In normal times this would never have taken place. The potential backlash, both diplomatic and economic, would be so decisive and painful that no nation-state in the First World could even contemplate taking action similar to that undertaken by Belarus on Sunday. Unfortunately, in contemporary times, international rules and regulations are flaunted by certain governments, and a growing reluctance to punish governments that openly challenge international norms.
As for the Sunday’s action in Belarus, it falls into a gray area between state-sponsored terrorism and modern day impressment. A RyanAir flight from Athens to Vilnius was diverted to Belarus because of a potential security threat on board,” according to Belarussian authorities. A Belarusian MiG-29 was launched to intercept the airliner and then escort it to Minsk. On the ground, the aircraft was inspected for explosives and none were found. Before being cleared to depart, however, Belarusian authorities boarded the plane and took Roman Protasevich into custody. Protasevich is a high-profile dissident journalist and active member of the opposition. He was placed on a terrorist watch list by the Belarusian KGB while living in exile. It is believed Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko personally gave the order for the airliner to be turned around. Belarusian officials have wanted him in custody for some time. Their wish has been granted.
This incident, along with being bold and reckless, has the power to bring about far-reaching consequences. Belarus is already contending with deteriorating relations between itself and most of its neighbors. There’s increasing suspicion about Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s growing influence in Belarusian affairs, as well as Russia’s long-range plans for Belarus.
News of the decision by Greece and Turkey to resume exploratory talks in Istanbul later this month has been met with optimism by the European Union, NATO and individual nations around Europe. Earlier this week, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that Turkey was inviting Greece to attend the discussions being hosted in Turkey on 25 January. This will mark the 61st round of exploratory talks which came into being back in 2002. The last round was held in Athens back in March, 2016. Energy rights, economic exclusion zones, and maritime rights are expected to be the main topics for the upcoming round.
Since 2016 relations between Greece and Turkey have deteriorated. There has been no shortage of issues fueling the flames between these two rival states. Refugee treatment, energy exploration, and dueling economic exclusion zones have all played significant roles in bringing Greece and Turkey to the state they’re currently at. The EU expressed hope that the upcoming discussions between the two nations will bring about deeper talks and resolutions in the future. “We were discussing already how important it is for Turkey to behave constructively towards the EU member states because the EU has on numerous occasions stressed its solidarity with Greece, with Cyprus (the Greek Cypriot administration), and stressed also the need to solve all the bilateral issues,” European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano told a recent daily press briefing in Brussels.
Turkey has been softening its tone in recent days. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that his country is prepared to repair the damaged relations between Turkey and the EU. The decision to do this could come from the recent setbacks Turkey has endured on the foreign front. Russia has managed to push Turkey out of the post-war picture in the aftermath of the latest Azeri-Armenian conflict in October and November. Despite supporting Azerbaijan with military hardware and mercenaries, Turkish assistance in the peacekeeping process and beyond was politely declined, or in some instances minimized by Moscow. Add to that the continuing difficulties in Libya, blowback from increasingly aggressive energy exploration in the Eastern Med, and the economic exclusion zone issue, and it becomes clear why Turkey could be looking for a breather.
The Eastern Mediterranean has gone from lukewarm to a rapid simmer over the past week. In Lebanon the political winds of change appear to be descending upon Beirut following the massive explosion at Beirut’s port facility on 4 August. The incident reinvigorated protests, and heavy anti-government sentiment across the nation. This morning the Lebanese government saw the writing on the wall and resigned. In an address earlier today Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced his resignation, and his intent to “take a step back,” and “fight the battle for change alongside them.” Diab went on to denounce the political ruling class and lay blame for the explosion squarely on their shoulders. Diab’s cabinet resigned earlier in the day, and it appears now that at least some of them will remain on in a caretaker role until a new government is formed.
The dissolution of Lebanon’s government is drawing considerable attention from Western nations, as well as from some of Lebanon’s neighbors and longtime allies. Questions about the future are being asked, with no answers readily available. What shape will the new government take? Is the present mood in Lebanon one that will see the removal of Hezbollah and its influence from Lebanese government and society? How far is Hezbollah, and Iran willing to go in order to keep the nation afloat and in their corner? Three of many questions that will need to be considered as the situation plays out in the coming days and weeks.
