Lack of Good Diplomacy on Aegean Islands


Photo source: Carnegie Europe
By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Turkish and Greek claims, time and again, have overlapped near the Eastern Mediterranean and the islands of the Aegean. Due to this, there is a certain complexity under international law, which is exuberated by a lack of good diplomacy.

For a while, Turkey opposes the militarisation of some islands by Greece. According to Hasan Gogus, former Turkish ambassador to Greece and Austria, Turkey’s stance is valid.

According to him, there are several disputes with Greece in the Aegean Sea, such as the width of territorial waters, delimitation of the continental shelf, demilitarisation of islands or length of airspace. While all issues are interrelated, Greece only acknowledges the existence of the continental shelf dispute. Most of the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea are in close proximity to the Turkish mainland, such as Kastellorizo or Kos. Those islands were given to Greece under the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty on the condition of demilitarisation. However, according to Gogus, Greece violates this provision. But, according to the Greek point of view, Turkey is making claims that are supported neither by the status quo nor by international law.

According to Sotirios Zartaloudis, associate professor, in comparative European politics at the University of Birmingham, the Aegean Sea for Greece is of great geopolitical and strategic importance, as Europe’s southeastern frontier to the east and the Middle East along with the Black Sea.

The legal bases of the dispute are found in the treaties of Lausanne (1923), Montreux (1936) and Paris (1947), whereby the treaties signed in Lausanne and Paris regulate which island belongs to which country. However, the treaty of Montreux was intended to replace the treaty of Lausanne partially, and Turkey has essentially been deriving its claims from the latter. Therefore, Ankara’s position creates a complex situation concerning sovereign rights in East Aegean, according to Dimitris Papadimitriou, professor of politics at the University of Manchester.

Two years ago, both sides came to a brink of a military conflict, as tensions rose over energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean. Erdogan, in fact, has said that he would not engage in talks until an ‘honest Greek politician’ was in front of him. Since then, the dispute has spiralled, as he directly threatened war. The response by Greece to it, surprisingly, was muted. At the same time, the Greek foreign ministry published sixteen maps intended to document 'the extent of Turkish revisionism', intended to display Turkish territorial claims from 1923 to the present day.

After Erdogan’s rhetoric, Athens would be less likely to demilitarise the islands. Greece argues that any military presence or equipment on the islands is there for training reasons and deterrence, and for self-defence, given the numerous landing activities by Turkey on the west coast, and regular violations of Greek airspace by Turkish fighter jets.

Due to this conundrum, the European Union called upon Turkey to behave constructively. On the other hand, NATO urged both countries to resolve their dispute over the Aegean Island peacefully. It is because even an accident in the Aegean would result in a full-scale war, and Erdogan can also use this dispute to boost his popularity.

This pattern of confrontation and provocation reached a boiling point in the mid-1990s. In 1995, the Greek parliament ratified the United Nation’s Law of the Sea, which, among other provisions, allowed states to declare jurisdiction over coastal waters up to a 12-mile radius. Fearing that such a stipulation would limit its access to the Aegean, Turkey was one of a handful of nations to oppose the UN agreement. 

Athens’ decision to endorse the law led to a fierce rebuke from Ankara, with then-Prime Minister Tansu Ciller declaring that any Greek decision to enforce a 12-mile line of control would be treated as a casus belli. Promises to limit Greece’s maritime borders did little to ease relations. When a Turkish freighter ran aground near the uninhabited island of Kardak (called 'Imia' in Greek), various political leaders clashed over the question of which country genuinely possessed jurisdiction over the island. With the fate of literally thousands of uninhabited rocks at stake, Turkey and Greece deployed ships and troop detachments in anticipation of war. At the end of January 1996, the Greek government relented after Turkish troops landed on Kardak and hoisted the Turkish flag.

Since 1996, neither Turkey nor Greece have demonstrated a willingness to revise its positions regarding the legal or diplomatic issues that divide the two nations. To this day, Ankara still decries what it sees as Greece’s unlawful militarisation of the Aegean islands.

Diplomatically, Greece is moving close to France and United States, aiming to upgrade its military equipment and technology through its contractors. But, Greece’s strategy is mainly grounded in a dogmatically defensive posture. It may give Erdogan a moment of opportunity to pursue a broad set of revisionist goals.


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