The Turkish Foreign Minister Mr. Davutoglou has often expressed his longing for a kind of ‘Ottoman Renaissance’ for his country. Not of course for an Empire run by a Sultan relying on brute force to keep his subjects under control but for an economically strong, democratic Turkey relying on its increasing soft power to dominate the Middle East area and make its mark in the world. The Turkish version of Islam differs significantly from that of its neighbours. A new tolerance of women students wearing the headscarf in universities, dose not imply stoning adulteresses. The Turks believe in Allah but they have created a secular state that is gradually being Europeanised. It is not by accident that the lawyer of the Iranian woman facing death by stoning for adultery sought refuge to Turkey, this new “Ottoman Umpire” as the “Times” called it in their leader of 5 July 2010 commenting on the even.
Under Ottoman rule, the ‘infidels’ i.e. the non Islamic subjects of the Porte were pitied rather than persecuted as long as they did not rebel against the Sultan’s rule. When the Turkish Premier Mr. Recep Tayip Erdogan was asked whether he would one day recognize Patriarch Vartholomeos as ‘Ecumenical’ he replied that he did not see why he should differ in that respect from what his ancestors had been doing for centuries. He is, of course, still considering the reopening of the Holy Theological School of Halki and the orphanage run by the Patriarchate that were both arbitrarily closed by the Turkish State. From the day Erdogan was voted into office some eight years ago he has not relented in trying to dismantle the Kemalist establishment (army plus judiciary) and treat other religions and minorities (including the Kurds) in a more relaxed way. Following his recent triumph at the 12th of September referendum on constitutional changes Erdogan is now preparing a new European-type Constitution for Turkey after he wins – as he expects to – the elections in June 2011. Some fear that, following his successive victories, he may turn authoritarian but one may reasonably hope that the civil society that is now taking shape in Turkey will not allow him to do so. The referendum took place on the 30th anniversary of the 1980 coup led by General Kenan Evren who in the unadulterated Kemalist tradition imposed then by force of arms a Constitution of his choice. Interestingly, the very day after 58% of the electorate voted in favour of Erdogan’s proposed changes, campaigners launched petitions to put Evren and his closest colleagues on trial thus making use of the constitutional amendment now in force that allows the removal of their immunity. The reasons that prompted this action are not purely ideological. After the referendum, Tusiad , the business lobby called for a debate on a new Constitution that Turkey needs to solve its problems with religion and ethnic minorities. These new Turkish entrepreneurs want to ensure peace and freedom in their country so that their businesses can prosper.
Interesting things are already happening in this field. Erdogan allowed for the first time mass to be held by the Patriarch at the Holy Virgin’s church at Soumela while as the “Financial Times” (20-9-10) put it “bells rang and the liturgy echoed from inside an Armenian church in eastern Turkey for the first time in nearly a century. “Turkey” said Baskin Oran, an eminent Turkish academic “is going back to the good side of the Ottoman Empire”. Part of this “good side” was the respect of the Patriarchate as an institution. Under the Kemalist regime the election of the Patriarch became increasingly problematic as the post could only be filled by someone belonging to the dwindling number of local hierarchs with Turkish citizenship. In August 2009, Vartholomeos asked Erdogan to grant Turkish citizenship to eminent Greek Orthodox hierarchs living abroad so as to widen the number of qualified aspirants to the Patriarchal throne. On 13 October 2010 it became known that Ankara had granted Turkish citizenship to 12 such hierarchs as requested by Vartholomeos.
Erdogan has pursued a successful agenda of broadly democratic reforms and market liberalisation by defeating the Kemalist establishment which presented a number of features well-known to Greeks: it was statist, clientelistic corrupt, arrogant, and cynical. As civil society gained ground in Turkey, a new generation of entrepreneurs and politicians have emerged who try hard to turn this country of 70 million souls into a force to be reckoned with. As their Europe-inspired reforms kick in, the meddlesome generals are steadily being kicked out. If Erdogan stops his tergiversations on the issue and succeeds in solving the Kurdish conundrum in pursuit of his stated aim to gradually sort out all existing problems with all of Turkey’s neighbours, the army bullies will become history. With growth reaching 10.3% during the second semester of 2010 Turkey is only behind China in its economic performance. Speaking to the UN General Assembly on 22 September 2010 President Gul reiterated that gaining admission to the EU is still Turkey’s top priority. He even pointed out that Turkish bonds were a safer investment than those of Portugal, Italy and Spain (no, he did not mention Greece).
