Greece Letter: Athens and Ankara dispute impervious to UN efforts

The line in the sand that divides Cyprus finds reflection in wider hostility over islets

The predictable collapse of last month's Cyprus peace talks underlines the fragility of borders and identities in the entire Balkan-Levant region. The intransigence of Turkey, Turkish Cypriots, Greek Cypriots and Greece itself on almost all issues bedevils the attempts by the United Nations to resolve the dispute, caused by the Turkish invasion of the island in 1974.

More countries exist by virtue of international treaties than any other means of evolution. An arbitrary line in the sand can define the fate of millions, creating cultural contours that defy political boundaries. The "peace wall" through the centre of Nicosia, like that in Belfast, is proof of that.

The modern state of Greece evolved over the past two centuries with consequences that are disturbingly evident today. The original country in 1830 merely reflected the art of the possible: what it had been able to achieve in the war of independence against the Ottoman (Turkish) empire. In 1864, it acquired the United States of the Ionian Islands (with Corfu as their capital). Further international treaties and developments in the 1870s gave Greece valuable extra territory to the north. But it was only with the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 that today's troubles began.

With the impending break-up of the Ottoman empire in 1913 Greece acquired the northern city of Thessaloniki and the island of Crete. After the second World War, it was awarded the Dodecanese islands. So islands like Rhodes, Kos and Patmos, so familiar to holidaymakers as essentially Greek islands, have in fact been part of Greece only for the past 70 years.


Leaving aside the economic crises, the tragedy of modern Greece is that, in the 1950s, Cyprus (then under British administration) failed in its battle to join the state of Greece. It gained its independence, but the 1974 illegal Turkish invasion, ostensibly to protect the many Turkish people living there, precipitated the ongoing crisis. Today, Cyprus, despite being a full EU member, is a bitterly divided island.

The US ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt, recently said, "I always talk about a three-circle Venn diagram that has, in one circle, North Africa and the Maghreb, in another circle the eastern Mediterranean, 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." This view emphasises Greece's centrality to the entire region, and America's interest in it.

In all of Greece's foreign policy, one factor is ineradicable: Turkey. The self-styled "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" and Turkey's irredentist claims on the Dodecanese and other Aegean islands, create permanent tensions in the region which have twice brought the two countries to the brink of war (in 1987 and 1996). Recently, Turkish president Recep Erdogan has attempted to repudiate the international treaty (to which Turkey was a party) which defined the current boundaries. His motive? To regain control of the mostly uninhabited islets which sit on massive oil and gas deposits.

Turkish warplanes

In retaliation, the Greeks have announced plans for the unspecified “development” of many of these islets. This kind of diplomatic escalation is underpinned by constant flights of Turkish warplanes over Greek air space, which constitute a disaster waiting to happen, as Greek fighters take to the air to see off these invaders.

It is not only the Dodecanese islands. “Dodecanese” means “12 islands” but they in fact number more than 30, many of which are very small and uninhabited. But Turkey also disputes other islands which have been in the news over the past two years: Lesbos, Chios and Samos, today a halting-place for thousands of refugees.

The Macedonian dispute also exacerbates Greece's international relations. Greece regularly vetoes the adoption of the name "Macedonia" by its neighbour "Fyrom" (the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), because it sees Macedonia as the spiritual homeland of Hellenism. Again, the United Nations has been trying, and failing, to resolve this issue for decades.

The disputes over the Aegean islands would be laughable if they were not so serious. As Hamlet observed, two armies were going to war over a tiny piece of land “whereon the numbers cannot try the cause”. This is particularly true of islets like Thasos (the site of the 1987 dispute), Imia and Kardak (1996) or, today, Ikaria and Castellorizo. If oil had not been discovered in these areas, Turkey would not be so keen to extend its sea boundaries and, more importantly, its continental shelf.

So well-meaning attempts at international peace starting almost a century ago are today providing a showcase for two implacable enemies with yet further cause for hostility.