As the Eastern Mediterranean increasingly becomes a sea of trouble and tension, the outlook for a solution seems even more remote with mediation efforts failing at every step. The compounding problems in the past few weeks have arisen from Greece's rejection of international treaties and the European Union's encouragement of this stance, Turkey’s former ambassador to Athens, Oğuz Çelikkol, said Friday.
“What we see in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean is a ball of problems,” Çelikkol told Daily Sabah. “Greece militarizing the island of Kastellorizo (Megisti-Meis) is a violation of international agreements, a violation the EU has ignored.”
According to recent media reports, Greek authorities deployed military elements to Kastellorizo, a move slammed by Turkey as a violation of international law.
“Greece for a long time has been militarizing the islands, in violation of international agreements,” Çelikkol reiterated.
Starting with the Treaty of London in 1913, the militarization of the Eastern Aegean islands was restricted and their demilitarized status was confirmed in the Treaty of Lausanne signed in 1923. The 1947 Treaty of Paris, which ceded the Dodecanese from Italy to Greece, also confirmed the demilitarized status.
The rearming of the demilitarized Aegean islands has always been a hot debate between the two countries, especially after the 1960s when relations between Ankara and Athens turned sour over Cyprus and extended Greek claims over Aegean airspace and territorial waters.
EU’s unfairness exceeds Kastellorizo
Speaking on the EU’s silence over the Greek move to militarize Kastellorizo against international treaties, the ambassador stated that the bloc’s unfairness is not limited to this issue.
Çelikkol pointed out that it is necessary to cooperate with one’s neighbors if a country was to be accepted as an EU member. “Just as this was not applied to Greece, it was also not applied to the Greek Cypriot administration,” he said.
“The EU acts as if no Turkish community lived on the island and as if the Greek Cypriot community represented the island on their own – the Cyprus issue and problems surrounding Cyprus are originating from this,” Çelikkol elaborated, saying that Turkish Cypriots also have rights.
Turkey is a guarantor nation for the bi-communal Republic of Cyprus established in 1959-60 and has consistently contested the Greek Cypriot administration's unilateral drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean, asserting that the TRNC also has rights to the resources in the area.
In 1974, following a coup aimed at the annexation of Cyprus by Greece, Ankara was forced to intervene as a guarantor power on the island. In 1983, the TRNC was founded.
The decades since have seen several attempts to resolve the Cyprus dispute, all ending in failure. The latest, held with the participation of the guarantor countries – Turkey, Greece and the United Kingdom – came to an end without any progress in 2017 in Switzerland.
TRNC Prime Minister Ersin Tatar stated this week that escalating tensions would fade if the Greek Cypriot administration agreed to share the country’s territorial waters and drilling rights with Turkish Cypriots. Tatar stressed that for the TRNC, the hydrocarbons issue is a test to determine if the two sides can agree or not and that he believed if both parties agreed on this matter, it will act as a catalyst to ensuring regional peace, Greek-Turkish friendship as well as a step in the right direction for resolving the Cyprus problem.
Greek Cypriot administration aims to wipe out island’s Turks
“However, a sharing of rights is denied. Greek Cypriots do not accept political equality for Turkish Cypriots. From the beginning on, Greek Cyprus has attempted to lower Turkish Cypriots’ status to that of a minority and aimed to erase the community by consuming them,” Çelikkol underlined.
“By accepting a divided Cyprus into the EU, the bloc seems to have encouraged the Greek Cypriot administration’s already existing stance not to approach a solution,” the ambassador said, adding that the EU supporting Greece despite clearly open international agreements is a continuation of an anti-Turkey stance.
Greece's ulterior motives
“What Greece is trying to do is to make already existing problems between Ankara and Athens seem as if the problems lie at the heart of Turkey-EU relations. Yet, the main problem lies within the fact that Greece violates international law,” Çelikkol said.
The ambassador explained that similarly, the Cyprus issue has to be resolved by the Turkish and Greek sides and that a solution has to be found through communal negotiations between them.
