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  • Writer's pictureŞafak Göktürk


Updated: Oct 10, 2023

Observers characterize the uneasy relationship between Turkey and Greece variously as historically troubled, a combination of politics and international law or all put together. They all make certain sense. But their accuracy will remain partial so long as the sequence among these factors is not realistically established. This sequencing involves the timeline of this relation’s past as well as its cognitive underpinnings on both sides. For the conclusions drawn by each side at every step of the way have produced today.

The catalogue of issues on the bilateral plate is forbidding. And, it is not just the multiplicity of the areas of disagreement which render them almost intractable. The parties cannot even agree on the list.

What is unlawful militarization of the Eastern Aegean islands off the Turkish coast in contravention of international treaties, for Turkey, is a sovereign act, for Greece.The international waters of the Aegean Sea that ensure freedom of navigation, for Turkey, is considered sovereign entitlement, by Greece, should she decide to extend her territorial waters beyond the current 6-mile limit. The Anatolian continental shelf extending naturally on the sea-bed well beyond the Greek islands off Turkey’s coast, as described in international law, carries no significantdifferentiating value for the mainland according to Greece. Whereas sovereign territory, including territorial waters, creates and limits national airspace, for Greece it is four miles wider than her 6-mile territorial waters in the Aegean, which, in turn, causes her to protest Turkey each time her aircraft flies through that arbitrary strip. The list includes the treatment of Turkish and Greek minorities andcontinues with a plethora of other issues relating to navigation, defense, security as well as islets and rock formations, all connected to the fundamental positions of the two sides.

Greece invokes international law in defending her ground and calls on Turkey to resolve the continental shelf delimitation, the only outstanding issue in her view, at the International Court of Justice. All the same, she excludes the same Court’s jurisdiction over military activities and deployment she deems necessary to protect her territorial integrity, and on all issues pertaining to state borders, including the breadth of territorial waters and airspace. Likewise, she declares that specificprocedures stipulated in the Law of the Sea Convention of 1982 (LOS) on the resolution of disputes will not apply to the delimitation of her territorial waters, exclusive economic zones and continental shelf. Greece nevertheless continues to fault Turkey for not having acceded to the Convention.

Add to the list the Cyprus dispute, which does not figure as a bilateral problem between the two countries in the strict sense of the diplomatic lexicon, yet pokesthe very nerve center of these relations nevertheless. The overall outlook is compounded further by the disputes over the delimitation of maritime jurisdiction areas in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Both sides hold onto their legal positions. Greece, also as an EU member, constantly seeks the favor of the third parties. Experience however tells us that this kind of pageantry does not deliver conclusive results on the ground.

All this takes us back home, home also in relation with the next door.

The Greeks gained their independence from the Ottoman Empire early in the 19thcentury. This was a time when the Ottomans had begun losing their holdings at a faster pace in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean basin. Yet the nature of the confrontations at the time were still almost exclusively driven by the ambitions of the empires in Europe. National liberation movements in those empires had not yet become a defining factor in the European state of affairs. In fact, the European monarchies allied in the “Concert of Europe” at the time were not sympathetic to national movements. Nationalism in Europe acquired its fuller weight, quality and strength in the latter part of that century. The successful Greek independence campaign at the time was therefore a rarity. Yet even this rarity could not materialize without the direct and, at times, collective involvement of the British, French and Russian imperial powers, who seized on the opportunity to further erode the Ottoman realm without having to fight each other.

Greece hence became a central conduit for the attrition of the Ottoman Empire by major European powers, with philhellenism providing its civilizationaljustification. It evidently served the Greek cause well, resulting in the new state’ssteady expansion in all directions. This experience however ensnared Greeks into thinking that their national cause was destined to be also for Europe as a whole.The sentimental surroundings of this transition, mainly fired by the era of romanticism in Europe, sealed that verdict. The process would also deliverBavarian and Danish Kings to Athens.

The Greek independence campaign against the Ottoman rule was conspired by the Filiki Eteria (Society of Friends) organization founded outside Greece (in Odessa),and was launched in 1821, in three, scattered locations. Only one of them, the Peloponnese, was actually in Greece. The choice of the other two places, Istanbul and Moldavia/Wallachia, where the attempts failed, foreshadows the course Greek nationalism would later take. For these revolutionaries, Greek territorial claimscorresponded to all areas where Greek communities, or people loyal to GreekOrthodox administrators lived. It did not matter if they constituted the minority, which was clearly the case for most of the places. While the geographic scope of the movement was extensive, its social and organizational range was limited. The Peloponnese rising was initially carried out with an assortment of local notables, clergy, merchants and brigands (klephts). Other nascent national movements, by contrast, portrayed a markedly more coherent and disciplined character, with fairly concrete and contiguous territorial claims. The broadly contemporaneous Serbian revolt (1804-35) against the same rule, for instance, had already assumed -albeit in imperfect form- the vital conditions for future national statehood. National consensus was solid and broad, and the organized hierarchy constituted the backbone of the future state. The shortcomings of the Greek movement on these accounts however were more than compensated by its imperial benefactors.

