Shadow Conflicts in the Aegean


While the world's attention is focused on the war in Ukraine, the next conflict at the EU's external border is already brewing in the eastern Aegean. Often overlooked: the tensions between Greece and Turkey are neither new, nor politically irrational.

Darstellung der Insel Kos (İstanköy) durch den osmanischen Flottenadmiral und Kartographen Piri Reis in 1521
Teaser Image Caption
Depiction of the island of Kos (İstanköy) by the Ottoman fleet admiral and cartographer Piri Reis in 1521. The image is from the work "Kitab-ı Bahriye II" published by the Ministry of Culture of Turkey in 1988, pp. 496-497.

Greek-Turkish Relations between Foreign Policy Escalation and Domestic Political Calculations  

If you want to understand the fundamental tensions between Greece and Turkey, I recommend taking a look at the cuisine. Contrary to the saying "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach", an unofficial conflict has been raging between the two countries for decades over the origin of a well-known dessert called baklava. This dispute over the origin of the sugared pastry – which makes for an amusing viewing on social media – also seems interesting from a political perspective, especially since it illustrates the fundamental paradox of Greek-Turkish relations.

Almost all disputes between Athens and Ankara over the past one hundred years have been based on diverging claims to property. Whether these are constructed over culinary, cultural, or as most recently, territorial issues in the Aegean, it does not change the fact that at the core of the matter are distributional issues that rather point towards commonalities than differences. In light of the current confrontation, it is all the more worthwhile to reflect on the historically evolved interdependencies as well as political practices on both sides of the Aegean.

The Role of Historical Path Dependencies

In his 1973 doctoral dissertation titled "Azgelişmişlik Sürecinde Türkiye" (Turkey in the Process of Backwardness) submitted to the University of Sorbonne, Istanbul-born historian Stefanos Yerasimos outlines that although the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 heralds the formal end of the Byzantine Empire, the virtually seamless takeover of the bureaucratic apparatus by the Ottomans results in the de facto continuity of the eastern Roman state system. This process finds its symbolic manifestation in the claim to power by Mehmet II, who thereafter holds the title Kayzeri-i Rum, meaning Emperor of the Romans.

Until the emergence of nationalist currents in the 19th century, a tight interweaving of Greek and Turkish cultures takes place. While converts such as Mesih Pasha – nephew of the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI – rise to the highest ranks of the state apparatus, western Anatolia and Rumelia see a mixture of Greek, Turkish, Persian, and Arabic lifestyles emerging. In light of this hybridization, religious affiliation represents one of the last differentiating features between Greeks and Turks in the late Ottoman Empire.[1] 

When the 1821 uprising by the Hellenistic independence movement introduces the end of Ottoman rule over modern-day Greece, it is simultaneously the starting point for the lasting disintegration of a once multi-ethnic state. From an Ottoman perspective, Greece's independence in 1829 represents a sensitive loss, which is compensated by anti-Greek narratives during the rule of the Young Turks from 1908 onwards. Meanwhile in Greece, the genesis of a new national identity takes place through a decided rejection of the Ottoman past. These narrative ruptures in both contexts are ultimately what transform the possibility of a sense of shared heritage into a hereditary enmity.

New Ties of Fate in the Greco-Turkish Context

Latest with the end of the First World War, Greeks and Turks are finally facing each other as two political entities. However, what is now an interstate confrontation also results in a new form of fateful bond. Thus, the Greek invasion of Anatolia in 1919 is not only the starting point for the formation of the Turkish national movement under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, but the ensuing Turkish victory over the Kingdom of Greece is decisive for the later constitution of the modern Republic of Turkey. For Greece, meanwhile, the "Asia Minor catastrophe" symbolizes the irrevocable loss of Constantinople and requires a fundamental political rethinking, resulting in a shifted political focus on its own heartland west of the Aegean.

Although the armistice of Mudanya on October 11, 1922, and the Treaty of Lausanne on July 24, 1923 largely resolve territorial issues between the two states, there are political points of contention from the very beginning of the newly formed Greek-Turkish relations. In this respect, the island of Cyprus, which has been annexed by Great Britain since 1914, plays a special role. After the population exchange of 1923, which results in the forced interstate resettlement of almost two million people, Cyprus is the last place where both populations continue to live together.  

Despite the political rapprochement between Ankara and Athens in the course of the emerging Cold War (NATO accession by both countries in 1952, contracting parties to the Balkan Pact in 1954), the Cyprus question is the cause of renewed tensions from 1964 at the latest.[2] On July 15, 1974, supporters of Cyprus’ incorporation into the Greek state (Enosis) – backed by the military junta in Athens – overthrow the government of Archbishop Makarios III. Only five days later, Ankara launches a large-scale military offensive, which results in the division of the island that persists to this day.

The Domestic Calculation of Foreign Policy Escalations  

After the military escalation of the Cyprus crisis, a period of relatively peaceful coexistence begins. The main reason for this is the political instability that characterizes both countries in these years. While Turkey experiences what is probably the most brutal coup in its history in 1980, the junta in Athens falls in 1974, opening the way for the democratic transformation of the country under Prime Minister Karamanlis. The bilateral lull ends abruptly, however, when a Turkish cargo ship runs aground off the twin islands of Imia (Turkish: Kardak) – not far from the coast of Bodrum – on December 25, 1995. Beginning with disputes over the salvage of the freighter, it takes less than a month for 15 Greek and 18 Turkish warships to face each other in the waters around the 0.04 square kilometer islands. Only after the intervention of the U.S. President and NATO Secretary General can a military confrontation be averted.

