Turkish-Greek 'natural disaster diplomacy'

Published 27.01.2020 18:35
Updated 28.01.2020 00:28

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis spoke with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Friday night immediately after a magnitude 6.8 earthquake hit eastern Elazığ province and wished a quick recovery to residents. He expressed his "wholehearted sympathy" and offered assistance saying that his search and rescue teams were ready to assist with efforts after the powerful earthquake killed at least 39 people. Erdoğan thanked Mitsotakis for his support, according to an announcement from the prime minister's office.

In addition, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias also called his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, to say that Athens is ready to give support if needed.

However, earlier this month, Mitsotakis had visited the White House to complain about Turkey and ask U.S. President Donald Trump to take action against Turkey's oil and gas drilling activities in the Mediterranean Sea and its maritime-border deal with Libya. As is known, with this agreement, Turkey and Libya, which are already maritime neighbors, has established 18.6 nautical miles of continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) boundary line between the two countries.

The reports also claimed that Mitsotakis told Trump during his visit, "If our sovereignty is challenged, we will respond militarily." When Trump asked, "What if you lose to Turkey?" the Greek prime minister said, "We won't lose."

For a long time, backed by Athens, the Greek Cypriot administration has been seeking adventurous policy in the Mediterranean by concluding maritime delimitation agreements, conducting oil and gas exploration and issuing unilateral permits for such activities around Cyprus. Its provocative policies ignore the Turkish Cypriots' existing and inherent equal rights over the natural resources and the sea around the island. By allying with Egypt and Israel, the Greeks and Greek Cypriots have disrespected other coastal states and ignored their interests. The Eastern Mediterranean drilling activities of Turkey, the country that has the longest continental coastline, is to defend its own rights and the rights of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC).

That is why, Mitsotakis went to Washington to get Trump's support in order to stop Turkey. The maliciousness toward Turkey that aims to limit the Turkish EEZ to the Gulf of Antalya cannot be tolerated. Turkey's position is very clear: The dispute has to be solved with comprehensive negotiations which will benefit all coastal states as well as Turkish and Greek Cypriots.

That said, Israel, Greece and Greek Cyprus recently reached an agreement to lay a pipeline connecting Israel's gas reserves to the three countries, in a major project known as the East Med Project. With the agreement between Turkey and Libya, the East Med Project's pipeline has to go through Turkey's EEZ now. It has strengthened Turkey's hand in the region, and it will provide a direct role in the energy geopolitics game, on a legal basis. For that reason, all the plans that have isolated other regional countries have been turned upside down for now.

This conflict between Greece and Turkey is the last one, but nothing new. Ever since the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923 by the Allies of World War I, started regulating the basics of Greek-Turkish relations, the historical rivalry has hardly lessened. From the crises at the Aegean Sea for years in addition to the Mediterranean to the violation of human rights of Turkish minorities in Greece, there are a lot of issues between the two neighboring countries.

However, quite interestingly, when a natural disaster hits one of them, the other is the first one ready to give support. We can say that there is a "natural disaster diplomacy" between Turkey and Greece. In fact, there was a lesser-known term coined in the late 1990s for this, "Turkish-Greek earthquake diplomacy."

Another example of that was in July 2018. Turkey had offered to send firefighting aircraft to Greece after twin wildfires tore through areas near Athens in July 2018. Turkish Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu had said Turkish airplanes and helicopters are on standby to aid Greece.

Turkish Agriculture and Forestry Minister Bekir Pakdemirli had also said that the planes are "45 minutes away if there is a request, and we are ready to intervene immediately."

President Erdoğan had also expressed his condolences and said his country was ready to help. At least 120 people were killed in the fires.

The impact of natural disasters on Turkish-Greek relations started after Turkey was struck by its most serious earthquakes in the summer of 1999. The horrific earthquake in the Marmara region on Aug. 17, 1999, sparked a wave of solidarity in Greece. This was again seen in less than a month, on Sept. 7, 1999, with Turkish demonstrations of sympathy when Athens, too, was hit by a powerful earthquake. Many called it a new "earthquake diplomacy" between the two countries.

When the earthquake hit Turkey at that time, Greece was the first foreign country to deliver aid and support to Turkey. Right after the earthquake, the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs had sent his personal envoys to Turkey. Following that, Greece sent a rescue team as well as fire extinguishing planes to help with stopping the fire in an oil refinery. Medical aid, food and blankets and much more were supplied by Greece to Turkey. Every news outlet gave wide coverage daily to the great support by Greece. The rhetoric between both countries changed then; they were calling each other "true friend" and "neighbor."

After the earthquake in Greece, this time, the Turks were the first to help Greece. A special task force was convened, consisting of the Undersecretariat of the Prime Ministry, Turkish Armed Forces, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The Turks were the first to deliver aid, with a rescue team arriving in Greece on a military plane within 13 hours after the earthquake. Turkey made blood donations and a report stated that one Turkish volunteer said he was ready to donate his kidney for a "Greek in need."

This "natural disaster diplomacy" shows that there is a sympathy between the two countries when it comes to humanitarian issues in a world where nobody cares for anyone. But when it comes to regional policy and bilateral relations, they turn their backs on each other. There is an eagerness to provide generous assistance to each other when one of them is in need; however, they forget all this when time passes. Why can't the two countries do more to salvage their long-term problematic relations and change history for the sake of these amazing moments? Such times reveal that history does not only include hostilities – we were together, living side-by-side in the past.

We need "humanitarian diplomats" from both sides to work on this again.

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