IN DEPTH – Volume 17 Issue 5 – September 2020
Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of the Peloponnese
TURKEY’S HEGEMONIC ASPIRATIONS AND ITS IMPACT ON GREEK-TURKISH RELATIONS
For many years now, under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey wishes to become a regional hegemonic power in the Eastern Mediterranean basin and the Middle East, and at the same time a country with a strong saying in international affairs at a global level. There are numerous strong indications for this. Turkish troops have repeatedly invaded Syria and Iraq, i.e. Turkey’s southern neighbors. Ankara directly intervened in the civil war in Libya with the aim of facilitating the establishment of a Muslim Brotherhood affiliated and pro-Turkish regime in the country. Turkey has established a strong military base in Qatar and another in Somalia. The list could go on, including more examples.
It is clear that Mr. Erdoğan would like to see a sort of a revival of the Ottoman Empire, in the sense of establishing a zone of Turkish influence that would cover much of the territory of the old Empire of the sultans. This of course creates points of friction between Turkey and many other countries which are not willing to accept the prospect of Ankara establishing its hegemony. Turkey has many open fronts. It faces the danger of strategic overstretching. The severe problems that the Turkish economy faces make the situation even more complicated and potentially difficult if not dangerous for Turkey. However, these drawbacks do not seem to force Turkey into changing its strategy. On the contrary. Mr. Erdoğan insists on pursuing his dream without being deterred by the obstacles that he finds on his way.
As far as Greek-Turkish relations are concerned, Ankara continues to exercise strong pressure on Athens. Among others, contrary to all provisions of international law, Turkey does not recognize the inherent right of the Greek islands of the Aegean Sea to have either territorial waters of 12 nautical miles or continental shelf/exclusive economic zone, and even questions Greek sovereignty over small Greek islands and islets in the Aegean Sea. These provocative demands on the part of Turkey are not new of course. And they are not only associated with the Erdoğan era. They come from the 1970s, proving that Turkey’s strategy on the matter is deeply rooted and does not drastically change with the change of political leadership.
What makes Mr. Erdoğan’s approach towards Greece somehow different from the past is that it is related with his wider neo-Ottoman aspirations. Greece (and alongside Cyprus) is perceived as a small and weak country which should abide to all of Turkey’s rules. Mr. Erdoğan wishes to see a sort of a “Finlandized Greece” that would continuously yield to Turkish demands. From his point of view, this is the only way for securing peace and stability in the region. It is definitely not a coincidence that he has repeatedly referred to the need of modifying the Peace Treaty of Lausanne: his public statements on this is a clear indication of his innermost desires.
Moreover, in late November 2019 Turkey signed an agreement with Libya which establishes a supposedly common border of the exclusive economic zones of the two signatories in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. The agreement is not only incompatible with the basic principles of the Law of the Sea, but it is also incompatible with the geographic reality of the region as it ignores the presence of numerous Greek islands (including Crete and Rhodes). Erdoğan’s hegemonic approach is more than evident in this case as well. It is naïve to believe that Turkey will miraculously change its attitude and become a country respectful of international law and a promoter of fair cooperation among nations. Turkey feels that it is too big and too strong and thus it should be granted special privileges.
Apart from traditional/conventional methods, Erdoğan’s Turkey has been using new ways in order to exercise pressure on Greece. The most characteristic example is the use of migrant and refugee flows. For example, in March 2020 the Turkish authorities clearly fostered the attempt of tens of thousands third country nationals residing in Turkey to cross the land borders with Greece. It was a sort of a “hybrid operation” aiming at the internal destabilization of Greece. At the same time, Mr. Erdoğan wanted to send a message to the European Union that he is in a position to create serious problems to a member state and possible to the cohesion of the Union itself.
For Greece, the only practical way of counterbalancing Turkey is on the one hand to find substantial political and diplomatic support at the international level, and on the other hand to show that it is well prepared and determined to defend itself against any aggressive move on the part of Ankara. This twofold approach has been the basis of Greek foreign policy for many decades now and it has been quite successful in the last few months.