Earthquake diplomacy 2.0 New dawn for Turkish-Greek relations?
A sense of profound sympathy and empathy prevails: "In suffering, we are all Turks," as one commentator for the Athens newspaper Ta Nea said of the collective feeling in Greece following the once-in-a-century disaster suffered by its neighbour. The comment might not be backed up by any opinion polls, but it certainly reflects the mood of public (and published) opinion.
There is much talk these days of a "community of fate" between Greece and Turkey; their geography and proximity bind the two nations together forever, and – as a consequence – force them into peaceful coexistence.
Sentimental views are, at least temporarily, displacing the profound differences that divide Athens and Ankara, which in years gone by have led to ongoing tensions and, more than once, to the brink of war.
The huge earthquake has created a new situation. And this applies in the political arena, too. The Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis took the initiative, picking up the phone before the dust had even settled in Eastern Turkey to express his sympathy to Turkey’s President Erdogan "in the name of all Greeks". "The hour has come for us to lay aside our differences for a time," says Mitsotakis. "We have political differences, but nothing separates us from the Turks."
Earthquake forces a rethink
In itself, the conversation could be regarded as a diplomatic sensation: Turkish-Greek relations have been at rock bottom for months. There is – or, we should now say, was – radio silence between Athens and Ankara. The closer the date for the Turkish elections came, the more poisonous the anti-Greek rhetoric in Ankara grew.
As recent days have shown, the earthquake has forced Turkey to make some adjustments to its foreign policy. And the Greek-Turkish relationship, which has often seen the two countries dubbed arch-enemies, might well profit from this.
There was more than just one phone call on the Monday of the natural disaster (06/02): following the head of the Greek government’s call, the country’s president Katerina Sakellaropoulou also got in touch with Erdogan. A little later, the Greek foreign minister Nikos Dendias called his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusolglu. The message was identical in each case: sympathy and solidarity!
This intensity of bilateral communication at the highest level between Athens and Ankara is a rare thing indeed. The calls also had a German dimension: the conversations were coordinated by the Greek diplomat Anna Maria Boura, as the Greek press reported.
It was on Berlin’s initiative that Boura, a close colleague of the head of government in Athens, recently sat down behind the scenes with Erdogan’s right-hand man Ibrahim Kalin. After months of standstill, both sides agreed to resume bilateral communications. The earthquake has suddenly given this project new impetus.
Rescue team from Greece
Verbal expressions of solidarity were not all that was offered. A rescue team from Greece was one of the first to arrive in the area of Eastern Turkey hit by the earthquake. Greek military cargo planes are meanwhile transporting urgently needed aid into the country. Coverage of the catastrophic earthquake dominates the Greek media, with much space being given to the deployment of special units for disaster management (EMAK). Reports celebrate each successful rescue as a victory of life over death – and as proof of the bond between the two nations.
The Turkish media is joining the chorus of fraternal feeling: "Our neighbour shares our pain" proclaims the Yeni Safak newspaper. The paper points out that Greek state TV is underscoring its reports on the disaster with Turkish music, a stylistic device that other media outlets from Crete to Kavala have also been making use of since the earthquake.
Sunday’s (12/02) visit to the disaster area by the Greek foreign minister Nikos Dendias was a dramatic political statement, and the first visit by a minister from an EU member state. A rare scene played out at Adana airport, when the Greek politician and his Turkish host literally threw their arms around one another. Such demonstrative expressions of warmth are highly unusual in the Greek-Turkish context.
"Greece will do everything it can to help Turkey in difficult times, be it bilaterally, or through the European Union," was the message from the Greek minister. And Greece and Turkey are not the only places where there is broad approval for the two countries standing shoulder to shoulder. Berlin and Washington have both lauded this rapprochement in Turkey’s hour of need.
Amid applause from all sides, Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz praises the new developments in the Greek-Turkish relationship. "This is wonderful," the U.S. ambassador in Ankara tweeted, referring to Nikos Dendias’ and Mevlut Cavusolglu’s display of friendship at Adana airport.
A diplomatic thaw?
The situation brings back memories of 1999. In a short period of time, severe earthquakes hit first Western Turkey and then the Greek capital Athens. Greek rescuers initially rushed to Turkey, and soon afterwards Turkish rescue teams came to assist the Greeks.
The natural disasters on both sides of the Aegean brought about a phase of easing tensions in the bilateral relationship, which went down in the annals of Greek-Turkish relations as "earthquake diplomacy". Led by the foreign ministers Georgios Papandreou and Ismail Cem, Athens and Ankara very quickly signed 33 agreements and a series of confidence-building measures.
"Today, we are operating from an entirely different starting point," Georgios Papandreou says now. Some hints of a diplomatic thaw are starting to emerge – but in comparison to 1999, the political context is fundamentally different. In the late nineties, both sides had already begun talking prior to the natural disasters, laying the political groundwork for the easing of tensions.
A quarter of a century later, bilateral relations are in long-term crisis. First and foremost – and this may be the crucial difference – today’s Turkey is not the country it was in 1999. Under Erdogan, the distance between Turkey and Europe (and the West as a whole) has gradually grown. Turkey is by no means the only player responsible for this development.
The major earthquake offers an opportunity to shrink that gap once more. And Athens can play a central role in the process.
© Qantara.de 2023
Translated from the German by Ruth Martin