The arrest and detention of the two Greek soldiers that have mistakenly entered Turkish soil on March 1 have been testing the bilateral relations of the two NATO allies, making an already distrustful Greek public more worried of Turkey’s politics.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded in his Sunday speech in Sakarya with offensive comments to Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos’ earlier calls for Turkey to respect the international law, the Lausanne Treaty and the Law of the Sea. Just a few days earlier, Greek Defense Minister Panagiotis Kammenos, in an interview to the French Liberation, has added to the suspense by stating that “Greece is very close to a mortal accident with Turkey,” and by referring to the two Greek servicemen as “hostages of the Turkish state,” a phrase he repeated the next day, despite Greek alternate Foreign Minister Georgios Katrougalos distancing himself from his colleague’s statement.
The Greek public is faced with internal and external uncertainty. On the one hand, Turkey’s overreaction to a common mistake for servicemen from both countries during the harsh winter conditions that should have ended within a few hours; and for the conspiracy theorists, Erdogan’s possible opportunity to escalate the tension with Greece to show his displeasure with the U.S. On the other hand, a Greek government reaction plagued with lack of coherence amongst its members.
The Greek-Turkish relations have been under significant strain in the last month, after the ramming of a Greek patrol boat by a Turkish coast guard vessel at Imia, and also due to Turkey’s interference on Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Ankara’s foreign policy is exposed and under pressure in multiple levels whereas the Greek public’s image of Turkey is defined by these latest bilateral incidents, by Turkey’s problematic relations to the E.U. and the U.S., by Erdogan’s charged domestic political agenda and his autocratic rule, by the Afrin invasion and the refugee crisis.
For many Greeks, Turkey is acting as a revisionist state in the area of the Aegean and the East Mediterranean Sea, a view shared by the conservative right and the far-right political parties and one that has been widely projected lately in several Greek media outlets.
There are further sources of uncertainty in domestic politics. Within the Greek coalition government, there is a clear difference of opinion on the issue that is defined by the two conflicting political parties. SYRIZA (Radical left coalition) views the issue as non-related to the eight Turkish military officers that have requested political asylum from Greece and has adopted a milder rhetoric and an appeasement strategy, stressing on the need for respect to international law, while seeking E.U. and NATO support.
The leader of the ANEL (Independent Greeks), P. Kammenos, on the other hand, addressing a conservative right audience, has been substantially more vocal whenever there are national issues involved. By mid-January, he clearly distanced himself from the prime minister’s approach to the name dispute between Greece and FYROM and he was adamant about refusing the use of the word “Macedonia” in any form. In the Greek servicemen case, he has adopted a rather inflammatory stance as compared to the low profile of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Foreign Minister N. Kotzias. However, Mr. Kammenos insists that he will not cause a rift in the government.
In the meantime, the main opposition party, Nea Dimokratia, has been accusing the government of being divided over the issue of the two servicemen and of handling the national issues in an irresponsible and frivolous way.
Overall, the Greek public is worried. What looks like an undue Turkish reaction towards the two Greek servicemen is addressed in an inconsistent way by the Greek government. An issue that should have been resolved there and then, could evolve to a Lernean Hydra in bilateral relations, where Erdogan’s recklessness and the Greek government’s inefficiency, instead of solving the matter, could cause further problems, increase tension and escalate into a bilateral crisis.
As the 25th of March approaches, a day that carries significant sentimental value for the Greek people since it marks the anniversary of the Greek war of independence against the Ottoman Empire, it would be wise for the issue to be resolved sooner rather than later, to avoid any chance for the situation to deteriorate.