Ankara’s rapprochement policy with its rivals does not mean there will be a coming together between Türkiye and Greece. Instead, the rivalry between this quarrelsome NATO couple may escalate, and a victory for Mitsotakis may be perceived as a threat in the eyes of Ankara.
After years of confrontation in the East Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, there is a sign of bilateral re-engagement between Türkiye and Greece, followed by bilateral humanitarian aid and assistance in dealing with bushfires in Greece and earthquakes in Türkiye. Recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis held a meeting after the general elections in Greece and Türkiye, respectively, signalling that both sides were looking to settle tensions under a positive agenda. While these improvements and bilateral cooperation are positive signs of rapprochement, there are still many barriers to reconciliation.
Türkiye and Greece have been longstanding adversaries and have come close to war. The fundamental cause is that Greece and Türkiye have a longstanding territorial dispute around islands in the Aegean Sea and among claims over exclusive economic zone rights in the East Mediterranean and Aegean Sea. Greece objects to Turkish claims on its continental shelf and the discovery of undersea hydrocarbon resources. By contrast, Türkiye, a country not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, rejects Greece’s claim over the maritime border delimitations and argues that it has a natural right to conduct maritime activities in its traditional waters.
Recently, this bilateral tension has escalated due to the changes in threat perception on both sides. From Athens’s perspective, increasing Turkish naval activities and military advancement guided by the Mavi Vatan Doctrine – embracing active Turkish naval presence in the East Mediterranean and Black Seas to extend its power and the maritime zone – threatens its security and interests in the East Mediterranean and Aegean seas. The rise of neo-Ottomanism and Turkish nationalism in Turkish politics further antagonises Athens. Turkish nationalists and Islamists jointly call upon the Erdogan administration to adopt a more ambitious agenda, expanding Turkish power and influence over the former Ottoman territories and the Turkic world.
Ankara argues that the resurgence of a “Megali idea” (Great idea), a nationalist and irredentist concept that embraces the integration of all “Hellenes” into a single state, and expands to Constantinople (Istanbul) and the coastal region of Anatolia, threatens their interests and undermine EU-Türkiye relations. These concerns also overlap with what is considered the broader spread of Turkophobia from Greece to European states.
The changes in threat perception between the two nations makes the political outcome more dangerous than previously because both Türkiye and Greece have invited foreign partners to be involved. There are fears, therefore, that such inclusions may escalate the conflict to something more regional, involving two or more great powers.
While Türkiye pulled Azerbaijan and Qatar into its camp, Greece partnered with Cyprus and France, a country with a strategic rivalry with Türkiye in West Africa. Athens participated in the Paris-led East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which Ankara views as an anti- Türkiye club and a challenge to its aspirations to become an energy hub in Europe, Africa, and Asia. Other issues, such as enhancing its relations with Ankara’s current or ex-rivals, namely Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, the endorsement for France’s deployment of its Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to the East Mediterranean, and refusing to reopen the EU accession talk with Ankara, further angered Türkiye. These examples have been viewed in Athens as a way to balance against Turkish power.
Ankara has sought to bolster its position by repairing its relationships with Arab neighbours. Leaders have also looked to enhance partnerships with Russia, China, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkish Cypriots to safeguard their interests. In other words, this bilateral dispute has escalated with broader geopolitical significance with both global and regional implications.
One argument suggests that this contentious couple could potentially transform their relationship, akin to how France and Germany did following the Second World War. Such optimism existed when Greece sent rescue workers to the earthquake zone in Türkiye and with the electoral victory of Mitsotakis, who was over-optimistic about his positive agenda in achieving rapprochement after the election. Nonetheless, Ankara is more likely to perceive Mitsotakis’ recent election victory as a concrete challenge to its security and its pursuit of strategic goals, including establishing regional dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean and expanding its influence in global and regional political spheres.
When Mitsotakis expressed his intention to reset Athens’ relations with Ankara during a meeting in Vilnius with Erdogan after the election, he did not receive his expected outcome. Although Erdogan agreed to create communication channels, he refused to make a joint statement with Mitsotakis after the meeting. One explanation is that Ankara first requires a solution to the Cyprus issue, as a prerequisite to making rapprochement possible. Another is the desire to re-energise the EU accession talk, which Athens can begin. Another explanation is the mistrust and concerns over the militarisation of the Aegean islands in Greece.
The reaction from Ankara was more explicit when Erdogan visited the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) in his first post-election travel. Unlike Greece’s call for endorsement, Erdogan emphasised that Türkiye would exclusively consider the two-state solution (a solution that divides Cyprus into two states) and recognise the TRNC as an acceptable outcome. Erdogan also signified that Ankara will further increase its naval activities in the East Mediterranean Sea and enhance its relationship with TRNC by strengthening its economic linkages and continuing the natural gas discovery around the disputed waters.
For now, it is inconvincible that Türkiye-Greece re-engagement will bring long-lasting peace and prosperity to the Eastern Mediterranean or even a relatively stable bilateral relationship. In the short run, bilateral relations will remain fragile because the ruling coalition will utilise the dispute with Greece to mobilise nationalist, Islamist, and conservative voters to support them in the upcoming local and municipal elections in Türkiye in 2024 for the sake of the state in defending against Greece. As demonstrated in previous presidential elections, Erdogan has often painted the US and others as threats to Turkish survival. Nevertheless, re-engagement between the high-level politicians may reduce future misperceptions between the two sides.
Cheuk Yui (Thomas) Kwong was a research assistant at the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He completed an advanced master’s in Middle East and Central Asian Studies at ANU. His field of interest is diverse but includes Turkish Foreign Policy, Gulf Strategic Environment, Red Sea Geopolitics, Politics in Hong Kong and China, Politics in Malaysia, Chinese History, Energy Security, Political Science, and International Relations in the Middle East. You can find him at https://linktr.ee/k_cyui
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.