Tensions rapidly escalated on July 21 after Turkey vowed to move forward with hydrocarbon exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, off the coasts of Cyprus and Greek islands. In response, Greece issued a naval alert after Turkey’s announcement that it was sending a drilling survey ship to Kastellorizo, a Greek island off Turkey’s southern coast. Meanwhile the EU called Turkey’s announcement, known as NAVTEX, “not helpful“ and said that it “sends the wrong message”.
The dispute over the offshore territories has resulted in increased navy deployments from both countries. Both the EU and the USA have backed Greece’s territorial claim in its exclusive economic zone, even as Turkey has cut a highly contentious maritime deal with Libya that would divvy up the waters in the region – a move that has been firmly opposed by Greece, with the backing of its international allies. And while Athens has implied they are mulling a competing deal with Egypt, the international community again called for Turkey to halt their survey plans.
Tensions also increased following Turkey’s decision to revert the ancient Hagia Sophia monument back to a mosque, a move condemned by UNESCO and the World Council of Churches. Initially constructed as a church, then used as a mosque during the Ottoman Empire, the Hagia Sophia had been a secular museum since 1935. Now using the monument as a mosque has been seen as a deliberate provocation to Greece, as the Hagia Sophia was the seat of Eastern Christianity for a millennium before the Ottoman conquest. In protest, Greek businesses began organising a boycott against Turkey, and Greek business associations are reaching out to partner organisations in the EU to institute a boycott on a wider geographical scale. Turkey said Greece was over-reacting to both their naval presence offshore of Greek islands and the changed status of the Hagia Sophia.
But right as things seemed to progress past the point of no return, a telephone call between German chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, resulted in Turkey pulling back. After ordering all hydrocarbon exploration in the area to cease, Erdogan reached out to his Greek counterpart to negotiate without preconditions. The last time Erdogan met with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was this past June to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic.
In response to this abrupt about-face, Greece’s Minister of State George Gerapetritis stated that Greece’s “multifaceted diplomacy has paid off,” adding that “Communication is always preferable to being faced with fait accompli that may create unnecessary tension, or a mistake that causes an incident that we are then unable to control. Therefore, lines of communication, both diplomatic and operational, are necessary.”
On Friday, Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that Turkish and Greek officials were scheduled to meet in Ankara in the coming days to “address issues that have led to rising tensions”. A date, however, is yet to be been announced.
Turkey hopes upcoming talks can resolve issues surrounding the countries’ continental shelves, air space, and offshore hydrocarbon exploration, presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said in a televised interview with CNN Turk news channel. Currently the Turkish research vessel Oruc Reis remains anchored 180 kilometers off the shore of the Greek island of Kastellorizo – known as Meis in Turkey. Greece asserts that islands must also be considered in delineating a country’s continental shelf, in line with the United Nations Law of the Sea, thus giving Greece the sole right to the area regardless of the island’s proximity to Turkey. But Turkey is not a signatory to that law and furthermore argues that a country’s continental shelf should be measured from its mainland, which would mean that the area south of the Greek island – just a few kilometers off Turkey’s coast – therefore falls within Turkey’s exclusive zone.
During the interview, Kalin said that “In line with the instructions of our President [Recep Tayyip Erdogan], we are ready to discuss all issues; the Aegean, continental shelf, islands, airspace, research and screening efforts, and Eastern Mediterranean along with other bilateral matters with Greece without any precondition.”
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias has noted that, “Our only problem with Turkey is the determination of the continental shelf and maritime zones.” He added, “We are ready for dialogue with Turkey without any force or threats.”
However, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar recently struck a very different note, saying that any energy project that proceeds in the Eastern Mediterranean without Turkey’s participation is “doomed to fail”.
“Turkey, as a country with the longest continental coastline in the Eastern Mediterranean has sovereign rights in its maritime areas,” Akar said at a virtual conference hosted by the Washington-based Turkish Heritage Organization. “Turkey’s hydrocarbon-related activities in the East Mediterranean are completely based on her legitimate rights and international law. Energy projects in the Eastern Mediterranean that exclude Turkey from the energy equation are doomed to fail. We strongly believe peace and stability in the region can be achieved through dialogue,” he said.
Neighbouring Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya said that recent talks held in Turkey have helped to reduce tensions. At a news conference with Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu, Gonzalez Laya said an “inflection point” had been reached on the dispute over drilling for oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. “We have reached some inflection point mainly on the drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean and this was a useful dialogue with Mevlut to de-escalate tensions that exist.”