Be­tween the olive branch and the sword of jus­tice

Chal­lenges for Greek diplo­macy are be­com­ing more daunt­ing amid un­pre­dictabil­ity and long­stand­ing ten­sion in sur­round­ing re­gion

Kathimerini English - - C O M M E N Tary - BY NICK MALK­OUTZIS

“In one hand Greece holds an olive branch but in the other it holds the sword of jus­tice,” said Greece’s new De­fense Min­is­ter Nikos Den­dias as he was sworn in on Mon­day. The dan­ger is, though, that Greece is bring­ing a sword to a gun­fight. Within hours of Den­dias tak­ing over the role, the Turk­ish Navy corvette Buyukada was sail­ing in Greek wa­ters, not far from Athens. It was the lat­est un­sub­tle re­minder from Greece’s neigh­bor that it will not cease test­ing the lim­its of le­gal­ity in Aegean.

The ves­sel’s course also high­lighted the nar­row con­fines in which Greece finds it­self: un­able to com­pete with Turkey mil­i­tar­ily but at the same time lack­ing the diplo­matic nous to lever­age its po­si­tion vis-a-vis its neigh­bor. Th­ese short­com­ings have been ev­i­dent in Greece’s for­eign and de­fense pol­icy for decades but there is a sense that the coun­try is grad­u­ally be­ing dragged to­ward chal­lenges that could be beyond its ca­pac­ity. Writ­ing in Sun­day’s Kathimerini, For­eign Min­is­ter Evan­ge­los Venizelos said that it has been six decades since Greece faced the cur­rent com­bi­na­tion of prob­lems (po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, do­mes­tic, Euro­pean, re­gional, se­cu­rity and geopo­lit­i­cal).

Venizelos ar­gued in his op-ed that Athens has to de­velop “a Greek stance for each of the in­di­vid­ual re­gional and in­ter­na­tional crises” that af­fects the coun­try. But to what ex­tent is this pos­si­ble given the rapidly shift­ing geopo­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion around Greece and its limited diplo­matic reach?

The for­eign min­is­ter sug­gests the for­ma­tion of new “strate­gic re­la­tion­ships” with other coun­tries, such as Is­rael and Egypt. How­ever, Greece’s re­la­tion­ship with th­ese coun­tries has largely been forged in re­cent years and months due to their de­te­ri­o­rat­ing ties with Turkey. Rather than the ba­sis for a long-term for­eign pol­icy strat­egy, this tac­tic bears the hall­mark of a “my en­emy’s en­emy is my friend” ap­proach that has lent a hap­haz­ard op­por­tunism to Greek for­eign re­la­tions for many years.

Prime Min­is­ter An­to­nis Sa­ma­ras trav­els to Nicosia and then Cairo at the end of the week to strengthen the GreeceCyprus-Egypt axis of co­op­er­a­tion, with a view to Athens mark­ing out its own ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone, just as Cyprus did after bi­lat­eral agree­ments with Is­rael, Le­banon and Egypt. How­ever, Nicosia has dis­cov­ered that in the see­saw re­al­ity of the East­ern Mediter­ranean, the EEZ’s de­mar­ca­tion is not enough to en­sure peace of mind.

Turkey’s decision last month to send the Bar­baros re­search ves­sel into Cyprus’s EEZ prompted alarm in Nicosia and Athens. Cypriot Pres­i­dent Ni­cos Anas­tasi­ades sus­pended re­uni­fi­ca­tion talks with the Turk­ish Cypri­ots in re­tal­i­a­tion. Yet the Bar­baros in­ci­dent high­lights the com­plex­i­ties of try­ing to chart a clear for­eign pol­icy course when the re­gion is full of twitchy neigh­bors.


It is clear that the Bar­baros’s pres­ence in Cyprus’s EEZ is part of a long­stand­ing Turk­ish strat­egy to per­sis­tently ob­ject to the pro­vi­sions of the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea (UN­C­LOS), which it does not rec­og­nize, in the hope that this might strengthen any fu­ture le­gal chal­lenge. How­ever, the Turk­ish move also cre­ates a se­ries of le­gal com­pli­ca­tions be­cause Cyprus’s EEZ is still con­sid­ered in­ter­na­tional wa­ters and other coun­tries’ ves­sels are able to en­ter the area as long as they are in­volved in peace­ful ac­tiv­i­ties.

While Anas­tasi­ades sought to free him­self of this en­tan­gle­ment by sus­pend­ing the UN-me­di­ated talks, it looks as if he has cre­ated an even more com­plex prob­lem for him­self. By re­fus­ing to con­tinue peace ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Turk­ish Cypri­ots, he has boosted neigh­bor­ing leader Dervis Eroglu, who is seek­ing re­elec­tion early next year, and left him­self with few se­ri­ous bar­gain­ing chips. Anas­tasi­ades’s room for ma­neu­ver is also limited by his mi­nor­ity gov­ern­ment’s re­liance on the Demo­cratic Party (DIKO) to help pass troika-man­dated re­forms through Par­lia­ment. DIKO is led by Ni­co­las Pa­padopou­los, son of the late Tas­sos Pa­padopou­los, who led Greek Cypri­ots in re­ject­ing the An­nan Plan for re­uni­fi­ca­tion in 2004, and it fa­vors a hard­line ap­proach to the peace talks.

