Deutsche Welle: Mr. Seufert, there is no de-escalation in the relationship between Greece and Turkey. How seriously should one take the questioning of Greek territorial sovereignty in the Aegean by members of the Turkish government?
Günther Seufert: In the medium term, the questioning of the sovereignty of large Greek Aegean islands should be taken seriously, because we have a position here that is shared by both the Turkish government and the opposition. In the short term, however, I don’t see any major risk of escalation at the moment. Turkey is currently trying to smooth things over with the other countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean, and an escalation on the islands would be counterproductive.
Turkey has restarted mineral exploration drilling in the south-eastern Mediterranean. Although the ship Abdülhamid Han is currently moving in Turkish territorial waters, there is concern. Is that a war threat?
Drilling in Greece’s exclusive economic zones would undoubtedly be a provocation, even if it does not directly threaten Greece’s sovereignty. In 2020, Turkey drilled in the Republic of Cyprus exclusive economic zones and challenged Greece’s exclusive economic zone near Crete. The Republic of Cyprus, Greece and also the neighboring countries in the EU have meanwhile become more and more used to the fact that Turkey creates facts here. This is very worrying in the medium and long term. However, I do not believe that a war could result from this at the moment.
Turkish President Erdogan in front of the drilling ship Abdülhamid Han in the port of Tasucu on August 9, 2022
Believe that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan really wants an escalation with Greece or Cyprus? Or is this just a domestic political show?
In any case, it is of great importance for domestic politics. The more determined the government is, the more public acclaim it will receive in Turkey, and the opposition does not really have a dissenting opinion on this issue. It is interesting that Turkey has accepted Greece’s militarization of the Aegean islands for decades and now very suddenly made it an issue. In 2020 there was not much talk about it, but everything revolved around Cyprus and the exclusive economic zones. I therefore do not believe that Turkey will actually escalate here.
The case of Cyprus is different. There we see that since the election of Ersin Tatar as “President” in northern Cyprus a longer-term strategy is implemented step by step. If Erdogan stays in power, relations with Europe don’t improve and the economic pressure on Turkey eases, I expect that the Turkish government will persuade one or the other state to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, and thus the final one achieve partition of Cyprus.
Almost all islands directly off the Turkish Aegean coast belong to Greece
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock took a clear position in favor of Greece during her visit to Athens a few weeks ago, saying that Greek sovereignty in the Aegean is undeniable. How do you rate that?
Two developments have come together here: a green foreign minister and Turkey’s escalation policy with regard to the Greek Aegean islands. The Greens had announced in their election program that they would pursue a more principled policy towards Turkey and pay more attention to human rights and the rule of law. In 2020, the dispute between Greece, the Republic of Cyprus and Turkey was about exclusive economic zones. Since all parties have maximalist positions on this issue, it was not difficult for Germany to pursue a balanced policy. When it comes to the status of the Greek islands, however, there is little to debate. On this issue, foreign ministers of European countries can only point out that the islands’ belonging to Greece should of course not be called into question.
Has German policy towards Turkey changed in general?
The interests have not changed significantly. The federal government still has a great interest in good relations with Turkey. The two countries are very closely intertwined economically, socially and politically. Probably neither Germany nor Turkey have as diverse relationships with any other country as with each other. What has changed is a new foreign minister who comes from a different party with different priorities. At the same time, the domestic political situation in Turkey has deteriorated, and democracy and human rights are in even worse shape than before. In addition, Turkey is making preparations for another campaign in northern Syria.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and her Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on July 30, 2022 in Istanbul
Is Germany making mistakes in dealing with the dispute between Greece and Turkey?
I don’t think the federal government’s stance in the past has been a huge mistake. Of course, one can argue about the delivery of submarine components.
This is a very controversial topic, both in Germany and in Greece. Will Ankara still get the German submarine components?
I assume that the components for the submarines will also be delivered. That is a decision of the old federal government. And I don’t see any movement in Germany at the moment to reverse this decision.
Are Greece and Cyprus making mistakes in dealing with Turkey?
Greece may propose reducing its military presence in the Aegean islands if Turkey simultaneously downsizes its Aegean army and changes its aggressive rhetoric. It’s about building trust. In my opinion, the Republic of Cyprus made two mistakes: it lost its trust with the Turkish Cypriots, so that they turned to Ankara. And it blocked Turkey’s EU accession process for too long. Now that Turkey no longer wants to join, the EU no longer has much leverage over Ankara.
Günther Seufert, born in 1955, studied sociology, is the author of numerous books and publications on Turkey and head of the Center for Applied Turkish Studies (CATS) at the Berlin Foundation for Science and Politics (SWP).