Erdogan and Mitsotakis Frenemies? NATO’s promise for the revival of the Greek-Turkish Dialogue

  • Mitsotakis adopts a more assertive foreign policy in order to strengthen Greece geopolitically and to gain domestic support.
  • Erdogan, acknowledging that his aggressive foreign policy yields no results, changes the agenda towards victorious narratives of NATO cooperation.
  • Greek-Turkish rapprochement during the NATO Summit signals a period of eased tensions.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with Greece’s Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis

Why are Erdogan and Mitsotakis frenemies?

Answer: Their meeting during the NATO Summit could lead to a period of eased tensions.

Historically, Turkish-Greek relations have been characterized by tensions. However, they have not always been hostile as it is often assumed. Several key events improved or deteriorated the bilateral relations during the last decades. For instance, a period of significant detente between the two countries was during the 1940s and 1950s. In 1952, both Greece and Turkey joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and a future of mutual cooperation was aspired.

Nevertheless, the Greek involvement and the Turkish military action in Cyprus in 1974 and the Imia/Kardak military crisis in 1996 led to hostile bilateral relations. In the late 1990s, a relative normalization of relations began, and Turkey’s recognition as a candidate for EU membership put a rapprochement on both countries’ agenda. However, in the early 21st century, more tensions arose.

The last two years have seen a revival of tensions and diplomatic deadlocks upon several longstanding and new disputes. One of the most prominent disputes concerns the Eastern Mediterranean. The Cyprus conflict, the demilitarisation of some Eastern Aegean islands and the disputed sovereignty over certain islets claimed by both Greece and Turkey, are decades-old differences. However, since late 2019, several new points of friction in the East Med have led to a rapid deterioration of Greece-Turkey relations. Competition over energy reserves in contested maritime borders has led to several unilateral actions.

For instance, during summer 2020, Turkey’s attempt to explore gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean very close to the Greek island of Kastellorizo, where both Greece and Turkey claim rights to ‘dynamited’ the bilateral relations. On the other end of the spectrum, the formulation of platforms such as the EastMed Gas Forum by Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (with plans to explore energy sources in the Eastern Mediterranean, including disputed areas) was perceived as excluding Turkey from the region and violating its sovereign rights.

The incidents that put Mitsotakis and Erdogan at odds during the last almost two years are many more. Erdogan’s bilateral deal with the Libyan government on Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) ignored the maritime borders of Greece. Then, in March 2020, Erdogan allegedly tried to put diplomatic pressure on the EU by “using” several thousand migrants at its northern border with Greece. In response, Greece and Egypt signed an agreement on EEZ between the two countries over disputed waters. A contentious mix was formed, and the two allies in NATO were positioned as adversaries by late 2020.

However, in June 2021, on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in Brussels, the two leaders met in a closed-door meeting, and a positive agenda seems to be advanced. Erdogan agreed to open channels for dialogue between the two countries, while the Greek government framed the event as ‘breaking the ice’ between the two leaders. Could this meeting signal the start of a period of eased tensions?

What does Erdogan want?

Answer: To re-build bridges with the EU, NATO and the Biden Administration.

Erdogan’s aggressive foreign policy of the past year aimed at gaining results domestically. However, his interventions in Syria (2019), Libya (2020), Nagorno-Karabakh (2020), and the Eastern Mediterranean (2020) –focused on distracting voters from the fragile state of the economy– have disturbed multilateral relations with several Western actors and allies. Erdogan has been alienating Turkey from the EU and NATO while public support for his party, AKP, has been steadily dropping.

Since early 2021, Erdogan has indulged in a  “charm offensive”. Erdogan reached out to Greece to resume talks over territorial claims in the Mediterranean Sea. Exploratory talks between the two countries were put on ice in 2016 and subsequently reached a historical low. He also expressed his wish to “turn a new page in its relations with the EU in the new year”.

During last week’s ΝΑΤΟ Summit, the Turkish President noted that I believe that the revitalization of the channels of dialogue between us and our neighbour and ally, Greece, serves the stability and prosperity of our region, as well as the resolution of bilateral issues.” His current narrative (e.g., describing Greece as an “ally”) is nowhere near his fiery speeches during 2020 when he (often) blamed Greece, the US and the EU for sidelining Turkey and backing its opponents. The change in rhetoric and agenda towards not only Greece but NATO and the EU in total is evident. 

Erdogan realised that re-building bridges is necessary for the fragile Turkish economy to survive. Keeping up with an assertive foreign policy proved inadequate to strengthen public support domestically, while it did more harm to the already collapsing economy internationally.   

What does Mitsotakis want?

Answer: To position himself as the sole Greek leader who can further the Greek agenda in relation to Turkey.