The main obstacle to a Greco-Turkish understanding is the (in)famous “casus belli” issue. This relates to a decision by the Turkish Parliament in June 1995 to declare war to Greece if she extended her territorial waters in the Aegean to 12 miles. It was a response to the Greek Parliament’s resolution to proclaim once more Greece’s right to do so. It is interesting to note that in an interview he gave to the Greek newspaper “Kathimerini” (8-10-10) Mr Kalin, counsellor to Mr Erdogan, insisted once again that “we never use the term ‘casus belli’ in our bilateral relations on the Aegean problems… What we propose today is for both our countries to rescind these resolutions taken by our Parliaments and include the issue of territorial waters in the general agenda of our discussions to settle the problems between our two countries”. It would help a great deal, of course, if Turkey decided to show rescind unilaterally the “casus belli” decision, thus showing some respect to article 2, Paragraph 4, of the UN Charter which prohibits any kind of threat to use violence in international relations. The Greek Parliament’s resolution, on the other hand, may have been deemed wrong by Turkey but it is certainly not illegal.
At this point some clarification is necessary. Under the Law of the Sea as it stands now – which Turkey does not recognise – Greece has the right to extend her territorial waters to twelve miles in the Aegean, as she does in the Ionian Sea and everywhere else. What the Turkish Parliament decided was that if Greece used her right in this way, this would constitute a casus belli.
However, if Greece did, against all odds, ever extended her territorial sea to twelve miles, the major issue of the continental shelf would disappear as most of the Aegean would automatically come under Greece’s sovereignty. So if Greece is willing, as the current official Greek doctrine goes, to discuss with Turkey only the delimitation of the continental shelf she is ipso facto implying that she will not extend her territorial waters to twelve miles – as she keeps saying she has the right to do. OK, so suppose that Greek policy is recalibrated to aim at the feasible, what next? ‘To Hague or not to Hague’’ as the weekly ‘Áthens News’ put it four years ago? The truth is that you cannot go on your own to the International Court of Justice that sits in The Hague. You must a) agree with your opponent to go to the Court having first recognised the Court’s competence in the matter and committed yourself to abide by its decision, and b) agree with your opponent the list of issues on which you ask the ICJ to decide. The relevant document, signed by both parties, is called in French a ‘compromis’ meaning, in this context, ‘common promise’ and not ‘compromise’ as some Greek chauvinist idiots (a pleonasm) started shouting when the issue first arose some thirty- five years ago. Turkey knows very well that any move to extend territorial waters must meet with the approval of one’s neighbour. When she tried, years ago, to extend her territorial waters to 12 miles in the Black Sea she had to discuss the matter at length with the then Soviet Union to gain her neighbour’s approval for such a move.
There are more inconsistencies in the Greek position. Greece is the only country in the world which actually defends her six-mile territorial waters and her ten mile airspace in the Aegean. As a Turkish newspaper put it some years ago a Turk swimming 7 miles off Chios would be in international waters but his head would violate Greek airspace. Greece claims that this arrangement has become customary law as it was declared in the early 1930’s and Turkey failed to protest against it until the early 1970s. Incidentally, this gives Turkey a good reason to take action so that anything that she disagrees with in the Aegean today will not become customary law in the future.
In order to turn the Aegean problems into a vibrant, emotionally explosive issue the Greek chauvinists like to dwell on a tragic incident that cost a Greek military pilot his life. ‘His untimely death’ said Iliakis’ grieving brother at the funeral of the unfortunate F-16 pilot killed over the Aegean ‘will have had an impact when a solution is found so that something like this does not happen again’. What happened on 24 May 2006 at 09:48 Greenwich Mean Time was that two F-16 military aircraft, one Greek and one Turkish, bumped into each other at 8,230 metres above ground, 12 miles south of the island of Karpathos. The unfortunate Greek pilot and his colleagues had been under orders to intercept Turkish planes not because these were flying over Greek airspace but because of an alleged air traffic violation.
