Greece feels the squeeze as history closes in all around it

Greece Letter: Nation occupies a tight spot at the heart of a geopolitical Venn diagram

Last year Greeks celebrated the bicentenary of the start of their war of independence from the Ottoman empire, in 1821. This year, they commemorate a very different event: the centenary of Greece’s ignominious military defeat in Anatolia (western Turkey). Both types of memory – the joyful and the mournful – have repercussions today.

The 1821 war was only the start. Greece extended its borders by means of wars and international treaties until it reached its final shape in 1947 with the acquisition of the Dodecanese islands (capital: Rhodes). Almost all its gains were at the expense of Turkey and at the discretion of the "great powers".

Some treaties command less agreement than others, as we know from the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and, indeed, the Belfast Agreement of 1998. The Treaty of Sèvres (1920), which effectively dismantled the residue of the Ottoman empire, provisionally allocated western Turkey (Anatolia) to Greece.

The past 200 years have seen permanent tension, distrust and aggression between Greece and Turkey. History repeats itself

In 1921 Greece invaded, and almost captured Constantinople (Istanbul). But the treaty had ignited Turkish nationalism and the upcoming Kemal Ataturk led the Turkish army in 1922 to repulse the Greeks. The largely Greek city of Smyrna (today Izmir) was destroyed and 1.5 million ethnic Greeks were expelled from Anatolia to the Greek islands and mainland, with social and political consequences still felt today.

Thus the past 200 years have seen permanent tension, distrust and aggression between Greece and Turkey. History repeats itself – even in its personnel. The central figure of Greek politics 1910-1935 was Eleutherios Venizelos, a devious, charismatic and deeply divisive character, whose great-great-nephew Kyriakos Mitsotakis is the current prime minister, who lacks his ancestor's charisma and acumen.

Although Venizelos wasn't in office at the time of the "Anatolian Catastrophe", his fingerprints were all over it. Today, Mitsotakis points the Greek finger at Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan for creating a casus belli with Greece by demanding the return of some of the islands it acquired in the period 1913-1947.

No great powers

Greece is no longer protected by the "great powers". Although recent American and French military alliances with Greece are indicative of the geopolitical significance of the region, Greece cannot rely on military support in the event of a conflict, which seems likely even though Greece and Turkey are both Nato members. The US's interest in its new installations near the Greek-Turkish border (which upset Turkey so much) are not for Greece's benefit, but to monitor Russian activity in the region.

The issues are not entirely clear-cut, Christian/Muslim, Greece/Turkey. The entire Balkan and Levantine regions are in such geopolitical upheaval that they are no less volatile now than in previous centuries. We have only to look at the Yugoslav wars of 1991-2001 to realise that.

Greece's foreign minister has repeatedly emphasised that "the days of the Ottoman empire are over" – a clear rebuttal of Turkey's expansionist policies

An example is Bosnia-Herzegovina, which Athens-based journalist Stavros Tzimas described as a "cobbled-together state teetering on the brink of collapse, threatening the territorial equilibrium of the Balkans".

Nikos Dendias, Greece's foreign minister, has been on a year-long diplomatic charm offensive in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, forging relationships with Israel, Egypt and Greece's Balkan neighbours. He has repeatedly emphasised that "the days of the Ottoman empire are over" – a clear rebuttal of Turkey's expansionist policies. This is the first time, as far as I am aware, that a Greek foreign minister has drawn a historical analogy that points so emphatically to Erdogan's external ambitions.

Yet in attempting to re-establish an Islamic hegemony in southeast Europe, Erdogan is only following the ubiquitous notion of "Make (insert the name of your country) Great Again".

‘Can’t get worse’

When asked by Kathimerini newspaper if he thought Erdogan should be replaced, Bob Menendez, chairman of the US Senate foreign relations committee, said: "One could hope so. For my own personal view, it can't get worse than President Erdogan. It certainly would be hopeful if there was a new leadership in Turkey". A view shared by most Greeks and, one suspects, a majority of Turks.

But the wish to see the end of Erdogan is not only political: his dogged pursuit of risky economic policies could precipitate a financial crisis in Turkey and beyond. "Post-Erdogan," says Tim Ash, an asset manager in London, "a decent central bank governor" could turn the sinking Turkish lira around. At present, rampant inflation is pushing both the exchequer and people's living standards towards disaster and may well trigger Erdogan's defeat at the June elections.

Greece's "Venntrality" between east and west, with connections throughout the Balkans and the Levant, has historically decided its fate

The about-to-retire US ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt, has referred to "a three-circle Venn diagram that has, in one circle, North Africa, in another circle the eastern Mediterranean and Syria, and then, in a third circle, the Black Sea region, a more aggressive and expansive Russia. The place where that Venn diagram comes together is in Greece".

Greece’s “Venntrality” between east and west, with connections throughout the Balkans and the Levant, has historically decided its fate in the conversations of the controlling powers. And history is happening today.

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