil the relations.
Despite this bleak picture, it worths remembering that he relations between Turkey and Greece survived dozens of crises over the past half-century since the emergence of the Cyprus conflict in the late 1950s and Turkey’s intervention in 1974. If both NATO allies somehow managed to eschew direct military conflict in more delicate moments (like in 1999 after PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan’s capture in the Greek embassy in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, or the dispute over a small islet in the Aegean Sea in the 1990s), there is less prospect today for a plunge into such a dreaded scenario.
No matter how politicians deploy inflammatory and bellicose rhetoric against each other on some occasions as is today, both countries have more in common for cooperation than actual hostility. In this respect, there is a compelling need for keeping diplomatic channels open for de-escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean and for preserving a refugee deal, however imperfect and shaky, intact. There is no reason to write off Turkish-Greek ties after today’s diplomatic blunder when we view the historical course of bilateral ties through a cycle of ups and downs. Geneva may mark a return to a more normal tone in diplomatic conduct between the two countries.