Multiplicity of borders hampers Greek effort to be full part of Europe
Greece Letter: Athens contends with Turkish friction as Erdogan reinforces his leadership
Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras: when he visited Kastelorizo, a tiny Greek island to which Turkey is laying claim, his helicopter was buzzed by Turkish warplanes. Photograph: Alkis Konstantinidis
In Dead Lagoon, set in Venice, Belfast-born novelist Michael Dibdin has a character who declares “The new Europe will be full of frontiers, both physical and ideological, and they will be rigorously patrolled.” In the age of Brexit, the fate of the Irish Border is only one of the many lines, visible and invisible, that are making themselves obvious.
One invisible border is that between Greek and Turkish airspace. When Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras visited Kastelorizo, a tiny Greek island to which Turkey is currently laying claim, his helicopter was buzzed by Turkish warplanes. It is a recent example of the rising tension between the two countries, fuelled by frequent deliberately provocative incursions of Turkish fighter planes into Greek airspace. A mid-air collision is a disaster waiting to happen. But there are other border collisions, “both physical and ideological” that will be far more disastrous.
As Dibdin’s character predicted, borders are everywhere. Whether it is the line between Greece and Macedonia, or the Hungarian border that refuses Syrian refugees trying to cross from Croatia, or that uncanny no-man’s-land in Karelia between Finland and Russia, they are all lines that separate one nation state from another, one state of mind from another, one set of aspirations from another.
As recently as 1999, Greece and Turkey were on the brink of war over the islands which, Turkey claims, lie on the Turkish continental shelf. On his state visit to Greece last December, Turkish president Recip Erdogan actually demanded the revision of three international treaties which allocated Aegean territories after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
This is part of his plan to ensure his success in next month’s elections, because he needs to close his fist even more firmly on power in the face of growing condemnation of Turkey’s record on human rights, judicial procedures and democratic structures.
Erdogan has shown that the only way he can reinforce his position as “father of the nation” is by creating international mayhem, imprisoning over 70,000 of his “children” (245 of them journalists) and outlawing their activities. He can point to a growth rate of 7.4 per cent in Turkey’s economy. He controls 90 per cent of Turkish media and, since the referendum of 2017 (which he won only narrowly), his position as an executive president, if he is re-elected, will supervene that of parliament.
Erdogan’s recent gambits, all of which are worrying the Greeks, have included his encouragement for ethnic Albanian minorities in Kosovo, Macedonia and Bulgaria to think of themselves as part of a Muslim brotherhood. Rather than the borders agreed by international treaty, Erdogan prefers to speak of “the borders of our hearts” as an inclusive gesture towards a sense of Muslim destiny with himself as hegemon.
When expansionist Turkish nationalism meets a Greek nationalism that is clinging to history for a sense of cohesion, there is little room for diplomacy. Merely hurling reciprocal insults instead of rhetoric, as the Greek and Turkish governments currently do on a daily basis, is not merely undiplomatic but lacking in statesmanship.
Erdogan is also using northeastern Greece (with a large Muslim minority) as leverage. Not only has the short sea crossing from Turkey to Greek islands such as Lesbos become highly political, but now the river Evros, the land border between Greece and Turkey, is at stake, as Erdogan turns his back on his undertaking to the EU to curb the tide of migrants, and turns instead to irredentist gestures as an election tool.
Complex vs confused
If Turkey moved to occupy Greek islands in the eastern Aegean, could Greece rely on those treaties of 1923, 1932 and 1947? Would international law, which continues to allow the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus, prevail? Both sides are looking sheepishly to the USA, Nato and Russia for guidance if not protection. That is a measure of how confused the situation has become. Not complex, but confused.
Dibdin’s character also predicts “The European centre cannot hold. The periphery is where the action is. In the new Europe, the periphery is the centre.” A look at the Balkan and Baltic states shows how wrong he was. Except, of course, that these member states and candidates are today almost at war with the centre.
One of Athens’s leading journalists, Nikos Konstandaras, urges Greece to take part in the intense deliberations on the future of Europe, as did President Michael D Higgins when he was here in February. But Greece’s struggle to be part of Europe is hampered because it must constantly look over its eastern shoulder not only at Turkey but also the whole Middle East.
“Identity” is a fragile concept at the best of times. When it is confronted with borders with six neighbouring countries (Italy, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Cyprus) with issues of language, ethnicity, religion, political affiliations and natural resources, the fragility is frightening. Not only is the idea of a united, multicultural Europe receding at the speed of fear, but on its eastern edges Europe is crumbling too.