The article was written by the Research Institute for European and American Studies (RIEAS)*
Post-World War Two Greek-Turkish relations have been consistently turbulent, save for a short lull during the 1950s when both countries entered NATO to serve as bulwarks against Soviet Russia. However, beginning in the 1960s, largely thanks to demands by the Greek population of Cyprus—about three-quarters of the population of the island—for a union with Greece, Athens and Ankara entered a period of mutual animosity, confrontation, and Turkish military adventurism.
A Turkish military invasion of Cyprus was narrowly averted in June 1964, when US President Lyndon B. Johnson warned Ankara “against any rash military moves.” In 1996, Greece and Turkey almost came to blows again over an Aegean Sea rocky islet called “Imia” by Greece and “Kardak” by Turkey. The near conflict was averted again by US intervention.
Ever since, Greek-Turkish relations remain in a state of “no war, no peace,” with Turkey following increasingly belligerent tactics and constant threats of war in the Aegean—a large part of which Ankara has now taken to calling Turkey’s “Blue Motherland”, despite the fact that this area is dotted with hundreds of larger and smaller Greek islands. In recent years, Turkey’s overt expansionism targeting Greece has also deployed the Muslim Greek minority, inhabiting the Greek part of the Thrace region, as an irredentist Trojan Horse to establish territorial claims based on Turks as a “repressed ethnicity” in Greece.
Ankara rejects the religious term “Muslim Greek” and demands Athens recognizes this religious minority as ethnically Turkish and, therefore, as the “Turkish minority” of Greek Thrace. Athens, on the other hand, sticks to the definitions of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, under which Greece and the new republic of Turkey agreed to an exchange of populations as part of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after the withdrawal of Greek occupation forces that had grabbed a chunk of western Turkey around Izmir after the Great War. The Treaty recognized a “Muslim” minority in Greece and a “Greek Orthodox” minority in Constantinople/Istanbul. While the “Muslim” minority thrived, the “Greek Orthodox” minority was destroyed by organized mob attacks on 6-7 September 1955 in what became known as the “Istanbul pogrom”.
Thrace and Consequences
Over the years, Turkey has kept a tight hold on the “Turks” of Greek Thrace. Turkey’s “command post” in Greek Thrace is her consulate general in Komotini. The consulate maintains active, and lavishly funded, “community support” initiatives aiming particularly at younger Muslims. Since 2002, and the ascent of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the Turkish “neo-Ottoman sultan,” consulate activities have expanded rapidly. Greek media reports routinely claim the consulate is a “hub” of Turkish intelligence service, the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), whose operatives allegedly browbeat those Muslims who object to Turkish interference in the region and wish to distance themselves from Turkey as the “motherland.”
Erdogan’s rapid Islamist slide, these reports also claim, has a direct negative impact on those Thrace Muslim Greeks who would rather live their lives as “European Union citizens”, rather than controlled ethnic accessories to Ankara’s irredentist plans. It is further alleged that Turkish pressures on the locals have steeply increased since the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, which was organized by a cabal of officers in the Turkish Armed Forces loyal to Erdogan’s deadly enemy Muhammed Fethullah Gülen, the leader of an Islamist cult movement known as Hizmet (and usually just called “Gulenists”). Gülen, unsurprisingly, has rejected the accusation and spread the conspiracy theory that the coup was actually a false flag operation staged by Erdogan himself.
Successive Greek governments have failed to establish a focused development policy for the Thrace region as the means to counter Ankara’s aggressive interference. The 2010 Greek bankruptcy, and Greece’s tethering to disastrous creditor debt repayment terms, orchestrated by the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Central Bank, has made an already bad Thrace situation worse.
Furthermore, Greek political parties, without exception, have ignored the sensitive particularity of the “Thrace issue” and the need for political clarity and proactive development and integration policies vis-a-vis the Muslim minority. Even worse, Greece’s overall posture, regarding Turkey’s (now extinct) EU ambitions, has been indecisive and sometimes even submissive. This posture has only increased Greek reluctance to aggressively neutralize Turkish interference in Thrace by targeting the Turkish consulate’s subversive activities.