The issue has to do with the Athens ‘Flight Information Region’ i.e. the zone of defined dimensions within which Athens provides to flying aircraft an information service (about weather conditions and air traffic generally) and also an alerting service (should an aircraft be in distress). The allocation of FIRs to various authorities all over the world is done by agreement of all the countries belonging to the ‘International CIVIL (my emphasis) Aviation Organisation’ (ICAO). The Athens FIR was agreed upon and confirmed at the Regional Air-Traffic Conferences of 1950, 1952 and 1958. Turkey participated in these conferences and fully accepted the boundaries of the Athens FIR covering the whole of mainland Greece and the Aegean. In August 1974, Turkey – after invading Cyprus – decided to issue NOTAM (Notice to Air-men) 714 by which she unilaterally extended her area of responsibility in providing information to aircraft up to the middle of the Aegean, i.e. well within the Athens FIR. Greece responded by her NOTAM 1157 declaring the eastern part of the Aegean a dangerous area so that thereafter all planes flying to Turkey from the west had to make a costly detour over Bulgaria to reach their destination. This hurt the Turkish economy more that it hurt Greece, so six years later, in 1980, Ankara withdrew its NOTAM 714 but Greece’s interpretation of the rules did and does create problems.
The C in ICAO stands for ‘Civil’ not in the sense of ‘polite’ but in the sense of non-military. No matter. Greece insists unilaterally that the FIR rules also apply to military aircraft. The Turks dispute this and until someone can actually prove that what they say is wrong, this columnist will stick to the view that the Greek position on the FIR is untenable. Greece insists that the Turks must provide Athens with detailed flight plans about when, where and why her military aircraft are flying in the Aegean. However, article 3(a) of the Chicago Convention signed on 7 December 1944 which created the ICAO, says unambiguously that the ICAO rules are not applicable to military aircraft. Anyway the Turks do provide NATO with flight plans for the forays of their military aircraft outside their borders which is important because completely unannounced flights of military aircraft into Athens’ FIR might indeed create problems for civilian aircraft
The Turks seem to fear that Greece is surreptitiously trying to appropriate the whole of the Aegean airspace by using the Athens FIR as synonymous to it. They quote to that effect the constant confusion in official Greek statements between the country’s ‘inalienable sovereign rights’ and its FIR zone. The only way to stop the Aegean actually becoming Greek by default is, they say, sending regularly military aircraft over it so as to reaffirm Turkey’s rights to use international airspace according to international law. However the Turks’ tactic of also sending low-flying aircraft over Greek islands is not just illegal but positively dangerous as the Turks admit themselves by having agreed not to do so during the summer months so as not to damage tourism in both countries. In his interview to the “Sky” Greek TV network on 18 October 2010 Mt Erdogan does not want this to continue and has asked the military to stop it but it seems that in Turkey the political leaders do not as yet have the final word on such issues. Also the denial by Turkey that islands do possess a continental shelf is not helpful at all. Last but not least the Turkish policy of insisting that there are “grey zones” (of questionable sovereignty) in the Aegean raises the spectre of Turkish claims on Greek islands, a claim too dangerous in itself to be used as a “negotiating tool” in an eventual dialogue.
The conclusion is clear. The time has come for both countries to sit down and discuss all these matters seriously with a view to reach an agreement even at the risk of displeasing the die-hards amongst their citizenry. The time has come for a political approach because diplomats from both countries have been meeting 47 times so far just to confirm that there is no change in either side’s position. For Greece – among the nations spending most on defence – the gain of an eventual agreement on curtailing defence expenditure would be substantial.
I have not mentioned Cyprus for a good reason. After the Annan plan debacle, I believe Athens should let Nicosia totally free to decide what it wants to do. Cyprus is now an independent, thriving, democratic, EU country which will need the full support of Athens to see that the agreement to be – one hopes – reached with the Turkish Cypriots will be correctly implemented. A significant improvement in the bilateral relations between Athens and Ankara can, of course, only help such an outcome while on the other hand the existing deadlock in Cyprus is not helping the easing of tensions between Greeks and Turks in general.