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Yavuz Baydar
Feb 11 2019

Nothing new under the Aegean sun

What to make of Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s February 5 visit to Turkey? On the surface, it seemed impressive but observers were left with the feeling it was much ado about nothing.

Overall, it mattered more to Tsipras than to his host, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Tsipras met with Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, the leader of Orthodox Christianity. He became the first sitting Greek prime minister in 90 years to visit the Halki seminary, the theological school that was once the fount of Greek learning in the region.

Tsipras also had some attractive photo opportunities in the Hagia Sophia, once a Greek Orthodox Christian cathedral and now converted into a museum. Both spots were symbolic of the Greek presence in Asia Minor. Tsipras, who faces an election, must have hoped the headlines would leave fellow Greeks at home with a sense of pride.

He probably hoped for more. The visit was meant to distract Greece from a venomous public debate on the deal with Macedonia about its name. Whether Tsipras finds some relief at home remains to be seen.

What the visit has left Erdogan with is easy: not much at all. He does not hide the fact he sees Tsipras as a minor, inexperienced figure. At times, this has led to the use of patronising language.

During this visit, the Turkish president had less on the agenda than Tsipras. Erdogan continued to insist on the extradition of Turkish soldiers who sought asylum in Greece after the 2016 attempted coup. He was met with the stern but polite response: rule of law must be abided by.

The public exchanges on Cyprus showed that the issue remains on the backburner. Erdogan offered Tsipras old Turkish wine (or grape juice) in a new bottle. Both sides would ignore the intermediary role of the United Nations and the European Union and instead should set up bilateral exploratory commissions, which would work towards a final settlement on the island.

Was this a deliberately empty gesture? It’s hard to tell. However, it was an offer Tsipras could immediately refuse. He subtly indicated that with Cyprus a member of the European Union, the modality of a settlement process for the divided island is not to be tampered with. This stance barely conceals the fact that even the Greek side — Athens, not Nicosia — is on the point of accepting a solution.

Both sides on the divided island would be very loosely tied to each other and administered separately. Tsipras knows this but wants the international community to take responsibility for reasons to do with political survival.

What’s more, regarding Cyprus and the eastern Mediterranean in general, Tsipras definitely felt stronger than his counterpart.

Greece, along with Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, is part of the so-called East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which excludes Turkey. The United States, apparently weary of the discord with its NATO ally, Turkey, has been fast advancing efforts to build a separate security structure in the eastern Mediterranean with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. This is meant to secure the energy corridor, push trade and intensify anti-terrorism cooperation. Athens hopes the project materialises this year.

For the Greek prime minister, this visit had only one urgent dimension: to decrease tensions in the Aegean Sea. Aegean border issues leave a lot of room for provocations and feed nationalism on both sides, especially the Turkish.

Under pressure at home, Erdogan has always kept the Greece card up his sleeve. In forthcoming local elections, Erdogan’s irredentist approach has not only covered threats to invade Syria but the reclaiming of some Aegean islets and rocks as well. On the latter point, Tsipras does not have much to offer other than reassurance.

It is unknown whether this will have any effect on Ankara’s tactical stance. One positive signal for reaching a common understanding emerged: Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar invited his counterpart, Evangelos Apostolakis, to go deeper into bilateral defence issues. Until recently, both men were top military officers. The hope is that they will find a common language towards a moratorium on the dogfights and increased cooperation on refugee flows.

Much depends on Erdogan. He knows he is losing leverage on issues to do with the eastern Mediterranean. It may be very hard for him to lower the decibel level on his anti-Greek rhetoric because he has yet to pass the final threshold into ruling as absolute leader.

If, as predicted, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party wins the local polls, there will be no elections in Turkey until 2023. Only after the local elections March 31 then will it become somewhat clear what Erdogan plans to do.

For the moment though, Tsipras’s visit was an anti-climax — nothing new under the Aegean sun.

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