During the past year, Mitsotakis has been criticized on several fronts. On the one hand, domestically, he has been heavily scrutinized over the way he handled the Covid-19 pandemic’s second wave. Among others, he was accused for the lack of action during summer 2020 to prevent a second lockdown, for the shortage of health care staff, and for (allegedly) breaking the pandemic rules twice. On the other hand, on foreign affairs, during his term in office, Greek-Turkish relations have reached new lows.

Interestingly, despite the wave of criticism (especially over the past six months), his party ‘New Democracy’ (ND) dominates the polls. Since 2019, the main opposition party, SYRIZA, has failed to present itself as a strong alternative political pole to ND.

Thus, overcoming public criticism, Mitsotakis aims in a successful foreign policy to maintain and strengthen his personal status and electoral base. So far, he seems to be winning the bet. Mitsotakis has repeatedly called upon the EU solidarity and shared values in an effort to counterbalance the Euroscepticism dominant during his predecessor’s term. He has fiercely tried to restore Greece’s bonds with its EU partners, and this is how we got to the following statement. In August 2020, amid an extremely tense -almost conflictual- situation with Turkey, he emphasized that “We are not alone in this effort. […] this is not purely an issue of Greek-Turkish relations. It concerns the relations of all of Europe with Turkey.”

In late 2020, the European Council urged Turkey not to repeat “unilateral actions and provocations” against the sovereign rights of Greece and Cyprus, clearly backing EU member states’ claims.

Mitsotakis’s assertive foreign policy towards Turkey and Erdogan’s changed rhetoric towards Greece were evident in April 2021. Mitsotakis claimed domestic gains for the verbal tension between the Greek and the Turkish Foreign Ministers during the Greek Foreign Minister’s trip to Ankara. However, the war of words did not prohibit the two sides from promoting a positive agenda during Cavusoglu’s visit to Greece in May.

Overall, Mitsotakis does not aim to disrupt Greek-Turkish relations. He aims to strengthen Greece’s profile geopolitically and claim (electoral) gains in the polls in 2023.

What is Erdogan doing?

Answer: Manoeuvring in the domestic and international arena.

Erdogan acknowledging the historical low point that the EU-Turkey relations reached in late 2020 has changed his confrontational foreign policy profoundly. The report released by Josep Borrell in March 2021 crystalised the EU’s decision to impose economic sanctions should Turkey act against its interests and its member states. The change, of course, could also be attributed to the change in the new US administration. The NATO Summit was the first time that Erdogan and Biden met in person as heads of state.

Erdogan understood that during the current timing, any dispute with Greece would be unproductive to his interests. After all, Turkey is an ally in NATO, an EU candidate country and part of a Customs Union. The economic interdependence is apparent. Thus, a period of ease would benefit Erdogan’s status.

Hence, during the NATO Summit in Brussels, Erdogan stressed Turkey’s contribution to the “security and stability of Trans-Atlantic area”, while he overlooked the recent tensions. He positioned himself as a strong, reconciliatory leader and framed Turkey as an indispensable partner in the Alliance’s fight against terrorism. Erdogan’s past conflictual nationalist narrative that aimed to strengthen his position domestically turned into an appeasing (or even victorious) rhetoric of NATO cooperation. Turkey under Erdogan leads NATO against terrorist organisations.

It is evident that the turn in Erdogan’s foreign policy was the result of external pressure. However, Erdogan still manoeuvres (arguably) successfully in the domestic and international arena. He managed to tone down his rhetoric against Greece and positioned himself as an integral part of NATO, while at the same time (trying to) gain popularity domestically due to the “lack of support and solidarity from allies and partners” in his fight against terrorism.

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: There is no winner, but a period of stability lies ahead.

There is no winner in the Erdogan-Mitsotakis relationship because it does not unfold in a vacuum. EU and NATO partners have managed to keep the (hazardous) balances in 2020. Even though the EU seemingly backed its member states (i.e., Greece and Cyprus) over their claims in Eastern Mediterranean, every country has its own stakes with Erdogan. For instance, Germany, over the past years, has pursued a more quiescent and ready to reconcile attitude with Erdogan. This is possibly due to the large Turkish diaspora within its borders and for the sake of the ‘survival’ of the EU-Turkey deal that keeps almost 4 million refugees away from EU soil.

Even though Mitsotakis appears confident that an assertive foreign policy yielded results, he should not rush to celebrate. Both leaders are driven by the desire to strengthen their status both domestically and internationally. There is no honest appetite to work out differences.

However, progress could be made. Given the dangerous state of the Turkey-Greece relationships of the past year, even agreeing to disagree is a move towards a ‘positive agenda’. Sitting at the negotiation table is significant progress for the two frenemies.