The Kardak crisis is not only a symbol of the explosive potential for conflict in the Aegean, it is also symptomatic of the exploitation of foreign policy escalations for domestic political gain in both states. For example, the Çiller government at the time uses the incident to divert attention away from several domestic scandals involving extra-legal executions, and connections between state institutions and the mafia in Turkey. In Greece, on the other hand, the crisis is still being instrumentalized in right-wing political circles as a point of reference for formulating territorial claims against Turkey.

Both the most recent threats by Turkish President Erdoğan as well as the speech by Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis to the U.S. Congress on May 17, must therefore also be evaluated in light of the respective domestic political contexts. The government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP), for example, is experiencing a historic low in the polls in the wake of the current monetary and economic crisis. The Mitsotakis government, on the other hand, has been under constant fire from the opposition, not least since the murder of journalist Giorgos Karaivaz. Most recently, it had to face a motion of no confidence initiated by former Prime Minister Tsipras. In view of the current tensions in the region, the logic of instrumentalizing bilateral tensions for domestic political purposes, for example by constructing possible threat scenarios and demonstrating the country's willingness for (military) action in the Aegean, appears to be a valid political option.

A Doctrinaire Consolidation of Tensions

Far more dangerous than domestically motivated periodic escalations, however, appears the possible solidification of tensions in the Aegean in view of an increasingly geostrategic revaluation of the region. Projects such as the Eastern Mediterranean pipeline (East-Med), which is intended to transport natural gas from Egypt and Israel via Cyprus and Greece to Italy and thus to the EU, are political dynamite in this regard. It is therefore not surprising that the U.S. withdrew from the project in January 2022 in the wake of growing security concerns in the region, while the German government announced in June that Berlin does not support the construction of the pipeline, "which [...] is in part considered controversial in economic as well as climate policy terms." 

No less controversial is a Turkish project that repeatedly makes headlines under the term "Blue Homeland" (Mavi Vatan). This long-term strategy conceived in 2015 by former Rear Admiral Cihat Yaycı aims to expand Turkey's military and economic sphere of power in the maritime domain. Contrary to the East-Med, the concept of the Blue Homeland appears as a new Turkish doctrine in the Aegean, which has been pushed publicly since 2019 unlike any other foreign policy program of the ruling JDP. Thus, the voyages of the natural gas exploration ship Oruç Reis in 2020, as well as a large-scale military exercise of the Turkish Navy conducted in April of this year, have been launched as important stages in the establishment of this concept.

This development is all the more surprising when one considers that it was the JDP's own de-escalating attitude toward Athens that led to a sustained improvement in Greek-Turkish relations in recent years.[3] In retrospect, however, it is clear that the Islamic-conservative JDP's previous policies were not so much due to its interest in building relations with its western neighbor, but rather served to push back the Kemalist-influenced General Staff. Ever since the restructuring of the Turkish military in the wake of the foiled coup attempt in 2016 in favor of the ruling party, it has become clear that the JDP no longer has any aversions to a military-backed Aegean agenda.

A Greek-Turkish Agonism?

Regardless of whether tensions in the Aegean continue to be used to extinguish domestic political needs or undergo a doctrinaire consolidation, the reality that Turkey and Greece will continue to rely on compromise solutions remains undisputed. At the same time, normative approaches to finding joint solutions are certainly part of the political discourse. Last but not least, the recently deceased Greek composer and writer Mikis Theodorakis wrote in the daily Ta Nea in August 2019 that given the riches of the Eastern Mediterranean, it would be worthwhile to develop joint solutions because "foreign companies and the U.S. fleet come and go, the neighborhood with Turkey is a constant reality."

In this respect, it is necessary to admit that the political antagonisms between Greece and Turkey, while not resolvable, do not necessarily condition political and/or military confrontation. Perhaps it is therefore worthwhile to address the fundamental tensions between the two states in the sense of agonism, the stability of which must not be sacrificed to situationally conditioned shadow conflicts. After all, the same applies to the Aegean as to baklava: There are legitimate claims to a common heritage on both sides.


[1] This also appears important in view of the subsequent forced resettlements in the course of the Turkish-Greek population exchange in 1923. In this context, the Turkish historian İlber Ortaylı describes the forced resettlement of Turkish-speaking Christians and Greek-speaking Muslims. Discussing the social consequences for the respective groups has been taboo in both countries for decades. Among others, this topic is addressed in Çağan Irmak's film "Dedemin İnsanları" (My Grandfather's People).

[2] After Cyprus's independence from Great Britain in 1959, tensions between the two population groups have repeatedly arisen on the island. After major ethnic unrest in 1964, this confrontation is increasingly fought out between Greece and Turkey. In the same year, Athens moves troops to Greek islands near the Turkish coast, while Ankara unilaterally announces the extension of its territorial waters to six nautical miles.

[3] Erdoğan's state visit to Athens, during which the Turkish prime minister announced, among other things, the reopening of the Orthodox Heybeliada Seminary and the reduction of military spending in the Aegean, also appears important in this context.