Resurrecting the credentials of the ancient Greek civilization was helpful in the articulation of modern Greek nationhood. Again, this went hand in hand with the growing European interest in that ancient culture, art and architecture. The Greeks proudly seized on that. Still, this ancient inheritance could only partially serve the purpose. There was a huge gap between antiquity and the present day. Greece had become others’ dominion way long before the Ottomans ever appeared on the world stage. Resting on the splendid laurels of a distant, by-gone era could not be adurable political platform. This void had to be filled. To generate a homegrown rallying platform for national coherence required a process and closer integration, as would be the case for other Balkan nations. But for Greeks, that nationhoodmeant more than life in modern Greece. The decisive role of foreign powers in Greece’s independence at a relatively early point contributed to the nation’s premature conception of her modern identity. As her national conscience hinged on the footprint of Hellenism, still largely in Ottoman possession, antagonizingTurks, more than internal cohesion, became their point of reference for nationhood.

This antagonism should be understood in its broader sense. Antagonizing your enemy is one thing, which does not sound unnatural, but projecting all perceived evil to your opposite and seeing it as the usurper of everything that you should rightfully own -from territory to culinary- is quite another.

Foreign rule is scarcely recalled in favorable terms. Ottoman period is no exception. Not only Greeks, but most other East European and Balkan nations as well as Arabs resent their time under that rule. Some harbor stronger sentiments against that legacy, while others are at best ambivalent toward us. I can understandthat through empathy. Turks almost never lived under the yoke of any other power in history. We came to taste that when we left communities behind as the imperial geography shrank. And, our own answer to foreign domination was our decisive war of liberation after World War I. So, we have to respect their feelings. Still,lingering bitterness differs from compulsive vilification. All nations once part of the Ottoman realm but Greece have moved on in their relations with Turkey, as they found a rational partner which upholds sovereign equality, and with the confidence they derive from their own national identities. Greece, an equally distinctive and dignified nation, however kept employing the Turkish yardstick, as she perceives it, to determine, at once, who she is not and what she should own.

For Greece, the Ottoman legacy has deeper connotations. Ottomans were the ones who eventually ended the Byzantine state. Although the Byzantine realm consisted mainly of the capital when it fell to the Ottomans, and Greece itself was overtaken from other European powers, Greece tends to read history backward and in a constant Hellenistic light. They see, on the longer trajectory, the Ottomans as the eventual possessors of what the Byzantine Empire was at its pinnacle. They also confuse Greek statehood with the abiding legacy of the Hellenistic period. The Greeks can rightfully claim to have originated the substance of that period,beginning with the conquests of Alexander the Great and ending with the rise of the Roman Empire. This was an era of cross-pollination of the articulate Greek language and culture deeply into Anatolia, the Levant and Egypt. The Romans andtheir later Eastern half, the Byzantines, indigenous populations and Eastern Christianity, as well as Jewish and Islamic philosophy have been, one way or the other, influenced by the tradition rooted in that period. Nevertheless, these entitieswere not the successors of any ancient Greek state, but established by others, albeitalso drawing on the support and involvement of scattered Greek communities, the most remembered one being that of the district of Byzantium.

Fast forward to the twentieth century. The unstoppable disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean had already immensely benefitted Greece. With the end of World War I, their march to reclaim the fuller realm of Hellenism was approaching its zenith. “The city”, as manyGreeks still refer to Istanbul, was gradually coming within range. Anatolia too was to be the natural trophy for Hellenism. The rest is history.

To better comprehend the Greek territorial aspirations, one may take a glance at the Megali Idea (Great Idea) map presented by Greece at the Paris Conference in 1919, depicting her pretentions starting from the Black Sea all the way down to the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey was left a landlocked area in the Anatolian hinterland.

When I served as First Secretary at the Turkish Embassy in Athens more than three decades ago, I attempted to compile a short dictionary of things and concepts between the two countries. The terms given by the two sides to the eventuality of the Greek occupation of Anatolia from 1919 to 1922 are especially revealing. It is called “Asia Minor catastrophe” by Greece, and “National War of Independence” (against all victors, not just Greece) by Turkey.

Unfortunately, that self-inflicted catastrophe is not yet consigned to history byGreece. Greece still stands, mentally and politically, on the rim of the WesternAnatolian seaboard. That remains the line of retreat -or redeployment if you like- in their space of Hellenism. The Aegean Sea, almost in its entirety is alreadyconsidered theirs, simply because it lies behind that line. And, Turkey would still be seen as an aggressor by Greece even if she stood idle in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, because she already sits on Hellenism’s Anatolia and Eastern Thrace.

