Talking about crises in Greek-Turkish relations is commonplace for those working in international relations. Seeing the historical enmity behind the current disagreements and holding the other side responsible for the less than ideal state of affairs is the dominant attitude on both sides of the Aegean.
However, if one looks deeper, one can find the influence of virulent nationalism, differentiated readings of the common history, not yet settled legacy of the collapse of the Ottoman State after about 550 years of togetherness, and the constant usage of each other as the “other” in the construction of national identities. For the Greek state, the Turks mean never-ending threat, centuries-old occupation, while for the Turkish state, the Greeks are the enemy within, starter of revolts against the Ottomans, constant expansion against the Turks since then, and willing collaborators of international conspiracies against Turkey. As such, there is not much room for trust between the two states.
On the other hand, if you talk to Turkish and Greek citizens that you encounter while walking around the streets of the two countries, the common attitude is to highlight the similarities of the two peoples, and the shared opinion is that the main responsibility for why the problems between the two countries have not yet been solved, lay with the Greek and Turkish politicians who, in their daily squabbling, do not come together in good faith and find a fair and just solution to them.
But who votes for these politicians?
The issue is of course a little bit more complicated than that. The main element that those who view the issue simply from the perspective of “insincerity of politicians” forget that, while the Greeks and Turks do not have problems with each other and easily find common grounds when they come together as individuals, they hardly agree on anything that they deem nationally important when they are in a group (or present as part of their respective nations).
Resembling each other does not always mean being in harmony. Greeks and Turks are a testament to this. When sovereign rights, political-economic interests, and strategic power factors are added to the picture, there is no room left for sincerity and fairness. Besides, it is the citizens of the two countries who vote for the governments with their incompatible, tense, and even often confrontational policies. One thinks that they would have voted differently if they thought otherwise.
Any room for dialogue?
There will be those who find this view as naïve and think that if the politicians of the two countries wanted a solution, they could have shaped their public opinions on the path towards a solution. However, we should not forget that the leaders are also pass through their countries’ education, culture, and socialization processes, and they too have biased opinions and prejudices about the other side like everyone else. Granted that one of the features of the perfect leader typology is to overcome such “wrong” perceptions accepted by everyone, and to force them to change by leading the society towards change instead of adapting to general convictions. But do you remember a period in recent years -nay, decades- when willful and popularly supported leaders who confirm to this typology were in power in the two countries at the same time?
Therefore, if we want to resolve the tensions sooner and solve the problems between Greece and Turkey without resorting to armed conflict, we need to steer clear of choosing the easier path of accusing political leaders of these disputes and start thinking how we -as individuals- can contribute to the solution. The solution of the problems in international relations cannot be achieved simply by one of the parties getting all it wants unless, of course, it can impose its wishes to the other side with its military power -which in any case will be temporary in today’s world even if it can be achieved momentarily- but arrived together at a point where both sides agree on a compromise from their initial demands through negotiations and dialogue.
Yet, the common belief and attitude on both sides of the Aegean is that they believe that they are justified in their claims, fair in their demands, and honest in their methods. The other party then is always unfair, bad, problematic, and uncompromising. As such, it becomes impossible to build trust between the two peoples/states, and each negative example reminds them of their common past where they easily find reinforcing examples for their depressingly negative perceptions about the other party.
This is a typical pattern of behavior for all societies/states that are logged in a long-term conflictual relationship. The Turks and the Greeks do not differ from other societies in this regard. If you look at the historical German-French and English-French enmities and then reconciliations, which are often cited as examples for good behavior, you can easily identify similar behavioral patterns.
The difference between them (i.e. the Germans, French, and Brits) and us (i.e. the Turks and the Greeks) is that they have finally found a middle ground to sort out their differences. We should not forget of course that the current settlement only came after hundreds of years of conflict and the two world wars that claimed the lives of millions of people. If we do not wish to go through the same path, we, as citizens of the two countries, need to express our demands and convey them to our political leaders to find a meaningful, equitable, and fair basis for an agreement as soon as possible.
63 meetings for ‘exploratory talks’
Some might question the validity of these observations by pointing out that the senior officials of the two countries have met 63 times as part of the exploratory talks between 1999-2016 to find a solution for their problems -and failed as many times. Yet, it would be useful to remind at this point that the official opinions expressed for years by the leaders, ministers, and diplomats of the two countries and reproduced by academics, experts, journalists, and the like, who think that the world consists of these statements, are just the starting point of negotiations for both countries. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to reconcile the maximalist positions of Greece that “there exists only one problem (determination of the continental shelf limits) between the two countries and only one method (resorting to the adjudication of the International Court of Justice) to find a solution” and Turkey that “there exist dozens of issues between the two countries which can only be solved through bilateral talks”. Yet, we know that the two countries have moved beyond their starting positions through open -or sometimes secret- negotiations over the years and have closed the gap substantially for a general settlement.
It is already a public knowledge that the high-level diplomatic teams had almost completed all the necessary negotiations, determined alternative solutions to a great extent, and conveyed these, together with a small number of issues that require a political decision as they involve compromises, to their leaders on both sides. The main obstacle for decision-makers to act is the necessity of compromise from the maximalist positions put forward by both sides at the beginning of talks -fed to the public for years- and the political cost of backing down from them.
If we add the recent resurgence of nationalist sentiments in both countries, the existence of an unexperienced new government in Greece yet to prove itself with current economic problems and continuing COVID-19 concerns, internationally strained economic and political relations of Turkey, autonomy accorded to both countries in their international policies by the current circumstances, the existence of third parties urging them behind the scenes, and the loss of trust between the two countries since 2016, the emergence of a tension that is difficult to manage and involves high-risks becomes inevitable.
Test of sincerity
It will not be easy to calculate the cost of a possible Greek-Turkish war from today. However, a war between them will be devastating to both countries. It will also have a destabilizing effect in a wider geography, and, if not prevented, would easily spread. It is precisely for this reason that international actors, aware of the costs of such a conflict, have so far prevented the tensions between the two countries turning into a war.
However, this does not mean that there is no risk of military conflict, even if briefly. Thus, instead of waiting for international actors to step in and find an uneasy and temporary compromise between the two countries, which could again turn into a conflictual route at any time in the future, the better option would be for the peoples of the two countries to evolve into a position overwhelmingly against war and conflict across the Aegean and the Mediterranean.
The main question at this point would be whether the citizens of the two countries are ready to do this. This is the real test of sincerity that will establish trust between the two peoples/countries and will inevitably force a fair solution.