Turkish ties to remain unaffected despite changes in Greek politics

Greece’s deepening economic crisis is expected to pave the way for the rise of right-wing parties, but experts say the changes in Greek politics are unlikely to have any major impact on relations with neighboring Turkey in any foreseeable future, since parties in both the right and the left are equally preoccupied with the question of how to survive through the crisis, which has brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy.

More than 14,000 austerity-weary Greeks poured into the square in front of parliament in central Athens on Thursday during a 24-hour general strike. (PHOTO cihan)

More than 14,000 austerity-weary Greeks poured into the square in front of parliament in central Athens on Thursday during a 24-hour general strike. (PHOTO cihan)

The crisis that rocked the Greek economy has also shaken the politics. Polls suggest that the center-right New Democracy Party (ND) is likely to take the lead in the country’s elections, slated for Feb. 19, although it is not expected to garner enough votes to form a government alone. The possibility of the current government being replaced with an ND-led one has also fueled questions over the direction of the relations with Turkey.

But according to Harry Tzimitras, who teaches international law at İstanbul’s Bilgi University, foreign policy issues are unlikely to dominate the agenda of any new Greek government in any foreseeable future, given that the parties would like to avoid “adventurism” in foreign policy while the need to tackle the economic crisis presents an urgent challenge. The current caretaker government, formed by 64-year-old technocrat Lucas Papademos, will stay away from main foreign policy issues given that it is in power for a limited period of time and has the responsibility of steering the country until elections.

Others, however, cautioned that the formation of a coalition government formed by the ND and the far-right Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), which is expected to win 6-7 percent of the vote in the February elections, may have an impact on relations with Turkey, although such a government is seen as unlikely.

“I don’t think that the ND and LAOS can form a coalition government in the 2012 elections. But if such a scenario becomes a reality, it would be a fatal blow to improving relations between Turkey and Greece,” said Alexis Heraclides, a professor of International Relations at Pandion University in Athens.

Recent polls show that if an election were held at the moment, the conservative ND would come in first, getting 22-25 percent of the vote, meaning that it will most likely be unable to form a government alone. The former ruling party, the socialist PASOK, would get 16-18 percent while LAOS is estimated to receive 6-7 percent of the vote.

“A New Democracy government, especially if LAOS is a junior coalition member, will adopt a more guarded and skeptical approach vis-à-vis Turkey, when compared to previous governments,” said Thanos Dokos, the director of the Hellenic Foundation for European Policy (ELIAMEP), an Athens-based think tank.

But, despite the fact that a Greek government led by ND leader Antonis Samaras would be unwilling to work for the further improvement of bilateral relations with Turkey, this is unlikely to bring about a substantial change in the course of Turkish-Greek ties. He explained that being responsible for the actions of the government would lead Samaras to moderate his discourse towards Turkey. Governing parties, he said, tend to be more pragmatic in their actions compared to their own rhetoric while in opposition.

In addition, differences of opinion within the ND are also likely to play a role in moderating the party’s cautious stance towards Turkey, according to Sotirios Livas of Corfu Ionian University, even though LAOS and the ND currently do suggest a re-evaluation of Greek-Turkish relations. “No political body in Greece is as monolithic as one could imagine,” he told Sunday’s Zaman.

Defense budget

Despite the economic crisis, Greece is not expected to introduce significant cuts in the defense budget, a major issue of dispute with Turkey. The economic crisis fueled discussions in Greek and international media over the country’s huge defense budget — the highest among EU countries’ per capita — and led to suggestions that the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) should pressure Greek government to introduce extra cuts in defense expenditures to deal with the crisis.

Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, director of Center for International and European Studies (CIES) at Kadir Has University in İstanbul, points out that the public frustration and anger among people against the political institutions and more importantly against EU institutions would give rise to a feeling of insecurity in Greece. “A rise in the feeling of marginalization or a lack of trust in EU institutions will heighten the security deficit in Greece and could have a negative impact on Greek-Turkish relations as Greeks would feel that all ‘others’ — in particular a powerful and economically and strategically growing Turkey — are to blame for their woes,” said Triantaphyllou.

Tzimitras also dismissed the expectations and possibility of a cut in the defense budget at a juncture where the people feel very vulnerable psychologically.

Possibility of new rapprochement

After decades of hostility stemming from disputes over Cyprus and territorial rights in the Aegean, Turkey and Greece initiated an unprecedented rapprochement in the wake of a devastating earthquake in northwestern Anatolia in 1999. Most of the disagreements have yet to be resolved even after dozens of rounds of closed-door “exploratory talks” between the diplomats of the two countries, but political and people-to-people contacts have flourished nonetheless.

The economic crisis in Greece sparked a debate among intellectual circles over whether a new wave of rapprochement would similarly gain momentum in bilateral relations now. Releasing different comments on the case, experts presented either optimistic scenarios or cautious ones.

Tzimitras believes that the crisis would provide opportunities rather than challenges, pointing to the vast areas for cooperation, recalling a recent call from Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos on foreign countries, including Turkey, to invest in Greece. He stated that Greece wants a fast recovery from the crisis, and is desperately in need of cooperation with other countries, mulling further plans which can attract foreign investment, including from Turkey.

Recently, Athens-based Hellenic Federation of Enterprises (SEV) International Relations Coordinator Ioannis Patsiavos, extended an invitation to Turkish businesses to take part in tenders to acquire Greek state assets, including air and naval ports as well as the country’s postal and telecommunications services companies.

According to Triantaphyllou, theoretically, the crisis could bring about a new rapprochement between the two countries. “The conceptual problem has to do with the growing disparity between the two countries and how Turkey’s growing importance could be considered a threat rather than an asset by Greece if with Turkey’s growing power its behavior — airspace violations, over flights, casus belli type threats — is perceived to be threatening,” he said, and added that given the widening economic gap between the two countries, closer ties would imply the eventual “domination” by Turkey of Greece rather than a process of shared and mutual benefits.

There is also criticism of Turkish policies. Having vehemently criticized Greece for being reluctant and too cautious in steps to form closer links with Turkey in the past, this time Heraclides slammed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, saying he uses a harsh discourse on Cyprus and other issues of dispute. This, he said, fuels the fears of conservatives in Greece.

Turkish minority cautious in face of new political setting in Greece

One of the other aspects of the economic crisis which might affect the bilateral relations is the situation of the Turkish minority in Western Thrace. With Greece in a deep economic crisis, which has resulted in the rise of nationalist feelings, it’s difficult to draw a rosy picture for the Turkish minority.

It is true that the Turkish minority no longer feels under so much pressure, compared to old days of harsher government policies towards the Turkish minority. But some major problems remain to be solved, such as rights regarding identity, education and the election of a religious leader (mufti) for the Turkish community.

Given the possibility of the rise of right-wing parties, especially with regard to New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras who has been viewed with suspicion by Greek Turks, there is a cautious silence among Turks as the Greek political atmosphere undergoes a change.