Elections approaching, Erdogan raises the heat again with Greece

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President and leader of the Justice and Development (AK) Party Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during his party’s group meeting at the Turkish Grand National Assembly (TGNA) in Ankara on October 19, 2022. (Photo: AFP)
A few days ago, at a closed dinner in Prague, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of Greece was addressing 44 European leaders when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey interrupted him and started a shouting match.اضافة اعلان

Before stalking from the room, Erdogan accused Mitsotakis of insincerity about settling disputes in the eastern Aegean and blasted the EU for siding with its members, Greece and Cyprus, according to a European diplomat and two senior European officials who were there.

While the others, flabbergasted and annoyed, finished their dinners, Erdogan fulminated at a news conference against Greece and threatened invasion.

“We may suddenly arrive one night,” he said. When a reporter asked if that meant he would attack Greece, the Turkish president said: “Actually you have understood.”

The outburst was only the latest from Erdogan. As he faces mounting political and economic difficulties before elections in the spring, he has been ramping up the threats against his NATO ally since the summer, using language normally left to military hawks and ultranationalists.

While few diplomats or analysts are predicting war, there is a growing sense among European diplomats that a politically threatened Erdogan is an increasingly dangerous one for his neighbors — and that accidents can happen.

Erdogan needs a crisis to buoy his shaky standing at home after nearly 20 years in power, a diplomat specializing in Turkey said, requesting anonymity. And if he is not provided one, the diplomat said, he may create one.

The rising tensions between Greece and Turkey, both NATO members, now threaten to add a difficult new dimension to Europe’s efforts to maintain its unity in the face of Russia’s war in Ukraine and its accumulating economic fallout.

Already, Erdogan has made himself a troublesome and unpredictable ally for his NATO partners. His economic challenges and desire to carve out a stable security sphere for Turkey in a tough neighborhood have pushed him ever closer to President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Erdogan has earned some shelter from open criticism by allies because of his efforts to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, especially in the deal to allow Ukrainian grain exports.

But he has refused to impose sanctions on Russia and continues to get Russian gas through the TurkStream pipeline, while asking Moscow to delay payment for energy.
While few diplomats or analysts are predicting war, there is a growing sense among European diplomats that a politically threatened Erdogan is an increasingly dangerous one for his neighbors — and that accidents can happen.
Recently, Erdogan met Putin in Kazakhstan, where they discussed using Turkey as an energy hub to export more Russian gas after the pipelines to Germany under the Baltic Sea have been damaged.

But it is the escalating rhetoric against Greece that is now drawing special attention.

Sinan Ulgen, the director of EDAM, an Istanbul-based research institution, said that of course there was an electoral aspect to Erdogan’s actions. But there were also deep-seated problems that foster chronic instability and dangerous tensions.

“Turkey and Greece have a set of unresolved bilateral disputes,” he said, “and this creates a favorable environment whenever a politician in Ankara or Athens wants to raise tensions.”

The two countries nearly went to war in the 1970s over energy exploration in the Aegean, in 1995-96 over disputed claims over an uninhabited rock formation in the eastern Mediterranean and in 2020, again over energy exploration in disputed waters.

“And now we’re at it again,” Ulgen said. “And why? Because of elections in Turkey and Greece.”

Mitsotakis is also in campaign mode, with elections expected next summer, damaged by a continuing scandal over spyware planted in the phones of opposition politicians and journalists. As in Turkey, nothing appeals to Greek patriotism more than a good spat with an old foe.

He has sought to appear firm without escalating. Confronted at the dinner in Prague, Mitsotakis retorted that leaders should solve problems and not create new ones, that he was prepared to discuss all issues but could not stay silent while Turkey threatened the sovereignty of Greek islands.

“No, Mr. Erdogan — no to bullying,” he said in a recent policy speech. He told reporters that he was open to talks with Erdogan despite the vitriol, saying he thought military conflict unlikely.

“I don’t believe this will ever happen,” he said. “And if, God forbid, it happened, Turkey would receive an absolutely devastating response.”

He was referring to Greek military abilities that have been significantly bolstered recently as part of expanded defense agreements with France and the US.

Mitsotakis has also taken advantage of American annoyance with Erdogan’s relations with Russia and his delay in approving NATO enlargement to Finland and Sweden to boost ties with Washington. In May, he was the first Greek prime minister to address Congress and urged lawmakers to reconsider arms sales to Turkey.

He has said Greece will buy F-35s, while Turkey, denied F-35s because of its purchase of a Russian air defense system, is still pressing to get more F-16s and modernization kits, using NATO enlargement as leverage.

But Erdogan is facing considerable problems at home, making tensions with Greece an easy and traditional way to divert attention and rally support.

He is presiding over a disastrous economy, with inflation running officially at 83 percent a year — but most likely higher — and the currency depreciating. Turkish gross domestic product per capita, a measure of wealth, has dropped to about $7,500 from more than $12,600 in 2013, based on Turkey’s real population, which now includes some 4 million Syrian refugees, according to Bilge Yilmaz, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Erdogan has kept cutting interest rates against conventional economic advice.

“We need to reverse monetary policy,” said Yilmaz, who is touted as a likely finance minister should Erdogan lose the election. “A strong adjustment of the economy will not be easy.”

There is also growing popular resentment of the continuing cost of the refugees, who were taken in by Erdogan as a generous gesture to fellow Muslims in difficulty.

Still, Erdogan is thought to have a solid 30 percent of the vote as his base, and government-controlled media dominate, with numerous opposition journalists and politicians jailed or silenced.

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