The American Question
In a broader strategic sense, the Muslim Thrace minority issue touches upon quickening Greek efforts to build a stronger strategic relationship with the USA. Potential ethnic instability, fomented by Turkey, could destabilize the region and weaken Greece’s ability to integrate Thrace into an allied defense policy plan.
The election of US-educated conservative Constantine Mitsotakis as Greek premier in July 2019 gave a boost to substantive cooperation talks between Athens and Washington on broader Eastern Mediterranean security. In October 2019, and as part of a bilateral Strategic Dialogue, Greece and the USA signed a revised defense cooperation agreement that led US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to announce that “The Greek-US relationship has literally never been stronger.”
Central to this renewed relationship is US interest for establishing a defense operational presence in Greek Thrace primarily focused on the Alexandroupli seaport. Indeed, soon after the signing of the October 2019 Greece-USA agreement, Alexandroupli, in an unprecedented symbolic event, hosted its first-ever US Navy ship, the USNS Carson City.
Geographically, Greek Thrace is a unique Western strategic staging area vis-a-vis Russia and Turkey, with all the worries about the latter “turning” toward the “axis” of Russia and Iran. Thrace-based allied assets can monitor “up close and personal” the Straits of the Dardanelles, the only Russian maritime transit route to the Warm Waters. Similarly, Thrace-based combat drones could launch long-range operations deep into areas that have become dangerous hot spots for the Western alliance since the onset of the war in Syria.
Plans to station US troops in the region are equally important, in both a political and military sense, as, among others, they will raise confidence in neighboring Bulgaria, an EU and NATO member deeply under Russian influence, which eyes Turkish maneuvering warily. Turkey’s recent attempt to crack the Greek border via in effect a proxy attack, allowing thousands of illegal immigrants to leave Turkish territory and enter the EU. This led Bulgaria to tighten its frontier controls and seek assurances from Ankara that Turkey’s use of illegal aliens as a battering ram against Greece would not be repeated against her.
European Union and Nationalism
From the EU standpoint, the status of the Greek Thracian Muslim minority presents a thorny issue as it brings together nationalism, irredentism, “ethnic otherness,” national identity, claims of victimhood, assimilation, integration, and threats of overt war—all of which the EU project is supposed to abolish. And Brussels is not known for its effectiveness in “managing” such intricate issues. The case of Greek Thrace is no different.
Furthermore, Greek bankruptcy, and locking Greece into “debtor’s prison” thanks to German draconian demands, has severely reduced the legitimacy accorded to the opinions and decisions of the EU in Greek eyes. As a result, the various international “humanitarians,” and other “minority rights” groups, have increasingly turned to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) seeking redress of what they perceive as Greek government’s heavy-handedness in dealing with Thracian Muslims.
In late 2018, for example, the ECHR ruled against Greece for allowing Islamic law to override the Greek legal regime in matters of family law. Greek governments, meantime, irrespective of politico-ideological orientation, have stuck to their EU guns with unfailing persistence. Depending on circumstances, the EU is presented as the “savior” or the “obstructionist” whose dictums cannot be ignored. This is a convenient manner of finding excuses for not acting at all or taking half measures that give the appearance of “initiative”.
While a Greek majority sees the EU in a positive light, more than four in ten Greeks voice negative opinions about it. In any event, Brussels continues to maintain a safe distance from the Turco-Greek tussle over the Thracian Muslims, with the exception of an occasional brief press release, something that suits both sides of the dispute.
Autonomy: Salvation or Apocalypse?
One obvious-seeming possibility for a resolution would be autonomy for Western (Greek) Thrace, but this option is scrupulously avoided publicly by all in Greece, save the occasional marginal “nationalist” voice, because it carries apocalyptic connotations on ethnic, political, and security grounds. The mere mention of the word “autonomy” conjures visions of Kosovo, whose unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia continues to be rejected by Athens, despite perennial discreet pressure from Washington.
