Turkish Defense Minister Claims Cyprus, Aegean Sea, Energy Rights

FILE - Greek Foreign Minister Giorgos Katrougalos speaks to the media during a joint news conference with Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in the Mediterranean coastal city of Antalya, Turkey, Thursday, March 21, 2019. (Turkish Foreign Ministry via AP, Pool)

Jumping on Greek Foreign Minister Giorgos Katrougalos saying Turkey has rights to look for energy in waters between the countries, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said the Aegean Sea and Cyprus are in Turkey’s territorial waters.

“We control the sea and the seabed. The seas. The Black Sea, the Aegean, the Eastern Mediterranean which also includes Cyprus,” Akar reportedly said.

“These areas lie within our sphere of interest… we have the responsibility of ensuring peace and calm,” he was quoted as saying, according to media reports.

That came almost immediately after Katrougalos, new to his post, before he met with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Antalya, Turkey was entitled to participate in hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation in the eastern Mediterranean.

Katrougalos and Cavusoglu agreed that Turkey should not be excluded from hunting for oil and gas even though Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t recognize Greece’s Continental Shelf, Laws of the Sea and sent warships off Cyprus in a bid to keep foreign companies from drilling in that country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) parts of which Turkey also doesn’t recognize.

Trying to explain himself after coming under fire from critics, Katrougalos said,  “The respect for international law in general and the Law of the Sea in particular are constants of our national foreign policy, which underpin and do not question the sovereign rights of our country,” he said, without noting that Turkey doesn’t recognize those laws, only those to its advantage.

After Akar spoke out, Greek Defense Minister Evangelos Apostalakis – with whom he had been speaking in a bid to ratchet down tensions before Turkey escalated them again – said that Turkey should cool its jets.

“Although we are in a phase that we are struggling to find ways to defuse tension… (Akar) surprised us with something new, with things that are not based on reason,” Apostolakis, former Greek armed forces chief, said, although he had been tough on Turkey before taking the defense post.

“It is the principle of Greece that we respect international law and the treaties. When these principles are questioned, we have to be concerned,” he said.

“I do not think that (Akar’s) statements can be taken seriously. (Turkish officials) have to get serious and watch what they say. They shouldn’t shoot off fireworks just to make an impression,” he added.

The major opposition New Democracy jumped on Katrougalos for setting off a new firestorm of trouble between the countries as he backed Turkey’s rights to look for energy in a region where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had sent warships off Cyprus to keep foreign companies from drilling for oil and gas.

With the US energy giant ExxonMobil reporting a major gas field discovery, the stakes are getting higher, although Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades had already agreed that he would share any potentially lucrative finds with Turkish-Cypriots who’ve been occupying the northern third since an unlawful 1974 invasion.

That wasn’t enough for Erdogan or Turkish-Cypriot leader Mustafa Akinci who said they want Turkish-Cypriots to take part in licensing foreign companies and as Turkey sent research vessels into disputed waters.

Turkey also does not recognize the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), instead calling for bilateral “negotiations” over issues such as the Aegean’s continental shelf and territorial waters since the mid-1970’s, but as Turkey invokes the same law it doesn’t recognize to asserts its rights under those provisions.

Katrougalos’ exact statement was that Greece should recognize the rights of its neighbors, as long as these rights emanate from international law and UNCLOS, instead of demanding a “blind monopolistic position” in areas where it has interests, the business newspaper Naftemporiki said.