The Greek-Egyptian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) deal is drawing a decidedly negative reaction from Turkey-as was anticipated. The deal is seen as a direct challenge to the EEZ established by Turkey and the Western-recognized government of Libya. On Monday, Turkey issued a Navtex international maritime alert to conduct ‘seismic research operations’ south of the Greek island of Kastellorizo over the next two weeks. The Turkish research ship Oruc Reis and two auxiliary vessels are presently underway to the area. Turkish naval forces are also presently conducting a two-day naval exercise off of Kasetellorizo and Rhodes. The exercise was announced on 6 August, the same day Greece and Egypt signed their EEZ agreement. Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with his military chiefs today as both sides exchanged accusations of fueling regional tensions.
While all of this was going on today the lira continued its tailspin, reaching record lows against the dollar and euro. Despite Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hopes, Turkey’s foreign adventures do not seem to be having a positive effect on the economy. Turkey is dealing with serious economic, and domestic issues. The lira has a history of being influenced by domestic politics. If the economic outlook does not improve soon enough, Erdogan may be faced with the unpalatable choice of either having to request IMF assistance, or call snap elections. Either one will cost him a fortune in political capital and perhaps leave Erdogan and his government in a vulnerable spot at the wrong time.
Amid a high level of tension in the Mediterranean brought on by Turkey’s deal with the Libyan government demarking their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) Greece and Italy signed an agreement establishing an EEZ for the two nations in the Ionian Sea. The agreement was signed today by the Greek and Italian foreign ministers, making official the demarcation of maritime zones which has been pending since 1977. While its fair to say the agreement has been a long time coming, recent Turkish moves in the Mediterranean are responsible for pushing demarcation to the front burner. The agreement will have considerable ramifications for the area but it is, at heart, a hedge against Turkish hegemonic ambitions in the natural resource-rich Eastern Med region.
This may not be the only EEZ agreement Greece signs this month. Athens is in negotiations with multiple neighboring states to reach similar agreements. Again, keeping Turkey in check is the primary motivation fueling these moves. In fact, sources in the Greek Foreign Ministry have hinted that an agreement with Egypt could be signed as early as next week. If Greece and Egypt complete a deal it will be benefit Cairo’s continuing campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, which has received significant funding from Turkey.
It has become possible that the war in Libya has the potential to drag on for an extended period of time with no clear winner. If this comes about it allows Turkey to maintain its foothold in Libya, meaning the EEZ agreement between Ankara and Tripoli will take effect, and be enforced. The rest of the Mediterranean is waking up to this possibility. Italy and Greece are already making moves and now it is a question of who will move next. Israel and Cyprus are also major players in this game. They will be heard from sooner or later.
As COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted in Turkey, a second surge of illegal immigrants is expected to start heading to Greece from Turkey. The information comes from a confidential report authored by the European border protection agency Frontex: “The restrictions on Covid-19 have been gradually lifted in most Aegean provinces, but not yet in Dardanellia, Constantinople and Smyrna. If freedom of movement is restored in these areas, massive movements of migrants towards the Greek-Turkish border can be expected.”
In February and early March tens of thousands of illegal immigrants attempted to cross from Turkey into Greece. The Greek-Turkish border area was under siege and dissolved into near chaos. Turkish troops fired on Greek police, and there were instances of Turkish soldiers actually trying to bring down the border fence. Then the pandemic came and brought a respite to the simmering border. The Turks transported the illegal immigrants back inland to refugee camps.
Now that conditions are starting to improve inside of Turkey, expect Ankara to begin moving the migrants soon. Practically speaking, Turkey cannot afford to keep them around for very long. The Turkish economy is presently on the ropes. The lira is at an all-time low against the dollar, and a number of the country’s largest banking institutions are precariously close to bankruptcy. Then there are Turkey’s foreign adventures to take into account. Syria is quiet for the moment, but as the pandemic withers out, this will not remain so. The same holds true for Libya, another area where Turkey has become heavily invested.
As far as the border situation goes, Greece had been preparing to move 400 additional police officers to the area before the pandemic forced the cancellation. Those plans appear to be back on now.