Greece and Turkey: Aegean Issues -- Background and Recent Developments

For many years, NATO allies Greece and Turkey have been adversaries in bilateral disputes which have produced crises and even brought them to the brink of war. One series of disputes involves Aegean Sea borders. The two disagree over the border in the air, continental shelf, and territorial sea, over the status of islands in the Sea, and over the ownership of Aegean islets. In the aftermath of a January 1996 crisis over the sovereignty of the Imia/Kardak islet, various dispute resolution initiatives were undertaken. NATO proposed military-related confidence-building measures, some of which are being implemented. The President of the European Union Council of Ministers proposed a committee of wise men, which was accepted in the form of Greek and Turkish committees of experts who are exchanging views via the President. In March 1996, Turkey suggested ways to address Aegean issues. A year later, Greece made a decisive overture that accelerated bilateral diplomacy. Finally, in July 1997, the United States instigated a joint Greek- Turkish declaration of principles that is said to equal a non-aggression pact. The principles have yet to be applied to specific Aegean disputes. Whether or not Greece and Turkey want to change the nature of their relations and resolve the Aegean disputes is uncertain. Strong motivations to resolve exist. Greece wants to meet the criteria for joining the European Monetary Union and must control defense spending to do so. It can only cut defense spending if the "Turkish threat" recedes. Greece also wants to cultivate a more positive image in European circles and its relations with Turkey are an impediment. Turkish secularists want to be part of Europe and to stop Greek use of the veto in the European Union as a weapon in bilateral disputes. The influential Turkish military may favor a rapprochement with Athens. In both countries, however, there may be domestic political constraints on policy change. In Greece, the legacy of former Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, who asserted that Turkey is the greatest threat to Greece, affects the current government's maneuverability. In Turkey, nationalist former Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit is now Deputy Prime Minister and the government's primary foreign policy spokesman, and there is no new thinking in Ankara to match that of Athens. The United States wants stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and, after the Imia/Kardak crisis, sought to become more active in dispute resolution. U.S. neutrality in the crisis, however, was perceived in Greece as favoritism toward Turkey and prevented the United States from engaging immediately. The U.S. desire to be a force for positive change persevered and reached fruition with the Madrid declaration in July 1997. The United States is determined to stay on course and work with the parties to apply the Madrid principles to specific disputes. The prospects for Aegean resolutions are better now than they have been in years, but domestic political developments in both Greece and Turkey could affect the outlook detrimentally.