In depth: Greece and Turkey standoff at Aegean Sea
While the world fights the pandemic, there are other battles shaping up in the eastern Mediterranean region. This week Greece announced that it is extending the wall which separates its borders from neighbour Turkey. The relations between NATO allies have only deteriorated this year with the issues of refugees, energy and political ideologies.
Draining the energy
Both Turkey and Greece claim areas of gas-rich waters in the Eastern Mediterranean. Greece says that each of its islands—and there are thousands of them—is entitled to its own continental shelf with exclusive drilling rights. But Turkey says that is an unfair interpretation of international law that unjustly encroaches on its own exclusive economic zone. The E.U. has stood firmly behind Greece and also sanctioned Turkey for carrying out seismic surveys off the north Cypriot coast. It has repeatedly warned Turkey against carrying out further exploration.
The refugees used as pawns
Since the Syrian civil war in 2011, millions of refugees have been trying to leave Syria and many have succeeded in crossing over to Turkey. If latest records are to be believed, Turkey hosts more than 37 lakh refugees from Syria but now the country is feeling the pressure with extra people on its soil. The refugee crisis peaked when many migrants got killed while trying to enter other countries either via water or by road. In 2016, the EU assured Turkey financial help for the refugees in return of which Turkey promised to prevent migrants from entering the EU. But earlier this year, Turkey said that it would not keep that promise. Now many nations see this as a way to escalate tensions in the area with Turkey trying to use migrants as fuel to threaten Greece. The Greek government has said it would extend its already existing 10 km long wall with Turkey by an additional 26 km by the end of April 2021.
Ire over the Hagia Sophia
Greece was also irked this year after Turkey ordered the centuries-old Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, open to Muslim worship in July. The Hagia Sophia was originally a cathedral in the Byzantine Empire before it was turned into a mosque in 1453, when Constantinople fell to Sultan Mehmet II’s Ottoman forces. In the 1930s, however, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, shut down the mosque and turned it into a museum in an attempt to make the country more secular. Many Greeks continue to revere the Hagia Sophia, and view it as a key part of Orthodox Christianity. On July 24, Friday prayers were held at the Hagia Sophia for the first time in 90 years, reconverting it into a mosque.
The history of bad blood
Actually, the dispute is nothing new. For centuries, Turkey and Greece have shared a chequered history. Greece won independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1830. Just like during the Partition of India, the two countries exchanged their Christian and Muslim populations in 1923. The migration could only be topped by what happened between India and Pakistan in 1947. The two countries have disputed rights on Cyprus and energy exploration there. They have almost gone to war twice but thankfully world organisations and leaders always brokered peace.
Greece is a member of the European Union while Turkey has been trying hard to get an EU membership for years now.