International court may be ‘only path forward’ for Greece and Turkey
Taking recourse to the International Court of Justice in The Hague may not be the ideal solution for either side, but it may be the only viable way forward to a better future in Greek-Turkish relations, Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, director of the German Marshall Fund (GMF) office in Ankara, told Greek daily Kathimerini ahead of his planned appearance at the Delphi Economic Forum on May 10-14.
Ünlühisarcıklı stresses that the good times in the history of Greek-Turkish relations have been outnumbered by periods of tension, while adding that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “wants to find common ground with the United States, but not at any cost.”
Turkey used to be an important pillar of stability on NATO’s southeastern flank and an important ally for the Western security system. What happened?
A number of things changed. The United States’ withdrawal from the Middle East created a power vacuum which actors such as Turkey, Russia, Iran and the Gulf countries rushed to fill. While Turkey used to have a status quo position in the Middle East in the past decades, it took a transformation stance particularly with the beginning of the Arab uprisings. Turkey’s decision makers made a miscalculation and increased their support to various Muslim Brotherhood denominations and other Islamist groups which increased tensions with countries such as Israel, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. While President Trump favoured an Israeli-Saudi axis to contain Iran, Turkey saw this as an anti-Turkey axis as well as being an anti-Iran axis, which hardened Turkey’s policies toward this country. Coincidentally, Turkey’s relations with the United States and the European Union also deteriorated during this period. All of these factors added up to Turkey’s diplomatic isolation in its region and beyond, which meant that Turkey could no longer rely on diplomacy to protect what it perceives as its interests and rights. This led Turkey to preferring coercive diplomacy, causing concerns in the West and in its region.
Do you believe that what might be described as Turkey’s path toward Islamisation is irreversible?
As Turkey’s hard-line secularists have failed in creating a non-religious society, there are already indicators that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) may be failing in its conservative-Muslim society project. Turkey has a diverse, dynamic and young society, which is not easy to mould into a certain shape. Despite severe emotional polarisation, there is a trend towards “hybrid individuals” integrating conservative and secular aspects in their lifestyle, particularly among younger generations. Young women with headscarves are becoming increasingly visible at anti-government protests. The cooperation of opposition parties from various ideological backgrounds may also contribute to this process.
While the Turkish government is taking a very particular path, it is evident that there is still a strong civil society within Turkey. But does it resonate in the day-to-day agenda?
There are certain segments of Turkish civil society that are having a big impact despite the political climate and restrictions on civil liberties. The feminist movement is one of them. As the government entertained the idea of withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention, they managed to create high awareness on the subject, making this move difficult for the government. On the other hand, Turkey is also a traumatised society, not least due to the three decades of terrorist campaigns by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the more recent coup attempt in July 15, 2016 making it possible for the government to justify pressure on civil society and media, making it difficult for them to be effective on human rights issues.
Do you believe that Erdoğan is really interested in finding common ground with the United States, or has Turkey taken a totally different trajectory?
Erdoğan definitely wants to find common ground with the United States, but not at any cost. While there are core problems between the two allies, the S-400 crisis seems to be a make-or-break case. Turkey has been giving signals of flexibility on this issue since Biden was elected, but the United States and Turkey will need a lot of good will and creativity to find a solution to this problem.
The EU Council meeting in March will address Turkey. Is there space for a Turkish return to cooperating and – at some point – integrating with Europe, or has this dream ended for good?
Turkey and the EU are irreversibly integrated already. While Turkey is an important part of the industrial value chains of several EU member-states, the EU is Turkey’s most important export market and the single most important source of FDI. Cooperation on migration management is crucial for both sides, and millions of Turkish families in several EU member-states means that Turkey is a domestic political issue for them. Turkey’s full membership of the EU is becoming less likely day by day, which necessitates a new framework for the relationship that does not exclude the perspective of full membership in the long run but makes it easier to deal with current issues.
Turkish-Greek relations have taken a very bad turn. Do you believe they could worsen or is there room for improvement?
Except for brief periods of constructive relations and cooperation, such as the honeymoon period led by Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Greek statesman Eleftherios Venizelos during the 1920s and 1930s, and the tea diplomacy between Turkey’s former foreign minister Ismail Cem and Greece’s former prime minister Georgios Papandreou, Turkey-Greece relations have been in crisis more often than not. Particularly since the Cyprus War, the brinkmanship over the Aegean has continued uninterruptedly with ups and downs sometimes bringing the two countries to the brink of war, such as during the Imia-Kardak crisis in 1996. But all of these crises de-escalated thanks to third-party intervention and mediation (US and Europe). I think this pattern will continue in the near future. Very strong political will on both sides is necessary for a real improvement regarding the disputes between Turkey and Greece, which is not likely for electoral reasons on both sides. Therefore, although suboptimal for both parties, the International Court of Justice may be the only path forward if there is at least an agreement on the set of disputes between the two countries.
(A version of this interview was originally published on Kathimerini, reprinted with permission.)