Playing dangerous games with ‘dormant conflicts’ – Leave Aegean Sea to civilians

‘Tension politics’, that has been on the rapid rise, is defining the agenda where conflicts have been kept dormant for ages. The most recent example is the Turkish-Greek confrontation in the Aegean, about and around an uninhabited tiny islet, Imia / Kardak, where a series of boat fights led to the sense how sensitive, ‘razor’s edge’ the international relations, even between the allies are.

The move, that had been initiated by Ankara two weeks ago, was cited by some as just what was needed. Its follow-up made even some of Turkey’s most experi­enced centrist diplo­mats, known for extreme pru­dence in matters of national security, react with warnings.

The issue was the sudden revisit of a tiny, rocky islet just off Turkey’s south-western shores, 7km from the coast of Bodrum peninsula. At the end of January, there were reports that Greek and Turkish warships off the Kardak/ Imia rocks had come close to ramming each other. A violent incident was averted but a battle of words between Ankara and Ath­ens ensued.

In a way, it was expected because it was bound to be seen as an attempt to melt a frozen conflict about the status of the uninhabited and rugged islet. A series of military moves 20 years ago, due to a stranded Turkish freighter in its vicinity, had brought the two countries — both NATO allies — close to war. Thanks, however, to emergency efforts by the Clinton administra­tion and diplomats on both sides, this was averted. This issue has been frozen since then.


Among the nearly 3,000 islands in the Aegean, almost all of them part of Greece, there are disputes about very few. Kardak/Imia stands out because of its closeness to the Turkish coastline. The conflict concerns grey areas in the Aegean where treaties left some issues open to interpretation.

Soon after the naval incident, Greek Defence Minister Panos Kammenos visited the air space around the islet, dropping a wreath to the seas. In a response, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu issued a warning to Athens “to pull itself together” and not to escalate the conflict. Military activity, on the seas and in the air, rapidly increased.

This transpired after a Greek appeals court refused to extradite eight Turkish soldiers who had defected to Greece after the failed coup attempt last summer.

In Turkey, the opposition read the incident as an attempt by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to retaliate for the court’s decision and hunt for more nationalist votes to cement his power before a referendum that could grant him more powers.

Faruk Logoglu, a former Foreign Ministry under-secretary and deputy of the opposition Republi­can People’s Party (CHP), said this was a harbinger for similar foreign policy moves linked with the referendum to introduce a presidential system to Turkey. Unal Cevikoz, a former ambassa­dor to Azerbaijan and Iraq, said “these were moves that lack substance, moves that mean a reflection of domestic issues into foreign policy”.

The diplomats are right. This was an attempt to create an artificial crisis at a time when the world seems to lack proper, pro-stability leadership.

“That’s why Turkey’s main opposition party argued that the Imia show was intended to bolster Erdogan in his campaign. The threats against Greece may serve to get citizens’ minds off Syria, where, despite air support from Russia and the United States, Turkey has not made great gains,” Nikos Konstandaras wrote in Greece’s Kathimerini newspaper.

“The threats against Greece, however, serve more than domes­tic needs nor are they simply aimed at forcing Greece to bend to Ankara’s will,” he said. “They show that Erdogan intends to act as he pleases, even against a country whose border is the European Union’s border. The time favours leaders who are driven by emotions, as seems to be Erdog­an’s permanent condition.”

Indeed, these are the times when many powers seem to be flexing their muscles. The Aegean Sea, offering high risk of death for refugees fleeing war and destruc­tion, is seen as useful for provok­ing nationalism. The concern is, as history teaches, once you set a pattern of mutual threats, you find yourself in lethal escalation. Seen in the same geopolitical context with a divided Cyprus, it keeps the tensions high in the entire Eastern Mediterranean.

Environmentalists have pointed out that the more than a dozen disputed tiny rocks and islets in the hard-to-navigate Aegean Sea provide opportunities for Greece and Turkey to cooperate on building lighthouses and, even more wisely, on wind power, which the two neighbours would jointly benefit from. Sadly, the times do not seem to favour such constructive thinking.

About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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