Historically, however, autonomy is not foreign to Western Thrace. Before the First World War, following the two Balkan wars, the province acquired a short-lived independent administration under the name “Independent Government of Western Thrace.” Next, right after the end of World War One, the victorious Entente occupied the whole of Western Thrace and apportioned it into three departments, one of which was placed under Greek military government. A series of convoluted politico-diplomatic moves and countermoves by Greece, Bulgaria, and the Western Thrace minority groups culminated in shared government agreements until the April 1920 San Remo Conference, which awarded Western Thrace to Greece on the insistence of Britain—to the undisguised outrage of Bulgaria, which was deprived of an exit to the sea.
Turkey’s current revisionist claims regarding the post-WWI settlement, which dissolved the Ottoman Empire, no doubt recalls how the WWI Allies “deprived” modern Turkey of so many of her “rightful” possessions. Reclaiming all these possessions today is of course impossible, but Western Thrace is different; in view of Greece’s diplomatic and defense “weakness” in Ankara’s eyes, Western Thrace’s “Turks” could emulate Kosovo, separate from Greece, and come under more direct Turkish influence.
Oil and Strategy
Minority affairs, Turkish interference, and Greek concerns regarding Western Thrace are closely connected to energy politics. In the early 2000s, Greece, Bulgaria, and Russia appeared close to establishing an energy transfer pact aiming to fill the EU’s increasing natural gas needs. An agreement for the so-called Burgas-Alexandrouplis pipeline, meant to transfer Russian and Caspian natural gas more swiftly by bypassing the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, was signed by Athens and Sofia but quickly ran into various obstacles (for a detailed techno-political analysis of this project see here). Aside from environmental concerns, the pipeline project attracted strong US opposition for the obvious reason that it was a Russia project meant to divide and weaken NATO. Washington expressed its concerns plainly to Athens, leading to a significant strain in bilateral relations. In the end, it was Bulgaria that retreated from the pact, citing the environmental and supply concerns to save face.
The current blossoming of Greece-US relations, publicly presented as an almost unbreakable “permanent strategic relationship,” is nevertheless stirring politico-strategic questions because of the well-known American political attitude toward “self-determination”, an irony since America’s support for this principle led it to support the revolution that separated Greece from the Ottoman Empire. In its modern form, this American commitment is expressed in Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, declared in 1917, and this was the key justification behind the creation of Kosovo as a fixed, US-controlled strategic outpost. It is against this backdrop—plus the current baffling swirl of the East Mediterranean security and political machinations—that hypotheses have gained ground about the possibility of shifting US politico-strategic priorities adversely affecting Greece.
The main focus of such hypotheses would be whether the US could use its “permanent strategic relationship” with Greece, and this relationship’s Western Thrace component, as a tool to “adjudicate” in case of a Greek-Turkish conflict. To date, Turkey is still a NATO ally, despite what some see as an Islamist trajectory, and US reactions in case of a Greek-Turkish crisis cannot be ascertained. It has not escaped notice in Greece, for example, that the Trump administration has reacted in conflicting, and often baffling, ways to Erdogan’s braggadocio and his brazen challenges toward the US.
Athens has ample reason to have (hidden) concerns about how “unbreakable” is the Western Thrace axis of the US-Greece “permanent strategic relationship”. For many Greeks, as they look back, they find that Greece never had any concrete support from the US-dominated NATO alliance vis-a-vis Turkish belligerence and revisionist claims in the Aegean. Indeed, Athens has grown weary of the constant NATO “advice” to find “solutions” with Turkey via “mutual confidence building measures” (a sham of a concept when neo-Ottoman Islamist Turkey is the interlocutor), not to mention “negotiations” in which Turkey insists on conducting her own agenda as the only method of “agreement” and the US does nothing to stop her.
The only certainty at present is uncertainty. The pessimists would say “don’t hold your breath” when it comes to a resolution of the Western Thrace issue and the US-Greece “permanent strategic relationship.” Given the experiences of the past, and the convolutions of the present, this would seem to be sound advice for Greek policy planners.
*Copyright @ 2020 Research Institute for European and American Studies, Athens, Greece.
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