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Turkey and Greece ratchet up tension in the Mediterranean

WHEN Recep Tayyip Erdogan travelled to Greece late last year, the first such trip by a Turkish president in more than six decades, hopes surfaced that he and his hosts might hammer out a formula to reduce tensions. The past couple of months have disappointed the optimists. Rather than coming to grips with old grievances, Turkey and Greece are creating new ones instead—in the skies and in the seas.

On March 27th a Turkish court denied bail to two Greek soldiers arrested weeks earlier after crossing the border with Turkey. The soldiers say they strayed into Turkish territory because of thick snow and fog. Turkish prosecutors have charged them with espionage: Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, compared Mr Erdogan to a sultan and accused him of turning the men into hostages. Turkey has repeatedly leaned on Greece to extradite eight Turkish soldiers who fled across the Aegean after a botched coup in 2016.

With help from rabble-rousers on both sides, disputes over airspace and maritime borders, which have poisoned relations between Greece and Turkey for decades, are doing so again. A row over a pair of uninhabited islands in the Aegean, which nearly caused the two NATO allies to go to war in the 1990s, flared up in February when a Turkish ship touring the area collided with a Greek vessel. More recently, Greek fighter jets intercepted a Turkish drone hovering above Rhodes. The accompanying polemics have not helped. Turkey’s prime minister has warned the Greeks to stop “pretending to be pirates”. Mr Erdogan, eager to sustain a nationalist frenzy ahead of elections scheduled for next year, invoked a Turkish victory over an invading Greek army in 1922. On April 4th the Greek defence minister said his country would “crush” any Turkish incursion and announced the deployment of 7,000 additional troops to the border.

The discovery of natural-gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, once hailed as a key to peace in the region, has raised the stakes, pitting Turkey against a number of countries in addition to Greece. Turkey has already disrupted plans by Cyprus to develop some of its offshore fields. Earlier this year, its warships blocked a rig owned by an Italian energy company from drilling for gas east of the island, which is divided between the internationally recognised Greek-Cypriot south and a breakaway Turkish-occupied north. (Turkey, the only UN country not to recognise Cyprus, does not acknowledge its maritime borders.) Turkey has also clashed with Egypt, which recently agreed to develop some gasfields in co-operation with Cyprus.

Plans to build a pipeline delivering Israeli and Cypriot gas to Greece, already under commercial scrutiny, now face rising geopolitical tensions, says Matt Bryza, a former White House official. A project connecting Israel with Turkey is also on ice, with the two governments at odds over the situation in Gaza and the status of Jerusalem. (At present, Israel seems more likely to export its offshore gas to Jordan and through Egypt.) Turkey’s gunboat diplomacy is deepening its isolation. “There’s a new axis emerging between Egypt, Israel, Cyprus and Greece to confront Turkey, which they believe is breaching international law,” says Mehmet Ogutcu, an energy expert. “Turkey feels there is a conspiracy to cut it off from the Mediterranean.” A violent confrontation at sea, by accident or design, may only be a matter of time.

Πηγή: Economist

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