Indicating that the EU claimed to support these negotiations just as the U.S. did, yet still encouraged the opposite by lifting a decadeslong arms embargo, Çelikkol said that such moves push Greek Cypriots toward extremism and encourage their irreconcilability.
“Greece tries to derive support from the EU and pressures the bloc to impose sanctions on Turkey while the EU, instead of telling Athens to solve its problems with Ankara, takes a position supporting Greece and renders a solution to the ball of problems further difficult,” he pointed out.
Çelikkol said that Turkey, therefore, reacted to the U.S. decision saying, “It will not change the military status between the two sides on the island, yet it harms the political equality of the Turkish Cypriots.”
The U.S. on Tuesday announced its decision to partially lift a 33-year-old arms embargo against the Greek Cypriot administration, Turkey however warned that this move would harm efforts to reunify Cyprus.
Turkish officials have also vowed to take steps to guarantee the security of the self-declared Turkish state in the island's north.
The U.S. embargo, imposed in 1987, was designed to prevent an arms race that would hinder U.N.-facilitated reunification efforts for the island. It was directed against the southern, Greek Cypriot part of the island. Washington said it was lifting the arms embargo against Cyprus for one year – with the option of renewal – to let it procure nonlethal equipment.
Since the discovery of significant gas reserves in the region a decade ago, countries have been engaged in renewed disputes over maritime borders, while international law presents few remedies. The deepening rift between Athens and Ankara widened with Turkey’s decision to enhance energy exploration activities in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The standoff was sparked when Turkey sent its research vessel, Oruç Reis, accompanied by warships to search for gas and oil reserves. The Turkish government said Monday it was extending the drilling mission by another 10 days, until Sept. 12.
The Turkish government disputes Greece’s claim to exclusive rights, arguing that islands should not be included in calculating sea boundaries between countries. Ankara has criticized Greece for its “maximalist” position, as it claims that the tiny island of Kastellorizo should have a 40,000-square-kilometer (15,444-square-mile) continental shelf, which is almost half of Turkey's Gulf of Antalya.
Problems date far back
Pointing out that problems between the two NATO countries date back decades, Çelikkol said that one of the biggest issues was still the disagreement on territorial waters. Greece many times has increased its territorial waters, which were originally three while it now claims 12, Çelikkol said, underlining that even though international law states 12 nautical miles, it also specifies that rights have to guaranteed on an equitable basis.
“It is explicit that the Aegean is a closed sea and that Greece cannot act on its own. Still, Athens sees the Aegean as its own lake and desires to make decisions on its own. The same designs are reflected in the Eastern Mediterranean,” he said, indicating that the problems did not end with territorial waters but continued with the problem of airspace.
According to international law, airspace has to correspond with that of territorial waters, yet Greece uses 10 miles of airspace though its waters in the Aegean are limited to 6 miles, Çelikkol said, stressing that this means Athens is using an extra 4 miles of airspace.
Reconciliation, in favor of Greece
Coming to terms with Turkey would be to the advantage of Greece, which is facing significant economic troubles that were multiplied by the global coronavirus pandemic, Çelikkol highlighted. “The economy has been shrinking and per capita income decreasing,” he said, mentioning that some sensible circles in Greece were against Athens' recent moves that sank the country into further economic distress with the aim of appearing as a stronger country than it actually is.
Between 2009 and 2018, Greece suffered its worst economic crisis in modern times and had begun to slowly regain some of the lost ground before it was hit by the impact of coronavirus restrictions. Greece's economy shrank by 15.2% in the second quarter compared with the same period last year, the country's finance minister said Thursday.
Regardless, a government official told Reuters Tuesday that Greece is in talks with France and other countries over arms purchases to boost its armed forces amid regional tensions.
A day earlier, Greece's finance minister said the country is ready to spend part of its cash reserves on arms purchases and other means that will help increase its "deterrence force" after years of belt-tightening in defense spending.