NATO allies Greece and Türkiye are locked in a web of disagreements fraught with historical baggage. Since fighting each other over Cyprus in 1974, they have come to the brink of war on three separate occasions. With freshly elected governments due to take office in both countries, an opportunity to work toward incrementally addressing differences could be looming. Some creative thinking, with shared political will, patience, and determination, will be necessary to mend their relationship.
Greece and Türkiye are entangled in a complex set of disagreements that have brought them to the brink of war at least three times in the past half-century. Their last near-skirmish was in 1996 over two uninhabited outcrops in the Aegean Sea, known as Imia in Greek and Kardak in Turkish, which I experienced as a then-junior diplomat working at the Turkish Embassy in Athens.
It started innocently, with a Turkish freight vessel running aground on an obscure formation in the sea. The vessel’s need to be salvaged raised an unexpected disagreement over whose jurisdiction it was to provide this service, unveiling competing claims of ownership over the rocks between Ankara and Athens. After news of the disagreement spread, a Greek priest took matters into his hands by visiting the site and planting a Greek flag. In response to this publicized act, a Turkish reporter replaced it with a Turkish flag. As public pressure mounted on both sides, the situation quickly escalated into the military domain, with each country deploying commando units on one of the two formations. The situation was defused after the sides finally agreed to withdraw their forces and return to the status quo ante. I witnessed how these incidents can rapidly spiral out of control, especially when emotions run high.
Close calls of this nature, which in Türkiye and Greece’s case are mostly a function of air and maritime domain related disagreements fraught with historic rivalry, are risky and should be averted. While there is no easy resolution to their competing claims, Greece and Türkiye have a shared interest as neighbors and NATO allies to lay the groundwork for a clearer path forward in their relations. An opportunity to do this with some creative thinking that renounces a zero-sum approach to bilateral relations and prioritizes the nurturing of a new and positive mindset through collaborative effort may be looming. Both sides should seriously consider seizing the moment.
Points of Tension
The Cyprus dispute has been poisoning Greco-Turkish relations for nearly three-quarters of a century. The island had gained independence from British colonial rule in 1960 under a power-sharing arrangement between its Greek and Turkish communities that quickly fell apart. In 1974, the military junta in Athens moved to unite the island with Greece by orchestrating a coup in Cyprus that prompted Turkey’s military intervention under the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee. The island has been divided since. This military confrontation compounded other problems between Ankara and Athens, like the rights of Greek and Turkish minorities in each country and a set of complex, interrelated issues in the Aegean Sea, where the parties cannot even agree on the parameters for discussion.
According to the official Greek position on the Aegean Sea, there is only one outstanding problem: the delimitation of the continental shelf, which concerns apportioning the seabed and its corresponding subsoil in the waters between Greece and Türkiye. In contrast, the official Turkish grievance encompasses a broader set of disagreements related to maritime and air issues—ranging from the breadth of territorial waters and air space to the demilitarized status of some Greek islands—as well as competing claims of sovereignty.
A relative novelty in Greco-Turkish tensions has been the expansion of some of their disputes in the Aegean Sea into the wider Eastern Mediterranean, dovetailing with other geopolitical developments and energy finds, resulting in competing maritime jurisdiction claims involving Cyprus, Greece, and Türkiye, along with more distant actors like Egypt, Libya, and Israel.
This has added to the imbroglio between Greece and Türkiye, introducing new issues and actors. Both countries are busy protecting their interests in the Eastern Mediterranean by counterbalancing each other’s moves and portraying the other side as the culprit, creating yet another risky and unsustainable situation in their bilateral relationship.
Reasons for Optimism
Greece is hesitant about giving the impression that it is negotiating on matters such as its right to extend its territorial waters in the Aegean Sea or of sovereignty over formations like Imia/Kardak, which it contends have been settled in its favor. Hence, it restricts its official focus to continental shelf delimitation. Nevertheless, there exists a precedent for expanded discussion beyond Greece’s articulated negotiation parameters. Since 2002, the parties have conducted a series of secret exploratory talks in over sixty sessions, covering a wide range of issues that go beyond the delimitation of the continental shelf. Not much has leaked from these discontinued negotiations, but there have been occasional whispers that an agreement to resolve all outstanding issues, including by recourse to the International Court of Justice, might be achievable. Whatever the case, considerable work has been done on both sides that could serve as a basis for future negotiations. Meanwhile, the parties are currently working on a new engagement initiative called Positive Agenda, a cooperative effort covering different matters ranging from health and tourism to entrepreneurship and the environment, potentially building confidence and warming them up for negotiations on more contentious issues.
