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The Recent De-escalation in Turkey-Greece Relations - Can Arıhan

Energy problems are never limited to only energy issues, and they tend to be closely interconnected with politics, economics, law, and even military conflicts. Similarly, the rivalry of two neighbors (i.e., Turkey and Greece) to gain rights over the Eastern Mediterranean's hydrocarbon reserves is heavily affected by other issues that remained unsolved between these two countries.

Just to briefly explain the history of rivalry between Turkey and Greece, we can mention the following events: the independence of Greece from the Ottoman Empire in 1830, the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923) that was fought against the Allied Powers, and also Greece, Cyprus Peace Operation (1974) that liberated the island from a Greek junta that sought the unification of Cyprus with Greece, the Kardak Crisis (1996). On the other hand, Turkey and Greece were not always at loggerheads, and the two neighbors enjoyed better relations from time to time. For example, in the early 2000s, both Turkey's possible accession to the European Union and improved diplomacy (the first round of so-called exploratory talks took place in 2002 and were initiated by then Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem and his Greek counterpart, George Papandreou) paved the way for a positive era in Turkish-Greek relations. However, especially in the second half of the last decade, in a world that saw rapid changes in the global balance of power, Turkey shifted away from the Western bloc. It adopted a more assertive and independent foreign policy. This also affected Turkey's relation with its neighbor to the west, that is to say, Greece. And the two neighbors became parties to a fierce rivalry, which involved energy disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean as one of the major problems (among other things, migration issues and conversion of Hagia Sophia back into a mosque also raised the tensions).

Turkey and Greece have overlapping claims regarding the exclusive economic zones (in its exclusive economic zone, that state is entitled to exploit the energy reserves located below the water) in the Eastern Mediterranean. Law of the Sea is not within the scope of this article. Still, interested readers are encouraged to study Turkey's arguments (Turkey's position is defined by the Blue Homeland Doctrine or in Turkish: Mavi Vatan Doktrini) and Greece (the so-called Seville map represent maximalist Greek claims) and also the writings of well-established academics. In addition to these legal disputes, the last few years saw a standoff on the Eastern Mediterranean's waters. As Euronews reports, Turkey first sent its drilling ship, Fatih (named after the Ottoman Sultan who conquered Istanbul and ended the Byzantine Empire), in May 2019 to carry out seismic surveys exploratory drilling off the coast of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Greece and the Greek Administration of Southern Cyprus condemned these activities of Fatih and sought the EU's support against Turkey. Until now, the EU did not impose strict sanctions on Turkey as the Greeks hoped. As the BBC pointed out, few Turkish officials were blacklisted, but this did not have any "material consequences" for the Turkish economy. Germany, the central power of the EU, even tried to mediate, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas traveled to Athens and Ankara to bring down the tensions. However, the tensions kept rising, and Turkish vessels such as Oruç Reis, Yavuz, and Fatih carried out many missions in the Eastern Mediterranean that angered Greece. Greece further escalated the dispute by luring France (and trying to bring the rest of the EU) into the conflict to strengthen its position. Nevertheless, after it was announced last Tuesday (12.01.2021), the tensions are somewhat relieved that Turkey and Greece will resume the exploratory talks.

After these lengthy explanations on Turkish-Greek relations and how the energy-related disputes escalated tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, we shall now move onto the "de-escalation" in the two neighbors' relations To open diplomatic ways leading to the solution of the dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey and Greece agreed to hold the 61st round of exploratory talks in Istanbul on January 25, 2021, after a five years break (the 60th round of talks was held in Athens in March 2016). Bloomberg quoted Turkish President Erdoğan hailing the news as a "harbinger of a new era" in relations with Greece. Seemingly, tensions de-escalated further after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that he and his Greek counterpart, Nikolaos Dendias, will meet following the exploratory talks in Istanbul. Besides, Arab News notes that, as a gesture of goodwill, Turkey decided to keep Oruç Reis away from the Eastern Mediterranean's disputed waters until June 15. So what do all of these developments mean? And what is their significance in the energy puzzle of the region?

First of all, I believe that a major and continued de-escalation should not be expected from the 61st round of exploratory talks. As was mentioned above, in recent years, Turkish foreign policy became more and more assertive. The US influence in the region diminished under the Trump administration, and the regional balance of power rapidly shifted. Turkey-Libya deal and Greece-Egypt deal caused more complications. Turkey and Greece have strongly positioned themselves on opposite sides of the dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean. In such an atmosphere, some renewed diplomatic meetings are unlikely to yield major outcomes. The rift between the two neighbors will likely remain unsolved until the wider disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East are solved. Nonetheless, diplomatic talks are always a useful tool to repair damaged ties, and certainly, Turkish-Greek relations need some extensive reparation.

Numerous things can be said about the impact of improved relations between Turkey and Greece on the Eastern Mediterranean's energy puzzle. Still, here we can only mention a few of the most notable ones. Of course, it is an unattainable goal for the 61st round of exploratory talks. Still, the two neighbors' ultimate goal regarding the hydrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean should be deciding on how to extract these reserves and how to transport them to the energy markets (e.g., Europe). Given the doubts regarding the EastMed pipeline project's feasibility, the most feasible route to transport the natural resources of the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe seems like first transporting the resources to Turkey and then, via the existing pipelines, to Europe, where the energy demand is. To achieve this ambitious goal, Turkey and Greece must find a peaceful solution to their dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean and thus pave the way for an era of better relations and closer cooperation in the region.

Another very central issue that should be decided by Turkey and Greece is the demarcation of exclusive economic zones. To safely extract the hydrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean, the two neighbors must decide which country will have rights over which part of the sea. As mentioned above, the parties' claims are very much overlapping; therefore, some considerable time and the development of mutual trust are needed. Under the current atmosphere, such achievements do not seem attainable in a short time. Other than these possible impacts on the energy puzzle, financial implications of the giant extraction projects and also cooperation with international energy companies stand out as important questions to be dealt with.

In brief words, Turkey and Greece are not the best neighbors that enjoy perfect regional cooperation, but there is a potential that can be realized if both countries try to develop mutual trust. After a period of worsening relations, news of the 61st round of exploratory talks is somewhat promising but falls short of being a radical tool to swiftly solve the rift. Still, diplomatic options should always be chosen over military options, and as the great orator Cicero once said: "An unjust peace is better than a just war."


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