Are we close to a new era in Turkish-Greek relations?
The Greek daily To Vima claimed last week that Turkey had acknowledged Greece's decision to expand the width of its waters from six to 12 nautical miles. The newspaper said this was approved at a delegation meeting of the two countries' foreign ministries.
If confirmed, this will be a major change in Turkish policy on this matter. Turkey and Greece have a large inventory of problems relating to their claims and counter claims in the Aegean Sea and elsewhere. Problems in the Aegean Sea include the problem of the continental continental shelf of Anatolia. These shelf boundaries have not yet been described and Turkey claims that the shelf extends beyond the Greek islands located close to the mainland Anatolia. Continental shelves are important for oil and gas exploration and other natural resource extraction.
Another problem is the demilitarization of the Greek islands in the eastern part of the Aegean Sea. When the Ottoman Empire was defeated in the Balkan War of 1912-13, the Ottoman Empire had to surrender almost all of the Aegean islands to Greece, provided that they would be demilitarized. However, as the years passed, Greece destroyed them.
The third problem is the line that divides the air traffic control zone over the Aegean Sea. This is the line where, when crossing, the pilot must identify their aircraft to the ground control station. Greece used this line as its national airspace boundary and harassed Turkish military planes that crossed the border, claiming that they had violated Greek airspace.
Fourth is the status of uninhabited islands, rocks and geographical formations of the Aegean islands. Turkey said that, if the name of such an outcrop was not mentioned in any international agreement, it must remain in the territory of Turkey, because all of these islands belonged to the Ottoman Empire and only those mentioned in the agreement were transferred to Greece.
The fifth problem is the subject of this article and is related to the width of the territorial waters of the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. The Greek Parliament in 1995 authorized the government to expand the width of territorial waters to 12 nautical miles if deemed appropriate. The Turkish Parliament responded by saying that, if Greece did, he would consider this "casus belli" – a valid reason for declaring war.
The reason for Turkey's sharp response is that many Greek islands in the Aegean Sea are so close to the coast of Turkey and to each other, when you draw a circle of 12 nautical miles around each island of Greece, the Turkish Aegean port will be completely cut off. from the high seas and Turkish ships will not be able to sail even from one Turkish port to another without crossing the territorial waters of the Greek islands.
This agreement leaves the scope of a number of other extraordinary problems between the two countries, including the status of uninhabited islands, rocks and geographical formations; depiction of exclusive economic zones on the high seas; demilitarized status of the eastern Aegean islands; and questions about the island's continental shelf.
Turkish ships will be able to cross Greek territorial waters only by exercising their rights from "innocent trajectories," which means that Greek authorities will have the right to board ships and inspect every Turkish ship that uses this right. Turkey said that such restrictions would be a serious obstacle to the free movement of Turkish ships and would strangle the nation.
To Vima also said that Greece's decision would not apply to the northern coast of Turkey around Canakkale, in the Strait of Dardanella; the width of territorial waters will be preserved as six nautical miles in the Dodecanese (called the "Twelve Islands" region) in the south of the Aegean; and that territorial waters in the eastern Aegean will not be extended to 12 full nautical miles.
Greece will also adjust its air boundaries with a new width of territorial waters.
The two delegations were said to have agreed that, if agreements on water and airspace were resolved, the parties could refer questions about the depiction of the continental shelf to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
This agreement leaves the scope of a number of other extraordinary problems between the two countries, including the status of uninhabited islands, rocks and geographical formations; depiction of exclusive economic zones on the high seas; demilitarized status of the eastern Aegean islands; and questions about the island's continental shelf. None of this will be easy to solve. A strong objection can be expected from opposition parties in the Turkish parliament when it comes to ratifying this agreement, but the dominance of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the majority ruling party, the AKP, can secure ratification without suspicion
If resolved, this might be the beginning of a new era in Turkish-Greek relations and could lead to solutions to other problems.
- Yasar Yakis is a former Turkish foreign minister and a founding member of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Twitter: @yakis_yasar
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