Facing elections, tensions between Greece and Turkey reach boiling point

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7 min read
27 June, 2022
Analysis: While rooted in historical disputes, current geopolitical realities and domestic concerns risk inflaming a conflict between Greece and Turkey.

Historical disagreements and competing interests in the Eastern Mediterranean continue to fuel Greek-Turkish tensions.

An escalation during the summer months has looked possible for the past few years, with the most prominent example being the summer of 2020, when the two countries looked to be on the verge of conflict.

As socio-economic challenges increase for both countries and upcoming national elections get closer, the odds of a Greek-Turkish crisis are increasing.

Root causes of strategic antagonism

While a historical context has consolidated the feeling of distrust between Athens and Ankara, it is current geopolitical realities that are fuelling tense relations today.

The Aegean Sea, which according to reliable estimations contains a considerable amount of energy reserves, remains the main point of friction. The largest parts of those reserves are still under-explored and unexploited, due to the Greek-Turkish rivalry, which mostly concerns the Exclusive Economic Zones, the extent of Greek territorial waters, and, most recently, the question of demilitarisation of certain Greek islands.

According to international law, Greece is allowed to declare its Exclusive Economic Zone in the Aegean Sea, as per the provisions of the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (Montego Bay, 1982). Even though Ankara has not signed this treaty, the extent of its signatories internationally makes it valid erga omnes and thus applicable to everyone.

"As socio-economic challenges increase for both countries and upcoming national elections get closer, the odds of a Greek-Turkish crisis are increasing"

Greece has been blocked from extending its territorial waters from 6 to 12 nautical miles since 1995, when the Grand National Assembly of Turkey voted that this would constitute a Casus Belli (cause of war). Athens would significantly limit Turkish influence in the Eastern Mediterranean by exercising its rights, thus Ankara is using this combination of soft and hard power to put pressure on its neighbour.

Yet the Greek claims are fully aligned with international law and the failure of the Greek side to enforce its legal rights could be considered a success of Turkish expansionist policy.

Continuous calls for the demilitarisation of the Greek islands have also returned to the epicentre of the Turkish agenda. The Dodecanese, in the south-eastern Aegean, are probably the most important islands in this dispute.

According to the 1947 Treaty of Paris (Section V, Article 14) these islands should be demilitarised. This is why National Guard units, not the conventional army, are stationed there, with Turkey protesting even this presence.

However, Turkey was not among the contracting parties of this treaty and this special clause concerns Greece and Italy only, meaning that Ankara is acting as res inter alios acta, making null any Turkish regional claims.

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Pressure points and the balance of power

After a short period of relative calm following a meeting between the Greek PM and the Turkish president in March, the Turkish side changed its stance in May. Turkish rhetoric, often aggressive, is supported by its actions, either in the form of hybrid operations or measured military provocations.

Turkey hosts the largest refugee population in the world, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been using refugees as an unconventional means of pressure, as in March 2020. A similar pattern could also be expected now.

A major people-smuggling incident took place last week, for example, near the popular Greek tourist destination of Mykonos. At the same time, Ankara has escalated violations of Greek airspace, utilising both fighter aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles, with the situation likely to get worse in the following weeks.

In terms of the balance of power, the outcome of a confrontation at the moment would be rather ambiguous. However, the landmark 2021 Greek-French deal could tip the balance in favour of Greece by late 2023, particularly when considering Ankara’s removal from the F-35 program as a response to the Russian S-400 acquisition.

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After a short period of relative calm following a meeting between the Greek PM and the Turkish president in March, Ankara changed its stance in May. [Getty]

Yet, current Turkish offensive capabilities, spearheaded by domestic unmanned drone technologies and electronic warfare, could provide a temporary comparative advantage to Turkey, which Ankara could rush to exploit according to Turkish objectives.

“Albeit an internal military confrontation is currently a nightmare for NATO, the US might soon conclude that Turkey is moving towards integration into the Eurasian power system. In this case, Turkish NATO membership would pose a problem, which a potential Greek-Turkish conflict could promptly solve,” Dr Konstantinos Grivas, Professor of geopolitics at the Hellenic Military Academy, told The New Arab.

“For its part Turkey is reluctant to pursue a large-scale confrontation, lacking a clear military advantage over Greece. The negative impact, in case of a defeat would be enormous, with devastating consequences for the Turkish leading elites,” he added.

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Upcoming elections

In addition to the aforementioned factors, another significant issue could dictate developments in the coming months.

Both Greece and Turkey are gearing up for national elections, scheduled for next summer, with snap elections a possibility for both countries, probably in autumn.

But with the polls approaching, approval ratings for the ruling parties in both countries are falling. The consequences of Covid-19 and the crisis in Ukraine have had a devastating impact on the global economy, particularly for more vulnerable countries, like Greece and Turkey.

With socio-economic conditions set to get worse, any potential confrontation with a neighbouring country could transform popular sentiment in favour of the current ruling party and reshape the domestic political landscape.

Any future scenarios in the Eastern Mediterranean will also certainly be affected by the wider geopolitical context. An extended operation in northern Syria, to “clean up Tel Rifaat and Manbij” from the Kurdish presence as president Erdogan recently stated, would limit Turkish capabilities for any coordinated action westwards.

Regarding elections, Erdogan understands that he could pursue specific objectives at the expense of Greece which domestically could be sold as a huge success, but within reasonable boundaries. Even though Athens has been traditionally moderate towards Turkish aggression, at this critical point any far-fetched Turkish action could prompt the Greek government to make a stand.

Athens is also set for elections and any policy of compliant tolerance towards Turkey would certainly have a negative impact on Greek voters, particularly for the political base of the New Democracy ruling party.

Α full-scale confrontation remains improbable, as both countries’ leaderships are following a rational policy, however, a limited, controllable crisis seems possible. While tensions will remain high, all moves will be calculated on a risk/reward basis.

"As elections approach, any potential confrontation could transform popular sentiment in favour of the current ruling party and reshape the domestic political landscape"

Back in August 2020, both countries presented the resolution of prolonged tensions as a success. Ankara claimed that its exploratory vessels concluded their research and departed, while Athens insisted that it had been the prompt Greek reaction that forced Turkish vessels to leave. Both leaders manipulated their domestic audiences through this narrative. Therefore, if circumstances allow, a similar strategy could be followed again.

A brief de-escalation is expected, until the NATO summit in Madrid this week. The decisions at this meeting will certainly impact Greek-Turkish relations. It is also certain that Turkey will try to boost its position by negotiating its veto on the Finnish and Swedish NATO bids in exchange for certain gains. But it remains to be seen how Ankara will use this leverage against Athens.

Finally, and most importantly, the possibility of a confrontation between two NATO members would damage the strategic capabilities of the organisation at a critical moment, when the integrity and cooperation of the alliance is a top priority amidst the Ukraine crisis.

While the latest expansion of the US presence in Greece, after the ratification of the updated US-Greece MDCA, will limit the possibilities of an extended conflict, the Ukraine crisis shows that the role of international norms and mechanisms as deterrents and preventive measures against war can no longer be taken as a given.

Alex Kassidiaris is an International Security Advisor based in London. He holds a master's degree from the War Studies Department of King's College London and his research interests include security and politics in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Follow him on Twitter: @AlexKassidiaris