Aegean: Renewed Turkish – Greek Dialogue Seyfi Taşhan – 13 March 2002

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Aegean: Renewed Turkish – Greek Dialogue  Seyfi Taşhan – 13 March 2002

Aegean: Renewed Turkish – Greek Dialogue

Seyfi Taşhan – 13 March 2002

After many years of refusal to talk with Turkey on the Aegean issues, the first encounter on these issues took place yesterday between Turkish and Greek diplomats in Ankara and will continue next month in Athens . Certainly this development is an achievement of the foreign ministers of the two countries whose policy of rapprochement brought the Greek diplomats who refused to talk nothing about the Aegean except taking the issue of the delimitation of the continental shelf in the Aegean to International Court of Justice. Until 1997 Turkey categorically rejected going to international arbitration on the continental shelf unless there were negotiations on all the contentious issues in the Aegean Sea. Basically, these issues were Greek initiatives taken over many decades upsetting the balance established between the two countries with the peace treaty of Lausanne signed in 1923.

It is true that in 1960s and 1970s these problems were discussed between the two sides under the shadow of the major Cyprus dispute that concerned not only the Turkish and Greek Communities in the island but also the two mainland. After 1980s with advent to power in Greece of the father Papandreu, all dialogue between the two countries were terminated, and people of Greece were led to believe that there was a Turkish military threat against Greece. Two points of view were advanced in the Greek public opinion. One the view argued that  Cyprus formed the crux of the dispute between the two countries and before its shadow was removed Greece could not discuss anything in the Aegean. The second was even more chauvinistic and defiant in simply refusing to discuss anything on Aegean which they considered was Greek.

The dialogue and contacts that began between the two countries several years ago and the initiation of direct talks between the two communities in Cyprus may have created the necessary atmosphere for renewed dialogue on the Aegean. Yet, it might be too soon to expect speedy solutions to all the problems on which the two countries and public opinions have hardened views and attitudes.

Let us take the continental shelf which the Greeks still consider as the only contentious issue that could be solved through resort to the International Court of Justice. Had the only problem in the Aegean been only the continental shelf delimitation it could have been possible to accept immediate joint recourse to international arbitration. However from the Turkish point of view other issues of dispute are directly or indirectly related and inter-linked with the continental shelf issue. Take for example, the question of territorial waters in the Aegean, a semi-closed sea dotted with many islands. Currently, territorial waters are limited to six miles.
This breadth of sovereign area leaves a substantial part of the Aegean as international waters (see map). Under the Law of the Seas Convention of which Turkey is not a signatory , the territorial waters of the islands may be extended up to 12 miles.
If Greece decides to use this right generally applicable in open seas it will take most of the Aegean under its sovereignty and Turkish and other flag ships will have to pass through Greek waters to cross the Aegean. In case of Turkey passage from one Turkish port to the other will also have to pass also through Greek waters. Greece currently reserves the right to extend their territorial waters to twelve miles. If she chooses to do so before or after arbitration on the continental shelf there will be no case to go bring to arbitration because there will be no international continental shelf to be divided. It is for this reason that Turkey declared the possible extension of the territorial waters in the Aegean  a “causus belli” in order to assert the vital importance of this issue and to demonstrate that he such a move could prejudice other issues of contention in the Aegean. Among other issues such as the current air space of 10 miles is an odd Greek practice recognized by no one. The fate of the rocks and uninhabited islets in the international waters is also an issue linked with the delimitation of the continental shelf and of the territorial waters. The sheer violations by Greece of the Lausanne Treaty that demilitarized the Greek islands in the proximity of the Turkish coast and of the Italian Peace Treaty that transferred the Dodacanese islands Greece but kept them disarmed are also very important security concerns for both Turkey’s coastal regions and also for the safety of the sea traffic and cannot be ignored on the basis of the Greek claim that this is a matter that concerns only the Greek sovereignty.

Since the dialogue has begun several years ago between the two governments and the civil sectors of both countries,  many  statesmen  as well as significant portions of public opinion in Greece have come to the conclusion that Turkey can no longer be considered a threat to Greece, and that the two countries have significant interest in bilateral cooperation not mention their common interests in the Balkans, the Black Sea region and in the Mediterranean.

If we recall that in 1930 the treaty of alliance and friendship between the two countries gave the right to each party in international conferences to represent the other if he could not attend that meeting, it would not be terribly difficult both for the Turks and the Greeks to adopt the liberal European integrative approach in their bilateral relation.

The international conditions are quite suitable for the success of this newly begun dialogue on the Aegean and we have practically no reason to be pessimist for the eventual outcome.

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