Greece Letter: Athens caught in the middle again by European crises

Turkey’s demand for extradition of alleged plotters creates a fresh dilemma for the Greeks, already being blamed by the EU for insufficiently strict border controls

Refugees  at a camp on the island of Chios, Greece, this month. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

Refugees at a camp on the island of Chios, Greece, this month. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

 

When is a coup not a coup? When it’s a cock-up. Or should that be a conspiracy? As every schoolboy knows, the first step is to isolate the president, then take control of television and radio, airports, key ministries and, if it seems worthwhile, parliament.

The fact that the alleged coup in Turkey on July 15th so pathetically failed on all fronts suggests that the perpetrators deserved to fail. But the greater question is whether President Erdogan deserves to succeed.

If the coup was genuine, how could it be so inept? If it was a charade choreographed by Erdogan to strengthen his already powerful hand, its transparency was such that “conspiracy” comes to mind before one can say “coup”. In fact, everything about the episode is alleged. Not proven. Merely alleged.

The Turkish ambassador to Greece stated unequivocally that “there is no doubt that [Fethullah] Gülen is behind the failed coup”. Gülen, until three years ago an associate of Erdogan, is the Islamic cleric living in Pennsylvania who has allegedly recruited 56,000 supporters into key positions in the judiciary, the civil service, the education system and the military.

If Gülen’s organisation within Turkey is so strong, how could it have failed, leaving the way open for Erdogan to arrest the vast majority of those 56,000 in the aftermath of the coup?

If Gülen was indeed responsible, he should apologise for being such a hopeless organiser. The irony is not that his coup defied democracy, but that Erdogan’s opponents could be eliminated only after they had been outclassed in a turf war they could not possibly win.

Symbolic gesture

It’s also possible that, like the 1916 Easter Rising, the coup was meant to fail, a symbolic gesture drawing attention to the strength of the Gülenists and provoking Erdogan’s over-hasty reaction.

The Turkish ambassador in Dublin alleges that “Turkey succeeded in stopping an existential threat not only to itself but to the stability of the wider region”, and condoned what critics are calling “post-coup purges and authoritarianism”. No one would could accuse Erdogan of authoritarianism, oh no. He’s a democrat, sure thing.

While Erdogan promises to take “legal measures to eliminate” Gülen’s personnel, the state of emergency in Turkey allows him to take extreme measures, including suppression of the media.

Greeks have discussed all of this for the past few weeks. The “coup” is of much greater concern to Greece than to the rest of the EU. Not because it was or was not genuine, but because it has exacerbated the tension between the two countries.

If, as Roger Cohen has said, the West supported Erdogan’s brand of democracy “through gritted teeth”, Greek teeth were extra-gritted, since the coup created immediate Greek-Turkish problems. Part of the dental gritting is due to the fact that eight Turkish army officers flew to Greece demanding asylum, followed more recently by five civilians. It is argued that Turkey’s demand for their extradition contravenes their human rights.

Not entitled to asylum

Greece doesn’t want to return the officers to Turkey, but if they were genuinely part of the alleged coup, then their intention to overthrow an allegedly democratic state means that they are not entitled to asylum. Extradition might send them to their deaths.

Meanwhile, as part of its deal with the EU on the refugee crisis, Turkey is demanding visa liberalisation, financial support and “controlled repatriation”, or it will recommence the flow of refugees into Greece. And Der Spiegel has disclosed that Germany – not the EU – has devised a new plan to curb the refugee influx, should the EU-Turkey deal fall through.

The plan includes greater financial pressure on Greece to co-operate. Once again, Greece is caught in the middle, and is judged permanently guilty for its porous borders.

If that situation deteriorates, Greece will once again face an influx of refugees. At present, of the 55,000 in Greece, it is reckoned that 41,000 are asylum seekers. Greece cannot contemplate repatriation until their applications have been assessed.

Worsening relations between Greece and Turkey would do nothing to help the much more long-term disputes between them: the Cypriot situation and the Turkish claim to the Greek islands in the eastern Aegean, some of them, such as Kastellorizo, a stone’s throw from the Turkish coast, and all of them sitting on huge gas and oil deposits.

In the wake of Brexit, the leaders of France, Italy and Germany have stressed security as the EU’s absolute priority, identifying border controls, anti-terrorist intelligence and common defence as essential to survival. Not a word about the economy, Greek, Irish or Portuguese.

Once again, fear of Islam produces a knee-jerk reaction. The “defence” of Europe in effect means the defence of Christian Europe.

Meanwhile, Athens, in a wise, historic and necessary move, has sanctioned the building of its first mosque.

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