Turkey, Greece Locked in War of Words Amid Tension Over Soldiers

Senior politicians from Turkey and Greece are locked in mutual recriminations and war of words as no solution appears in the offing over the situation of two Greek soldiers who are still in Turkish custody and Athens’ refusal to extradite eight Turkish soldiers sought by Ankara over their involvement in failed 2016 coup.

The downward spiral of relations seems to bound only to worsen after Greek defense minister last week boasted about sending 7,000 additional soldiers as reinforcements to the Greek islands and to the land border with Turkey.

His remarks and inflammatory rhetoric has put the Greek government in an awkward spot. However, there is a tangled background to the story of deployment of new Greek troops to borders with Turkey, while concerns over brewing tension are more palpable and aired on public display.

The ongoing dispute shows no signs of receding given its direct impact on the evolution of the course of domestic politics on both sides. And the coalition government in Athens appeared particularly upset over Turkey’s unflinching rejection to release two Greek soldiers who were detained by the Turkish security forces after inadvertently crossing the Turkish border before Easter.

“Human life and human freedom are not, and should not be, pawns to power games and blackmail,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said on Saturday.

“In the past, we returned Turkish soldiers who crossed a few meters into Greece while on patrol. I expect the Turkish president to do same,” he said in remarks to a Greek newspaper.

His comment sparked a counter-reaction from Ankara, with Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag stepping in to slam Tsipras over “trying to score political gains.” Speaking on Sunday, the Turkish politician has also rejected media reports suggesting that Turkey offered Greece a prisoner swap.

What Is Behind Deployment of Greek Soldiers at Border?

Turkey and Greece, two NATO allies, have traditionally had a fluctuating relationship tested by the trial of a number of unresolved thorny issues.

The contest over sovereignty on a number of uninhabited islets in the Aegean Sea, the vexing geopolitical and diplomatic conflict over ethnically divided Cyprus and failure of the subsequent U.N.-led international efforts,  and the persistence of mutual trust over other’s occasional military muscle-flexing in the Aegean Sea constituted major components of a strained relationship spanning decades.

After a tangible progress in bilateral relations harking back to the 2000s, the contemporary state of ties again plunged into a contentious one. While both countries found themselves on the same wavelength after a migration deal between Turkey and EU in March 2016 to stop the migrant influx, Ankara and Athens were again at loggerheads after eight Turkish military officers sought refuge in Greek islands.

To the dismay of authorities in Ankara, Greek Supreme Court blocked the extradition of the troops back to Turkey,  citing lack of fair trial and rampant reports of mistreatment and torture in Turkish prisons.

With more and more Turkish dissidents embark on a perilous journey en route to Greek islands and through Evros/Meritsa river, the issue of borders emerged as a flashpoint during meetings between Turkish and Greek officials.

Last week, Defense Minister Panos Kamnenos addressed Greek soldiers who carried out a military exercise in Greek islands and portrayed Turkey as a “provocative enemy.”

In a bragging tone, he said he approved sending 7,000 reinforcements to the islands and to the land border with Turkey.

According to Anthony Derisiotis, a lecturer on Turkish Foreign Policy at National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, the deployment of new troops has a history that is not directly related to the current tension between Turkey and Greece.

The defense minister, Derisiotis noted, presented the deployment as if he just made this decision due to Turkish politics towards Greece as of late, but it is not true.

“Greece has been trying to reshuffle and reorganize its armed forces for the past few years, in order to make them more efficient and -primarily- less expensive,” he told Gold Post Turkey

“So based on all this, there were military bases that were going to shut down, military units to merge, the military was supposed to get a bit smaller and much more professional and effective. As MoD, Kammenos (and also his predecessors during the financial crisis) did not actively push these reforms, until he was pressured by the Troika and Tsipras,” he added, expounding on the dynamics that drove the move to place additional forces across the borders with Turkey.

He underlined that the movement of the troops to Evros and to the islands was a decision taken one and half years ago, since the military units around Greece already suffered man shortage and there was no point to keep troops scattered around the country. Instead, he emphasized, there was realistically a need to man the military bases across the borders.

“This shift to a more professional army started before the crisis. Nea Dimokratia [New Democracy] wanted to reduce the compulsory military service,” he said.

Considerations of domestic politics also appear to be at play in driving the current predicament that is bedeviling ties.

The current Greek government, Derisiotis noted, is a coalition between a radical left party, SYRIZA, and a conservative right one. That is, he underscored, would seem an oxymoron but not uncommon or totally unprecedented.

According to him, the defense minister’s nationalist rhetoric is driven by political motivations to stir up the nationalist and conservative constituency to shore up his standing in next elections. Yet his bellicose discourse contradicts Prime Minister Tsipras, who, according to Derisiotis, intentionally keeps a low profile and tries to avoid entangled in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s game.

“Polls are showing that SYRIZA is falling behind Nea Dimokratia (conservative opposition party) while Independent Greeks, (Defense Minister Kammenos’ party) is nowhere near the threshold to enter the parliament,” he said, offering an analysis into the political configuration of Greece’s domestic landscape.

Same factors are on vivid display in Turkey’s political domain as well. During a visit to Athens,  a first of its kind by a head of state from Turkey in 65 years, President Erdogan invoked the Lausanne Treaty and floated the idea of revising borders designed by the international treaty that led to the foundation of modern Turkish Republic in 1923.

His proposal met with consternation and trepidation on the Greek side, with hosting president offering a swift rebuke in front of media. President Erdogan’s sporadic assailing of the Lausanne, according to critics, is aimed at arousing nationalist sentiment at home before critical presidential elections next year.

Despite the palpable acrimony and bickering on the surface, both countries maintain a working relationship to keep a fragile migration deal functioning and to keep a check on tension from spiraling out of control.

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