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Turkey’s Aegean Tango Swayed To European Winds

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Turkey’s Aegean Tango Swayed To European Winds

Decoding the 2023 Turco-Greek dialogue as a Turkish strategy of conciliation toward a Europe increasingly nationalist and skeptical of Islam, and of Turkey.

In a sudden turn of events, Turkey and Greece embarked on a reconciliation journey in December 2023, marking a departure from their historically contentious relationship. An accord was signed on vocational education, accompanied by a series of memoranda of cooperation and joint declarations addressing bilateral trade and business.[1] These agreements marked a notable departure from Turkey’s previous confrontational stance with its neighbor.

This article aims to investigate the reasons behind this change and to explore into Turkey’s perspectives on the prevailing challenges shaping these volatile relations.

The relationship between Turkey and Greece has been oscillating for years. Despite hopeful summits in 2005 and 2015, conflicts persisted. In 2016, Turkey accused Greece of harboring Turkish military coup plotters, straining relations. In 2018, the tensions escalated when Turkey detained two Greek soldiers who accidentally crossed into Turkish territory. Ongoing disputes over drilling rights, maritime boundaries and controversial actions by Turkey, like the reopening of Varosha and the conversion of the iconic Hagia Sophia into a mosque, have further fueled tensions.

Turkey’s behavioral pattern towards Greece is characterized by a cyclical pattern of tension and détente. Inconsistency and unpredictable Turkish initiatives pose a challenge for Greece to navigate, and it skillfully responds with conflict resolution mechanisms, strategically defusing military confrontations whenever possible. In a similar vein to the intricate dance of tango, where the “leader” (“el líder”) guides and initiates movements, and the “follower” (“la seguidora”) interprets and responds, Greece’s foreign policy towards Turkey typically involves dancing to the Turkish tunes.

Turkish military expert and researcher Professor Murat Aslan, Director of Kalyoncu Middle East Research Center and a researcher with SETA, a pro-government think tank, offered insight into the Turks’ perception of Greece as the “seguidora” during the last rapprochement cycle: “Turkey currently grapples with numerous foreign policy challenges, and tensions with Greece are not perceived as a priority.”[2]

While President Erdogan’s foreign policy shifts are affected by international dynamics, they are also driven by Ankara’s domestic political concerns. Past tensions with Greece arose from domestic challenges and the need to bolster public support. Symbolic actions were used to rally nationalistic sentiments among the Turks and deflect attention from internal difficulties.[3]

In the grand scheme of Turkey’s foreign policy, Greece may appear to be a minor player. While historical disagreements and periodic tensions persist, particularly in the Aegean Sea and Cyprus, Turkey faces more pressing and complex challenges elsewhere.

In its neighborhood, Turkey’s military campaigns against Kurdish groups in Syria and its military operations near Armenia have exacerbated tensions. Its relations with Israel are characterized by bouts of volatility, while those with Russia remain delicate. Regarding the U.S., Turkey’s relationship has been strained due to disagreements on Iraq policy, Turkish arms purchases from Russia, and alleged U.S. citizen detentions. Its membership within NATO is increasingly defined as – complicated.[4]

Unlike its other foreign policy engagements, Turkey exhibits a remarkable degree of control in its relationship with Greece. In contrast to the PKK conflict and the instability in Iraq, which have challenged Turkey’s control in these areas, Greece – and incidentally Turkey’s other East Mediterranean neighbors, Cyprus and Israel – do not pose a perceived threat to Turkey. Greece, has demonstrated a consistent pattern of positive engagement with Turkey, always responding favorably to Ankara’s calls for peace.

So, what can be the real cause of this Turkish renewed cooperation with Greece? What triggered this change of steps in the tango? “The wind’s dance tells the secret of the wind”, wrote Turkish poet Ziya Gokalp[5]. Which wind blew on President Erdogan?

As the political winds from Europe shift towards conservatism and nationalism, Turkey’s renewed cooperation with Greece serves as a preemptive move to signal its commitment to regional stability and appease potential European adversaries.

Indeed, Europe is on Turkey’s radar, with red alerts flashing on the screen.[6]

During the past decade, a series of issues has exacerbated tensions between Turkey and the EU. The 2016 migration agreement, brokered by Senior Foreign Policy Advisor Ibrahim Kalin, a founding member and former director of SETA, and currently the Director of the Turkish Intelligence Agency, initially aimed to regulate refugee flows but inadvertently raised human rights concerns in Europe. The subsequent crackdown following the July 2016 coup attempt and ongoing tensions with Greece and Cyprus over gas exploration and military activities further strained relations. A range of sanctions, including financial, economic, military, and political measures, were imposed on Turkey. European states also condemned human rights abuses and the treatment of journalists, suspended arms exports, and, to cap it all off, expressed support for the Kurdish people.[7]

Simultaneously, alongside the increasing firmness in its approach towards Turkey, Europe is witnessing a rapid rise in populism. A dozen parliamentary and presidential elections are set to take place in 2024, including for the EU Parliament. Both past elections and upcoming polls suggest a surge in support for conservative and far-right parties. The existing political landscape reveals the presence of countries governed by far-right administrations, either as standalone entities or as part of political coalitions.[8]

This suggests a strong likelihood of growing opposition to Turkish nationalism, to President Erdogan’s authoritarianism, and to any reinforcement of Islamism or Islamic values within their territories. In all major countries of Europe, discussions center around topics such as Muslim migrants, the compatibility of Islam and Europe, the influence of Muslim countries (including Turkey) on local religious authorities[9], and the escalation of violence between communities.