The in­tri­ca­cies of the sit­u­a­tion were re­flected in the rel­a­tively luke­warm re­sponses to the Bar­baros flareup from the Euro­pean Union, the United States and Rus­sia. None of the pow­ers felt the need to wade in and pre­ferred to view the dis­pute in less cut-and-dried terms than it is seen in Athens, Nicosia and Ankara.

There is a dan­ger that the dis­cov­ery of hy­dro­car­bons off Cyprus, which was seen by many as a po­ten­tially bind­ing fac­tor for the two sides, may end up driv­ing them fur­ther apart. Nicosia is com­mit­ted to shar­ing the rev­enues from nat­u­ral gas be­tween all cit­i­zens but has made it clear to the Turk­ish Cypri­ots that there can be no agree­ment on hy­dro­car­bons un­til a peace set­tle­ment has been agreed. The Turk­ish Cypri­ots, though, in­sist that they should be part of a com­mit­tee man­ag­ing the re­sources now. In the mean­time, Ankara has signed an agree­ment with the Turk­ish Cypri­ots for gas ex­plo­ration north of the is­land.

The goal of cre­at­ing a bi­zonal, bi­com­mu­nal fed­er­a­tion on Cyprus ap­pears, at least for the mo­ment, out of sight. The In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group broke a taboo re­cently by go­ing as far as sug­gest­ing that the op­tion of a two-state so­lu­tion might have to be con­sid­ered. “The par­ties should in­for­mally con­sider the op­tion of mu­tu­ally agreed in­de­pen­dence for the Turk­ish Cypri­ots within the EU,” ar­gued the think tank. The idea has also been broached in a new book by Greek com­men­ta­tor Stavros Lygeros.

How­ever, the com­plex­ity of the Cyprus prob­lem is not the only rea­son the EU and the US are pro­ceed­ing with cau­tion. The grow­ing in­sta­bil­ity in the Mid­dle East is el­e­vat­ing Turkey’s im­por­tance in the re­gion’s power strug­gle. Although Turk­ish Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan has done his best to alien­ate the West with his capri­cious ap­proach to ISIS, high­lighted by his wa­ver­ing over whether to al­low Kur­dish fight­ers to reach be­sieged Kobane, the Euro­peans and Americans can­not af­ford to write him off. The vo­latil­ity sweep­ing Syria and Iraq makes Er­do­gan ap­pear almost a sta­ble ally.


How­ever, the West’s tacit ap­proval is also pro­vid­ing Er­do­gan with a shield be­hind which he can con­tinue to play out his grandiose dreams for his coun­try, epit­o­mized by his new 1,000-room, 600mil­lion-dol­lar pres­i­den­tial palace, nick­named Ak Saray (White Palace). As the Western pow­ers stand off, Er­do­gan is amass­ing more power in his hands and po­lar­iz­ing his coun­try fur­ther. His op­po­nents see an Ot­toman-like zeal in his de­sire to im­pose his will, morals and even ar­chi­tec­tural tastes on the coun­try, while sup­port­ers are drawn in by the prom­ise of an eco­nomic and mil­i­tar­ily pow­er­ful Turkey. Even though a grow­ing part of the Turk­ish pub­lic is happy to march to this mil­i­tary beat, Turkey’s for­eign pol­icy lies in tat­ters. Ex-For­eign Min­is­ter Ah­met Davu­to­glu’s “zero prob­lems with neigh­bors” dogma has failed. Turkey is now sur­rounded by prob­lems.

What Er­do­gan will do next is near im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict. Ankara’s sym­pa­thy for ISIS has been driven by the fact that it is fight­ing Turkey’s en­e­mies (Bashar Al-As­sad, the Shias in Iraq and the Kurds in Syria) but Davu­to­glu’s vi­sion of a Sunni arc stretch­ing out through the re­gion now runs counter to the ef­forts of the West, which is try­ing to con­tain ISIS.

Per­haps feel­ing penned in on this front, Er­do­gan will choose to flex his mus­cle in the Mediter­ranean and the Aegean, where he knows he will meet limited re­sis­tance. How would Greece re­spond to this? That, too, is un­cer­tain. For a start, we can­not be sure who will be in power in a few months from now. SYRIZA’s in­ex­pe­ri­ence and neb­u­lous think­ing on for­eign pol­icy, for in­stance, might cre­ate the per­fect con­di­tions for Turkey to test a new Greek gov­ern­ment’s re­solve. It would not be the first time: Costas Simitis had only been in power for a few days in 1996 when Greece and Turkey almost went to war over the Imia islets in the Aegean.

Maybe events will take a com­pletely dif­fer­ent turn and, sated by his do­mes­tic om­nipo­tence, Er­do­gan will be­come more amenable. Per­haps the two sides on Cyprus will find a way to work to­gether. Pos­si­bly the threat of ISIS will die down in the months ahead, al­low­ing all the play­ers in the re­gion to con­sider mat­ters more calmly. The ques­tion, though, is how will Greece re­act to de­vel­op­ments? Will it be an ac­tive par­tic­i­pant in the re­gion or will it hope that an olive branch and the sword of jus­tice will be enough to pro­tect its in­ter­ests?

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