Tensions Between NATO Allies Greece and Turkey

September 7, 2020

The following is from “OECD Economic Surveys, Greece” of July 2020:

“Greece has responded swiftly to the pandemic and has effectively limited infections, but the economy has been hit hard… Before the pandemic hit, the Greek economy had been expanding for over three years at just below 2% average annual growth…

“The COVID-19 shock risks exacerbating Greece’s long-standing labor market challenges. The employment rate has increased over the past six years but is still one of the lowest among OECD countries. Women and the young continue suffering from low employment rates. The lack of prospects has pushed many talented young people to emigrate, lowering the country’s entrepreneurial and innovation potential. Poverty and material deprivation, while improving, are high, especially among the young and families.”[i]

And the following is from OECD’s “Turkey Economic Snapshot, Economic Forecast Summary (June 2020)”:

“After positive growth in the beginning of the year, Turkey’s output is projected to contract by nearly 5% to 8% in 2020, depending on whether a new virus outbreak later this year is avoided (the single-hit scenario) or not (the double-hit scenario), due to employment losses, sharp income shortfalls and a fall in external demand…

“Turkey remains exposed to external shocks. Macroeconomic fundamentals are weak, due to high inflation, exchange rate volatility, volatile capital movements, and financial risks raised by extremely rapid credit growth in parts of the banking system. Geo-political uncertainties are also significant.”[ii]

Last week, Turkish Statistical Institute announced that the economy contracted by 9.9 % in the second quarter of 2020. The fact that the economy had grown by 4.4 % in the first quarter underlines the impact of the pandemic.

What can one possibly expect of the leaders of the two countries at such a critical juncture? I, for one, would expect them to focus on the economy and join hands in fighting Covid-19’s relentless attacks on their peoples, cities, and tourist resorts. Unfortunately, the two countries are only upping the ante in a controversy over maritime jurisdiction areas in the Mediterranean. Moreover, they are continuing with a politically and financially costly show of military power when their peoples are in need.

I served as Turkey’s Ambassador to Athens between 1997-2001. In the beginning, the atmosphere was tense. Our Greek neighbors were suspicious of Turkey’s intentions because years of government rhetoric on the so-called “Turkish threat” had made an impact. To my Greek friends I said, “Perhaps you would be disappointed to hear this, but Greece is not on top of our foreign and security policy agenda. We are confronted with a host of other more pressing regional problems.”

In early 1998 came the Ocalan crisis when, to the surprise of the world, the leader of the PKK who was expelled from Syria, turned up at the Greek embassy in Nairobi. Nonetheless, Ankara and Athens opened a new page and launched what was then called the “period of dialogue”. This helped lower tensions and energize economic cooperation and trade between the two countries. Reciprocal visits multiplied. Disaster relief cooperation following the Marmara and Athens earthquakes brought the two peoples closer. Both sides gained. I have always considered myself lucky to have witnessed a sea change in relations and thoroughly enjoyed my stay in Athens. I always felt welcome.

Perhaps this is not the moment for a warm embrace, but it is past time to reduce tensions. Some worry about a military confrontation. A military incident/accident is possible, it may lead to flare up, but it would not be allowed to expand into something worse. Nonetheless, it would leave a scar. This would encourage those seeking retaliation. Potential for such a downturn must be eliminated. Looking at Ankara’s misguided involvement in Syria and Libya as a window of opportunity in eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean would be wrong.

Turkey, contrary to the “Turkish threat” myth, has never questioned Greece’s territorial integrity. But maritime jurisdiction areas in the Aegean is a challenge which must be met with reason and a long-term vision. Some have referred to eastern Aegean islands as “a pearl necklace”. And a former Turkish foreign minister once said, “Indeed, so long as you do not tighten the string too much.” In other words, these are Greek islands, but they cannot raise a wall between the Anatolian landmass and the Aegean.

It is unfortunate that a de-confliction initiative launched by NATO failed to make progress. But conventional diplomacy offers many paths to reducing tensions. Ankara and Athens should do that sooner than later. Once calm has been restored, they can decide how to proceed towards something more meaningful. Because long-term interests of Ankara and Athens make it imperative for both countries to move beyond conflict, beyond peaceful coexistence.


[i] https://www.oecd.org/economy/surveys/Greece-2020-OECD-economic-survey-Overview.pdf

[ii] http://www.oecd.org/economy/turkey-economic-snapshot/


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