Athens, Greece – Turkey chose the day of the Greek prime minister’s visit to the country while placing a $6.1mn bounty for the capture of eight Turkish army officers seeking asylum in Greece.
Just days earlier, the National Security Council in Ankara issued a demand for their extradition despite Greece’s Supreme Court forbidding it on humanitarian grounds.
The court’s decision is unreviewable. But Turkey blames the men of helping to plot a failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016 before commandeering a helicopter to flee to Greece.
To the conservative Greek opposition, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras walked into a trap.
“This visit is poorly prepared by the Greek side, and augurs ill for Greek interests and Greek-Turkish relations,” said Greek shadow foreign minister Yiorgos Koumoutsakos.
In the last two years, Greece has registered record numbers of territorial and airspace violations by Turkey in the Aegean.
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“For the last 18 months, Turkey has toughened its rhetoric and backed that up with actions,” said Angelos Syrigos, an expert in international law at Panteion University in Athens.
“The result is that the two countries are in a state of constant confrontation. Nothing has happened to make us believe in a breakthrough,” added Syrigos who is also a candidate with the conservative New Democracy party.
According to one retired Greek diplomat, Tsipras took the political cost of an embarrassing visit to Ankara to establish a line of communication with Erdogan amid worsening relations.
Erdogan’s visit to Athens 14 months ago remains a watershed moment in Greek-Turkish relations.
In addition to extradition of the officers, Erdogan demanded an amendment of the Lausanne Treaty of 1923.
The treaty not only delineated the Turkish state, it also normalises Greek-Turkish relations after a century of war. In Greek policy circles, it is considered untouchable. The call to revisit it suggested a broader revisionism of the Greek-Turkish status quo.
As a signatory to the International Law of the Sea, Greece claims the right to extend its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles (22.2 nautical km). It currently stands at half of that.
Because Greece owns thousands of islands, doing so would give it possession of almost three quarters of the Aegean. Turkey has threatened to go to war if that happens.
Last October, outgoing Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias announced imminent plans to move down this path by extending Greece’s territorial waters along its mainland coasts and Crete. The move left out the most contested area of Aegean islands. But the intent was clear.
“Our foreign policy… is addressing and implementing the expansion of our sovereign territory for the first time since the absorption of the Dodecanese islands,” said Kotzias, referring to Greece’s formal inclusion in 1948 of the last territory neighbouring Greece with a Greek population.
“The most important thing for Turkey is the Aegean,” said Kostas Yfantis, an international relations expert at Kadir Has and Panteion Universities.
“Although we in Greece say that Turkey is the revisionist actor in that relationship, Turks say it is Greece because the status quo of territorial waters in the Aegean is six nautical miles and Greece wants to expand to 12 nautical miles and change the status quo.”
Greece and Turkey are also in a spat over delineation of their continental shelf, an area beyond territorial waters where states enjoy the right to exploit undersea resources.
Last October, Turkey sent a drilling ship to explore the seabed near Cyprus for oil and gas. This was in response to a similar exploration by the Cypriots.
A 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus after a Greek-inspired coup continues to divide the island and poison Greek-Turkish relations.
Hydrocarbons have deepened the disagreement. Turkey now also threatens to explore for hydrocarbons in areas Greece claims for its own continental shelf.
Syrigos believes hydrocarbons have been at the root of the disagreements all along.
“The potential for oil under the Aegean in the 1970s led Turkey to dispute the continental shelf of the Aegean and following that, almost all the entire legal regime of the Aegean,” said Syrigos.
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“Right now it disputes whether the small islets not specifically named [in international treaties] belong to Greece, Greece’s airspace, Athens’ Flight Information Region, Greece’s Search and Rescue jurisdiction, the continental shelves established in the eastern Mediterranean.”
Such Turkish disputatiousness and Greek defiance nearly led to war in 1996, when Greece and Turkey sent warships and helicopters to the Imia islets in the east Aegean.
Three years later, massive earthquakes rocked Istanbul and Athens within months of each other. The two governments sent search-and-rescue teams to each other’s aid, and the atmosphere between them improved dramatically.
Kotzias was defiant in announcing Greece’s imminent expansion of territorial waters.
“In our view, the correct policy is not to say ‘we won’t extend our territorial waters because we’re in the middle of a negotiation with Turkey about the continental shelf’, nor to wait until that negotiation is over, because we’re then depriving ourselves of a right.”
In December 1999, Greece lifted its long-standing veto on Turkish membership talks with the European Union, and the two countries started exploratory talks that came close to resolving their territorial differences in the Aegean.
But Greece then hesitated to commit to any deal. Eighteen months ago, Turkey abandoned the talks altogether. Their relationship sweetened only to become bitter again.
Despite their need to re-establish a bilateral forum to discuss differences, expectations are kept to a low pitch.