Moreover, polls specifically gauging people’s sentiments towards Turkey reveal a notable increase in the negative feelings of Europeans. In a 2023 Ipsos survey, 85% of Europeans expressed an unfavorable opinion of Turkey, compared to approximately 65% in 2020. In a 2022 Pew Research Center survey, between 75% and 80% of the people in France, Germany, and Italy held an unfavorable view of Turkey. Within the limitations of the polls’ validity, they all depict a consistent picture of growing anti-Turkish sentiment in the EU. This aligns with an increasingly prevalent official discourse against Turkey.[10]

There is considerable speculation surrounding President Erdogan’s next move towards Greece, with many observers adopting a watchful stance.[11] However, we believe what matters more is the Turkish appeasement message conveyed to Europe through the utilization of Greece, rather than the direct interaction with Greece itself. As Carlos Gavito, a renowned Argentine tango dancer, once said: “In tango, you dance for your partner, but you perform for the audience.”

Recognizing Europe’s evolving dynamics, Turkey is mindful of the potential reluctance for Europe to persist as a ‘seguidora’ in the future. When the European westerlies blow on Ankara and make it difficult to somersault, a mere agreement on vocational education and a few positive statements might prove insufficient.

Instead of a passionate and intense tango, Turkey might find itself transitioning to the flowing movements of a waltz, providing the partners with a smooth sense of unity and a breeze of serenity.

  1. RES-EMP. “Greek, Turkish ministers sign 15 MoCs & joint declarations of cooperation during 5th HLCC in Athens.” Πτήση, December 8, 2023. https://flight.com.gr/greek-turkish-ministers-sign-15-mocs-joint-declarations-of-cooperation-during-5th-hlcc-in-athens/.

  2. Sean Mathews, “Turkey: Erdogan eyes reset with Greece amid war in Gaza and talks with US over F-16s,” Middle East Eye, December 7, 2023, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/turkey-erdogan-eyes-reset-greece-amid-gaza-war-talks-us-f-16-jets.

  3. Zenonas Tziarras. “Deciphering Erdoğan’s Foreign Policy after Turkey’s 2023 Elections.” E-International Relations, December 7, 2023. https://www.e-ir.info/2023/12/07/deciphering-erdogans-foreign-policy-after-turkeys-2023-elections/. ISSN 2053-8626.

  4. Sinan Ciddi, “It’s Time to Reconsider Turkey’s NATO Membership,” Foreign Policy, December 6, 2023, https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/12/06/turkey-nato-membership-alliance-russia-erdogan-sweden-syria/.

  5. Ziya Gökalp, “Rüzgarın dansı, rüzgarın sırrını anlatır” (“The wind’s dance tells the secret of the wind”), from the poem “Rüzgar” (The Wind), published in 1914 in the anthology “Türkçülüğün Esasları” (The Principles of Turkism).

  6. Camille Gijs, “Erdogan threatens to ‘part ways’ from EU after critical European Parliament report,” Politico, September 16, 2023, https://www.politico.eu/article/turkey-recep-tayyip-erdogan-threatens-to-part-ways-from-eu-after-critical-european-parliaments-report/.

  7. “European Commission reiterates support for Kurdistan Region,” Kurdistan 24, February 18, 2023, https://www.kurdistan24.net/en/story/30728-European-Commission-reiterates-support-for-Kurdistan-Region.

  8. Where Europe’s Far-Right Has Gained Ground, Martin Armstrong, 23/11/2023, Statista, https://www.statista.com/chart/6852/seats-held-by-far-right-parties-in-europe/

  9. Zia Weise, “Wanted: Imams made in Germany,” Politico, December 17, 2019, https://www.politico.eu/article/germany-imam-training-islam-in-society/.

  10. Karaköse, Alperen. “Intel Academy Releases First Report on Far-Right Extremism in the West.” Hurriyet Daily News, January 16, 2024. https://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/intel-academy-releases-first-report-on-right-wing-extremism-in-the-west-189713.

  11. Greek Minister of Defense Nikos Dendias, interview (Greek) with To Vima: “We should not forget – We must always be ready with Turkey” (“Δεν πρέπει να ξεχνάμε – Οφείλουμε να είμαστε πάντα έτοιμοι με την Τουρκία”), To Vima, December 10, 2023, https://www.tovima.gr/print/politics/xreiazetaicrallagi-stasis-kai-se-domika-crzitimata/.

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