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[ANALYSIS] Why did President Erdoğan make a U-turn in Turkish-Greek relations?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (L) and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis speak to the press after their meeting during Erdoğan's official visit to Greece, in Athens, on December 7, 2023. The Turkish president is in Athens on December 7 in a keenly watched visit billed as an attempted "new chapter" between the NATO allies and historic rivals after years of tension. (Photo by Angelos Tzortzinis / AFP)

Fatih Yurtsever*

In 2020 Turkey and Greece were indeed on the brink of armed conflict in the eastern Mediterranean, largely due to disagreements over the delimitation of their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). These geopolitical tensions escalated notably in August 2020, when frigates from the Turkish and Greek navies engaged in dangerously close maneuvers. This incident not only exacerbated risks to maritime safety but also signaled a serious deterioration in bilateral relations. An additional factor contributing to the escalation was Turkey’s contention that Greece had militarized several islands in the Aegean Sea. This action, according to Turkey, constituted a breach of the Lausanne and Paris treaties, agreements that purportedly mandate a demilitarized status for the islands, and if Greece had indeed established military bases there, it would not only constitute a violation of these international agreements but also potentially call into question Greek sovereignty over these territories, thus necessitating a renegotiation.

Despite the escalating tensions, a significant diplomatic pivot was observed with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s official visit to Greece on December 7, 2023. During this landmark visit, he signed a declaration endorsing “good neighborly relations,” a phrase that marked a stark contrast to the previous hostilities and seemed to signal the arrival of a new era in Turkish-Greek diplomacy. This abrupt policy shift, often interpreted as Erdoğan’s U-turn in relations with Greece, raises intriguing questions. So why did Erdoğan make a U-turn in relations with Greece?

In a significant diplomatic development, Greece and Turkey, historically characterized by chronic tensions, resumed high-level talks during Erdoğan’s landmark visit to Athens, the first since 2017. In particular, Erdoğan, who had previously questioned century-old treaties governing Aegean sovereignty and engaged in rhetorical brinkmanship, expressed a desire to transform the Aegean into a “sea of peace and cooperation.” This sentiment was echoed by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who acknowledged past tensions but emphasized a current “calmer path.”

During the visit, the leaders agreed on a roadmap for political dialogue, outlining steps for low-level cooperation and confidence-building measures. They convened the high cooperation council, a bilateral body inactive since 2017, underscoring the renewed commitment to dialogue. Additionally, Greece agreed to grant seven-day visas to Turkish citizens for visits to several Aegean islands, and the two countries signed a non-binding declaration of friendship, aiming to double bilateral trade to $10 billion. This declaration included commitments to refrain from aggressive rhetoric and to reduce military tensions.

The positive atmosphere in Turkish-Greek relations cannot be separated from Greece’s status as a member of the EU, its strategic relations with the US and its political and military cooperation with Israel in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey is currently in the midst of a serious economic crisis, which requires foreign capital investment and foreign currency inflows in order for Turkey to recover. To this end, Turkey has initiated a process of normalization and détente in its diplomatic relations with the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Turkey also wants to accelerate the process of détente and normalization with the EU.

The EU Commission was invited by the European Council in June 2023 to submit a report on the state of play of EU-Turkey relations, with a view to proceeding in a strategic and forward-looking manner. The purpose of this report is to provide an overview of the current situation and to propose incremental steps towards constructive engagement while upholding EU priorities. The report was published on Nov. 29, 2023, and it evaluates Turkey’s political, economic and trade relations with the EU.

According to the EU report, there have been tensions and challenges in the eastern Mediterranean region, particularly regarding Turkey’s relations with Greece and the Cyprus issue. The restrictive EU measures implemented in 2019 in light of Turkey’s drilling activities in the waters surrounding Cyprus remain in place. Turkey’s actions, such as violations of Greek national airspace and unilateral actions in Varosha, have undermined the basis of the settlement of the Cyprus issue and strained relations. The EU emphasizes the need for Turkey to demonstrate a commitment to good neighborly relations, international agreements and the peaceful settlement of disputes. The report also highlights the potential for regional cooperation through initiatives like the Eastern Mediterranean Conference (EMC). The EMC aims to foster regional cooperation and address challenges in the eastern Mediterranean. However, due to increasing tensions in the region following the Hamas attacks on Israel on Oct. 7, the report suggests that the appropriate timing for launching new regional cooperation initiatives needs to be constantly assessed.

Since the European Council’s assessment of EU-Turkey relations in early 2021, there has been a concerted effort by both parties to mitigate the previously escalating tensions in the eastern Mediterranean, focusing on cooperation in predefined areas. Turkey has exhibited a more constructive approach, improving its bilateral relations with several EU Member States and addressing longstanding trade disputes, marking positive developments that need to be maintained. However, this re-engagement process remains delicate, particularly due to Turkey’s stance on the Cyprus issue, advocating for a “two state solution,” and its support of military interventions in regional conflicts, such as Syria and Libya, which contrasts with EU positions. The potential for a more cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship hinges on sustained dialogue and the avoidance of unilateral actions, especially concerning the Cyprus issue. This approach aligns with the EU’s strategic interest in developing a robust relationship with Turkey amidst broader geopolitical shifts. The current state of affairs permits further steps towards constructive engagement, building on the positive elements identified in 2021, with the commission and high representative proposing actions to energize key areas of cooperation, conditional on Turkey’s continued constructive efforts and addressing of EU concerns.

As can be understood from the EU Commission report, the EU states that it can establish good relations with Turkey, if Turkey reduces tensions with Greece over the EEZ dispute in the eastern Mediterranean, gives up the two separate states thesis in the solution of the Cyprus problem and abandons its policies that threaten Greece militarily. In order to normalize relations with Greece, the Erdoğan administration signed a non-binding declaration of friendship and good neighborly relations, solidifying its commitment to repair historically strained ties. Turkey and Greece have committed to addressing and resolving conflicts through non-violent approaches, strictly adhering to international legal frameworks. Concurrently, they have reached a consensus on implementing various confidence-building initiatives, particularly in the military domain. These measures are designed to significantly reduce unnecessary sources of tension, thereby fostering a more stable and cooperative environment.

Turkey’s diplomatic initiative to normalize relations with Greece, a strategic move primarily aimed at bolstering its ties with the European Union, is poised to have significant ramifications on its domestic political landscape. This rapprochement signals a potential shift in the longstanding coalition between President Erdoğan and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), led by Devlet Bahçeli. The sustainability of this alliance is under scrutiny, as it hinges on Erdoğan’s willingness to recalibrate his traditionally nationalist policies concerning the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean. Such a recalibration might necessitate a realignment of political alliances, possibly leading to a dissolution of the current coalition with the MHP, a party known for its hardline nationalist stance. The coalition between Erdoğan and Bahçeli will not last long, either, because in order for Erdoğan to abandon his nationalist policies in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean, he needs to end his coalition with the MHP.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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