OPINION – Athens’ provocative foreign policy and persistent violation of international law

Dendias shows world once again there cannot be solution to natural gas dispute in E.Med, Cyprus conflict, and issues in Aegean Sea through negotiation with Greece

Kaan Cenk Salihoglu   | 26.04.2021
OPINION – Athens’ provocative foreign policy and persistent violation of international law

The writer is an economist, political scientist, and economic lawyer living in Germany. He is also the writer of a book entitled “Chess in the Eastern Mediterranean”


Two weeks ago, at a press conference with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias showed the world once again that there cannot be a solution to the natural gas dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Cyprus conflict, and the issues in the Aegean Sea through negotiation with Greece. The reason is apparent. Greece is provoking Turkey, violating international law and the good manners of diplomacy by hiding itself behind EU membership. This being the case, perhaps the best solution is to negotiate directly with Brussels, bypassing Athens. Then, Athens will no longer need to justify its maximalist demands in the Eastern Mediterranean and its reprehensible foreign policy.

Either way, besides the Cyprus conflict and the natural gas dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean, the status of the unresolved affiliation of the islands in the Aegean and the minority rights of the Western Thrace Turks were the most critical issues of the press conference, over which Greek FM Dendias stumbled several times. He urged Turkey to abide by the so-called “Map of Seville,” the Treaty of Lausanne, and international law, while defending the militarization of Greek territories bordering Turkey, which is forbidden under international law. Thus, Dendias has once again shown to the world that it was Athens’ double game in the negotiations that have made all of the region's disputes unsolvable.

But what rights (1) do Ankara in the Aegean under international law, especially concerning the Dodecanese Archipelago, (2) and the Turkish minority in Western Thrace have - provided that Greece demilitarizes its borderlands and islands in compliance with the treaties of Lausanne and Paris?

To answer this question, a look at history is necessary. First, from the Treaty of Ouchy (1912) until the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), the Dodecanese was de facto under Italian jurisdiction, and then de jure under Rome’s rule. According to the Treaty of Ouchy, the archipelago was to be returned to the Ottoman Empire after its withdrawal from Tripoli. Despite the eviction, however, this did not happen. Since Istanbul lacked the financial and military capacity to wage a war against Italy for the Dodecanese, the young Republic of Turkey had to officially accept the annexation of the islands by Italy through the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. As a result, ten years later, Turkey and Italy negotiated the demarcation of the border between the Dodecanese and Turkish mainland – but without success. Due to the failure of the previous round of negotiations, Rome requested a new round in 1935. Ankara, on the other hand, repeatedly rejected this appeal, citing other pressing concerns such as the annexation of Hatay. With the Treaty of Paris in 1947 following the World War II, Italy finally ceded the archipelago to Greece, but insofar as it transferred only the right of possession to Greece, not the right of sovereignty. So, the responsibility of the Dodecanese still lies with Rome today. In return for the privilege of possession, Athens had undertaken not to militarize the islands.

Despite the fact that Greece had no sovereignty over the islands, Greek officials visited Turkey in the 1950s several times and proposed the beginning of negotiations to draw a border between the archipelago and mainland Turkey. Nevertheless, Ankara consistently declined these suggestions. Starting talks with Greece would be tantamount to recognizing Athens’ occupation of the islands, so Turkey’s refusal was the right and most commendable decision. In addition, to make matters worse, Greece took advantage of the 1960 Turkish military coup and militarized the Dodecanese, as was the case in the summer of 2020 in the course of the natural gas dispute and the associated dispute over Turkey’s sea areas in the Eastern Mediterranean. Greece has thus violated its obligation under the Paris Treaty, which prohibits the militarization of the archipelago, and positioned itself as an occupying force. By doing so, Greece is acting against the international treaty and, as a result, international law.