Additionally, heightened bilateral tensions have recently subsided after the devastating earthquakes that hit Türkiye in February 2023 and the fatal train crash in Greece the following month. Both countries acted responsibly in the face of these tragedies and stood by each other in meaningful solidarity, raising hopes that an era of rapprochement may follow. Greece was among the first countries with search and rescue teams on the ground in Türkiye digging through the rubble for survivors. Türkiye, in turn, was just as quick to express solidarity with Greece after the train wreck, followed with a public outpour of sympathy that did not go unnoticed. Though little happened after a similar spike of mutual empathy triggering the “earthquake diplomacy” of 1999, the current political backdrop is inspiring.
Another new opportunity to alleviate today’s circumstances relates to coinciding electoral cycles in Greece and Türkiye, which will soon produce new governments with fresh mandates. Political change inherently presents new opportunities; therefore, the potential for new thinking will arise on both sides, coming after this upswing in warm sentiments in both societies. This unplanned intersection of events may be the right time for the creative ameliorating of bilateral relations. Under the right mindset and shared determination between Athens and Ankara, an incremental process toward a more predictable and stable future could arise.
A Path Forward, Drawing on Historical Precedent
Choreographing improved relations will be difficult, and there is always the question of who makes the first move. Ideally, Greece and Türkiye can step up to the challenge in tandem and set the stage for reconciliation first and foremost by jointly agreeing on a code of conduct in their relations that entails three elements. First, a shared commitment to respect each other’s interests and not to utilize their resources—political, military, or economic—against one another. Second, a moratorium on unilateral claims and practices that potentially infringe on each other’s stated national interests. And, finally, an unequivocal commitment to the peaceful resolution of all their disagreements.
Detractors might argue that such a framework is overly optimistic. However, based on historical precedent, it is both imaginable and within the realm of possibility. Nearly 100 years ago, Greece’s leader, Eleftherios Venizelos, and Türkiye’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, successfully rose above their grievances and courageously advocated peace between their countries despite the fresh memories of the brutal war they had fought against each other between 1919–22. They stood resolute against skeptics, and their visionary statesmanship culminated in the 1930 Ankara Agreement of Friendship, Neutrality, and Conciliation, signed during Venizelos’ visit to Turkey. This landmark agreement arranged for, among other things, the peaceful resolution of bilateral disputes between the sides and a reduction in military spending. It paved the way for other agreements and high-level visits, including that of Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Inönü to Athens in 1931. This trip was immensely symbolic as Inönü had been the closest comrade in arms to Atatürk, and the military commander of the Turkish forces that repelled the invading Greek army in Anatolia in 1921. The agreement served both countries well until relations soured again in the mid-1950s, when hostilities resurfaced regarding Cyprus.
Imagining the Impossible
It would be a mistake to take Greco-Turkish differences lightly. Both parties suffer from tunnel vision when it comes to their differences and are fully wedded to their national narratives, generating considerable inertia against rapprochement. Visceral beliefs and a prevailing zero-sum mentality hinder either side from seeing the opportunity cost of constant mutual disruption instead of joining hands and reaping the benefits of cooperation. Both countries need solid and determined leadership to orient bilateral relations in the right direction and practical steps to show the benefits of an alternative and collaborative bilateral relationship.
Greeks and Turks can jointly reframe their relationship along these lines and build a new, mutually acceptable narrative. France and Germany did so after World War II, and so can Greece and Türkiye. The prevailing sense of mutual empathy and coinciding election cycles in both countries may be the unforeseen alignment of stars needed for such an effort to begin.
Post-election, leaders in both countries should challenge each other to manifest their sincerity in improving bilateral relations through concrete action. They should lead by example and advocate for a culture of cooperation. It may be hard to imagine this could be done, but as Venizelos and Atatürk demonstrated, it is not impossible.
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Alper Coşkun is a retired Turkish ambassador, currently working as senior fellow within the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he leads the Turkey and the World initiative. His research focuses on Turkish foreign policy, especially in relation to the United States and Europe.
Image Credits: Flickr | NASA Johnson