In other words, the Greek concept of national territory is inspired by Hellenism, which does not necessarily correspond to actual or agreed state borders. The wider international community noticed this mindset -though remained mostly aloof-when Greece claimed the possession of the island of Cyprus, and later made the name of Macedonia, as it emerged from defunct Yugoslavia, such a big issue. In each of these cases, the common underlying motive was to call the shots when itcame to determining the status of an entity in the historical space of Hellenism.

By contrast, the Turkish sovereign territory has been determined on the basis of the “National Oath” (Misak-i Milli) charted in 1920, which draws a definite physical line within which the nation-state of Turkey will prevail. Today, the sovereign Turkish territory corresponds -with few alterations- to these borders, confirmed by international treaties. Turkey’s position on the breadth of territorial waters and the delimitation of other jurisdiction areas in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean rests on the entitlements, under international norms and law, by virtue of her peninsular land mass and uninterrupted coastline. She upholds the principle of just and negotiated conduct in international relations, the bedrock of all international legislation, for general as well as specific circumstances.

A similar clash of perceptions is observed concerning the relocated ethnic populations. The Turkish population in most of the areas which gradually came under Greek control had already been brutally uprooted prior to World War I. For the remainder in Greece and the ethnic Greek population in Turkey, the two parties agreed, six months before the signing of the Lausanne Peace Treaty, in 1923, to exchange populations with the exception of the Turks in Western Thrace and Greeks in Istanbul. The rights of these minorities were later enshrined in a separate chapter of the Treaty of Lausanne. Their treatment by the respective parties has remained a constant matter of mutual accusation and protest. As for the migratedpopulations, Turkey has never made a social or political case over their painful uprooting. She instead focused on the integration and well-being of all refugee groups who arrived in Anatolia after successive wars. Greece however continues to this day to exploit the relocation of Anatolian Greeks through their offspring, complete with claims of brutality, even genocide. The theme of “lost homeland” is a recurrent refrain in Greece, designed to keep the erstwhile map of Hellenism alive.

The discrepancy in approaches continues in the interest shown to one another. In Greek politics, media, education and a host of other public domains, Turkey rarely loses primary attention, which is essentially in a negative light. In Turkey, however, the political elite and the officialdom normally have other priorities and the public hardly keeps Greece on its radar. Probably Greeks’ fixation keeps themalert against the perceived constant threat, in turn necessitating 24/7 work to chart ways for undermining it.

Picture in Turkey also has not been flawless. Building nation-state on the ashes of an empire had brought along a degree of rigidity. The Greek minority suffered especially from the fallout of the two nations’ tug-of-war, as did the Turkish minority in Greece. The Cyprus dispute further impacted on their conditions. Honoring reciprocal obligations under the Treaty of Lausanne turned into reciprocating restrictions. Both countries have however established, in the process,democratic constitutional systems which ensure, together with their international contractual obligations, equal rights and freedoms to all their citizens. This normative framework is broader than the scope of the specific arrangements for the minorities. This should be a new point of departure for both.

Both nations encountered interruptions to their democracies. Greece also experienced Italian aggression, German invasion and an equally tragic civil war. She emerged from the seven year-long junta as a stronger democracy. Turkey saw a succession of military interventions. Separatist terror distracted her from consolidating the rule of law. Modern secular Republic continued to have its detractors throughout. Today her democratic credentials and institutional strength are being tested to the limit. The current government’s combative and inconsistentforeign policy practice has confounded many. Its overall impact on the management of issues between Turkey and Greece has also been negative. The authoritarian character and Islamist discourse of the government has had an additional effect. Greece feels vindicated in her orientalist assumption that Turkey is indeed of a different kind and threatening.

But the Turkish democracy will reemerge, and in better form. We did not have to suffer such backsliding in order to reach there. There are lessons for everyone. As an avid reader of history, I acknowledge the value of putting today in context with the past. But I equally know that past is not something we can replicate for the future. Successful nations are the ones who see their history not as a constant feature, but rather as the incubator of the transformational dynamics that havecatapulted them to where they are. Our proud nations are capable of being part of the unmitigated future, together.

It was in the year 2001. I was waiting the arrival of a guest from Istanbul, at New York’s JFK Airport. I suddenly recognized my counterpart, the Greek Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, a personable colleague, who had previously served as Consul General in Istanbul. We both checked the arrivals panel while conversing. The names Ataturk and Venizelos appeared one after the other on the screen, the airports where the Turkish and Olympic Airlines flights had originated(the one in Athens was brand new which had very recently become operational).We looked at each other, slightly bemused for a moment. The symbolism was inescapable. Regaining our composure, we agreed; “what a solemn legacy”. Our towering leaders had already shown the way.

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