The same result applies to Western Thrace, although the starting point is different, since the region had once had an autonomous status in the past. In 1913, a Turkish state called the Republic of Western Thrace existed on the Thracian territory for a short time before being annexed by Bulgaria. A few years later, with Article 48 of the Treaty of Neuilly in 1919, Western Thrace was expropriated from Bulgaria at the request of the allied forces, which were seeking to contain Sofia’s influence in the Aegean. Consequently, Western Thrace was designated as a non-state entity.

Shortly after, Athens and Paris conducted diplomatic negotiations to avert foreign influence in Rumelia and linked Western Thrace to Greece by occupation. The Treaty of Sèvres was signed in 1920 to legitimize this. The point, as in Crete, was that Greece would grant Muslim minorities autonomous rights while Western Thrace would benefit from Greek prosperity. However, almost no Turks live in Crete today as a result of Athens’ assimilation and forced migration policies, rendering this argument unreliable. Nonetheless, the Treaty of Sèvres assigned Greece the responsibility of granting extensive minority rights to Western Thrace Turks. Moreover, with the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, Muslims in Western Thrace were granted these rights once more, allowing them to select their spiritual leader, receive education in their mother tongue, and take control of organizations that were essential to them. Greece has attempted to circumvent the treaty norms by enacting internal legal reforms, which, considering the purpose they are aimed at, are redundant because they violate international treaty law.

Because of Greece’s internal legal reforms, the Western Thrace Turks today do not have the right to elect their spiritual leader, who is appointed by Athens. Furthermore, minority schools are being shuttered one after another. Of the original 330 Turkish schools, only 115 remain open today. Many Turks have already left the region since the Greek government makes no investments in Western Thrace so that Greece can continue to pursue its assimilation goals. In addition, in August 2020, the Greek army held an unannounced maneuver near Xanthi in a village populated entirely by Turks.

Moreover, Turks in Western Thrace are referred to as a Muslim minority rather than Turks, in order to weaken their emotional attachment to Turkey. Even though minority schools used to have Turkish names, it is now illegal to put Turkish names and the word “Turkish” on signs at minority schools or anywhere else in public institutions. On top of that, several Turkish associations were shut down for the same reason, including the “İskeçe Türk Birliği” (Xanthi Turkish Association, or XTA) in 1983, which took this decision to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2005. Although the ECHR found Greece guilty of violating freedom of assembly and association in 2008, the ruling has yet to be recognized by Athens, and XTA’s right of association has not been restored. Given Greece's misconduct and its violations of the Lausanne and Sèvres treaties, as well as the ECHR’s ruling, Western Thracian Turks are entitled to challenge Greece’s breaches of obligations and violations as well as Greek attempts to deny the relevant norms of the aforementioned treaties. By exercising this right, Western Thrace would once again receive non-state status under the earlier Treaty of Neuilly. The Western Thrace Turks could thus reclaim their independence.

Lastly, in 2020, it was revealed that the United States would establish a permanent US naval base in Alexandroupolis (Dedeağaç in Turkish), Western Thrace (albeit unofficially, since it will be acquired through private-state purchase). This violates the Treaty of Lausanne, which stipulates in Article 1 of the III Convention on the Thracian Frontier (in the Treaty of Lausanne, 1923) that a 30-kilometer strip of land on each side of the border between Turkey and Greece must be demilitarized. Consequently, Athens is once again violating international law by authorizing the construction of such a naval base.

In conclusion, it is clear, on the one hand, that Athens is disregarding international law, acting as an occupying force, and violating good customs and morals. Therefore, Greek FM Dendias should think twice before accusing and suspecting Turkey of any infringement. Ankara, on the other hand, should not back down from its position in the future. Turkey has been resigned so far because it does not want to jeopardize its EU accession process, but Brussels does not want Turkey in the Union anyway. So why should Ankara continue to behave so resignedly henceforth? Now is the time for Ankara to finally recognize the rights it is entitled to under international treaties, to act decisively against Greek provocations, and to safeguard its interests in the EastMed, the Aegean, Western Thrace, and Cyprus.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

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