The rivalry between Greece and Turkey is notorious. The largest item in the dispute is probably the competing claims over the Aegean zone. Such tensions ultimately trace back to the 1820s, when a revolution separated what is now Greece from the ailing Ottoman Empire, with the new Greek polity and the Turkish republic as successor to the Ottoman Imperium maintaining conflicting rights claims to the land, air, and sea across the Strait. This diplomatic fight has become physical, notably when the Greeks landed at Izmir in 1919, and three more times in the late twentieth century — in 1976, 1987, and 1996 — the two NATO states nearly came to blows.
The Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 after a Greek-backed military coup left the Mediterranean island divided into Greek and Turkish sections, a situation that persists nearly half-a-century later, and which has exacerbated the tensions between Ankara and Athens. In more recent years, the discovery of massive gas reserves off the coast of Cyprus has only complicated relations even further.
Once again, however — as in other regions —economic objectives of Turkey’s autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seem to be going hand-in-hand with dreams of cultural influence, often achieved through outright ahistorical fabrications and/or the more insidious half-truths and misdirection that we call disinformation.
Erdogan’s Dreams of Cultural Influence: Turks in Western Thrace
One of the latest instances of this kind of propaganda relates to a documentary released by Al-Jazeera — the Qatari channel that also supports Erdogan’s political Islamism — about the Turkish minorities in Western Thrace, Greece.
Unsurprisingly, the documentary caused controversy in Greece due to its biased approach and the plain inaccuracies, notably its treatment of all Muslims on Thrace as Turks when only a portion self-identify as such; the rest consider themselves Pomaks or Roma.
In a nutshell, the documentary made the case that 150,000 ethnic Turks are forced to live as a marginalized and discriminated-against minority on Thrace due to the assimilationist policies of the Greek state.
Beside hyperbolic and undocumented statements, such as “the distinctive Turkish ethnicity is under siege from the State”, Al-Jazeera’s journalists simply reproduce Erdogan’s condemnation of Athens for discrimination against ethnic Turks, without any critical examination. One place where the journalists might have applied some critical thinking and context is to examine the situation for Greek minorities in Turkey.
The Treaty of Lausanne, signed on 24 July 1923, recognized the defeat of the Allied occupation of Turkey that had been codified in the Sèvres Treaty of 1920. Lausanne, which was signed after the October 1922 withdrawal of Greek troops from Turkey and the “population exchange”, envisioned the 73,000 Greeks accorded Turkish citizenship being given equal rights, but in practice a high degree of governmental intolerance for all minorities has remained an endemic feature of the Turkish republic.
In 1942, for instance, Ankara enforced the Varlik Vergisi law, imposing a wealth tax on property. The provisions of that law were enforced with exceptional zeal only against non-Muslim minorities. As a result, many Greeks were forced to liquidate all their property and those who did not meet the obligations were put into forced labor camps. Even worse was the sectarian riot in Istanbul in 1955 that killed a dozen or more Greeks.
None of this is mentioned by Al-Jazeera, and this kind of selective memory abounds in the reportage. It is difficult to conceive of a program worthy of being called a “documentary” when it entirely refuses to listen to one side. There are neither voices from the “ethnic” Greeks nor from elected members of Parliament from the Muslim community.
As for the description of the region, the documentary presents Thrace in a simplistic and highly partisan, politicized manner, without a word about the thousands of years of political and cultural organic integration into Greece.
In the documentary, the reporters also complain about the treatment they received as journalists while investigating the violations of the rights of Turkic minorities in Greece, failing to mention anything about the situation for free inquiry in Turkey, where an estimated 119 journalists and media workers are in pretrial detention or serving sentences for offenses such as “spreading terrorist propaganda” and “membership of a terrorist organization”, where cases opened against 822 academics have resulted in hundreds of convictions for “spreading terrorist propaganda” after they criticized the government’s military operations in the southeast and called for peace. Turkey ranks 154th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. Greece is 65th.
There are two further extremely problematic elements in Erdogan’s attempts to influence minorities in neighboring countries from a cultural and a religious perspective, and both are very apparent in Al-Jazeera’s propaganda.
First, the double standard applied between domestic policy and Turkish expectations of the European Union: on the one hand, in no sector of nation-state administration within Turkey is Erdogan willing to adopt EU standards, and, on the other hand, Erdogan adopts a narrative centered on those standards when it comes to Turkish minorities in other countries. It is not by chance that the documentary tells us: “In the heart of the EU, things are supposed to be different”.
The second dangerous issue reveals the ahistorical and divisive worldview supported by the Turkish regime. It regards identity as something that goes through ethnicity and, in this shortsighted approach, it does not see that this is exactly what Europe has been tried to avoid after the monstrous bloodshed of the Second World War that in the European conception occurred because of ethnic conflicts.
The impact of the Turkish narrative — telling Turkic Muslim minorities that their identity and loyalty primarily belongs to the Turkish motherland and state — is to distance these populations from the states in which they currently reside. This is another demonstration of the incompatibility between Erdogan’s vision and European values, which permit of multiple identities, and interests, namely a stable Mediterranean region.
What is further notable is that Erdogan’s dichotomous worldview, reflected in the Al-Jazeera program and in Qatari and Turkish echo-chambers more broadly, is a mirror-image and foil for the European nativist far-Right. The documentary refers to Thrace as a “contested space” on the basis that its Muslims are in conflict with the fact of rule by the Greek nation-state. Such a notion is identical to the beliefs of the growing far-Right and racist forces in, who promote an ethnicity-based form of identity. Social peace is very difficult in an environment where radicals are coming at populations from both sides.
Oil and Economic Objectives
In the framework of Erdogan’s monocratic expansion attempts in the Mediterranean, Turkey has been flying F-16 fighter jets over the Libyan coast, enhancing Turkish presence in Libya, while most of the world is distracted with the coronavirus pandemic.
Turkey also has sent a vessel to drill for oil off the coast of Cyprus, angering the island republic and Greece. In a clear statement, the Greek Foreign Ministry has accused Turkey of behaving in a “delinquent” fashion, defying international rules, and sending an exploratory vessel to drill for oil in waters for which Cyprus alone has rights. The government in Nicosia, dominated by Greek-Cypriots, says the Turkish move is part of Ankara’s “illegal expansionist designs”.
European leaders have repeatedly advised Ankara to show restraint, but Turkey keeps ignoring the EU and there do not seem to be consequences because Turkey holds on to its blackmailer policy, whereby it will stage a repeat of the 2015-16 refugee crisis in Europe if the EU applies any serious pressure against its ambitions. The mass-influx of refugees to Europe was significantly slowed in 2016 after the EU made a deal with Turkey to provide aid in exchange for the refugees staying within Turkey’s borders. It should be noted that Erdogan regards the EU as having not fulfilled its promises from 2016.
With the EU institutionally neutralized in Libya and the Aegean by this Turkish threat, it leaves states like Israel, Egypt, and individual EU members like Greece and Cyprus to act to check Turkey. The attempt by Ankara to weaken Greece by inflaming internal social and political divisions should not, therefore, be a surprise. Removing a key strategic adversary from the chessboard makes perfect sense from Ankara’s perspective—and if it can do that by propaganda and political warfare, abetted by its Qatari ally, that is much easier than by war.