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Letter from Athens: Greece Finds Erdogan Tougher Than Turkish Taffy

January 30, 2021

First rule of Political Fight Club: Don't Fight With Turkey.

Second rule of Political Fight Club: Fight With Turkey.

That's the dilemma facing Prime Minister and New Democracy Capitalist Leader Kyriakos ‘Put Up Your Kid Glove Dukes’ Mitsotakis as he wanted sanctions against Turkey's plan to hunt for energy off Greek waters, then didn't want them, then did.

That's what's called telegraphing your punch in The Sweet Science and how to find yourself hitting the deck and looking at the ceiling faster than Jersey Joe Walcott wading into a Rocky Marciano haymaker.

With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan playing Greece and the Eunuch Union like a Tef, a Turkish tambourine, he has rope-a-doped them with a strategy of putting energy research vessels and warships in Greek waters, pulling them out when sanctions are threatened and sending them back when they're not.

After a game of switch lane chicane at which he excels, Erdogan managed to easily buffalo the EU with a charm offensive, sending his slick Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu – he could slide off sandpaper – to Brussels to woo the gullible.

That was just ahead of Jan. 25 talks that saw Erdogan make Greek officials come to him – that breaks another rule, Tony Soprano's edict to never go to the other guy's house to negotiate – a four-hour session in Constantinople turning into a polite nothing chat.

In the meantime, the EU in October and December, 2019 twice turned away from discussing sanctions for Turkish provocations and plans to drill for oil and gas off Greek islands as it's doing off Cyprus.

That was because of Mitsotakis' vacillation and Germany blocking penalties because German defense contractors sell arms to Turkey, including submarine components that could take away Greece's biggest advantage – silent subs – if a conflict broke out.

The four-hour talk – it wasn't a negotiation, no notes were taken, no minutes, nothing binding – came after a four-year wait to renew so-called exploratory talks.

This is the 61st time since 2002 Turkey and Greece have tried to work out differences but the first to focus only on Erdogan's high stakes game of wanting to drill in Greek waters under a maritime deal with Libya no other country recognizes.

He doesn't hold all the cards. Turkey is suffering terribly from the COVID-19 pandemic, hiding the real figures and much of the media locked up in jail to prevent the truth from coming out about his authoritarian regime, including a fading economy.

But the Sultan has been ruling Turkey since 2003, as Prime Minister up to 2014 and then as President because that was a nicer title. And after a failed 2016 coup attempt against him he was able to snooker voters into giving him near absolute control.

He changed the Aghia Sophia church into a mosque and got away with it. He opened a beachfront at the abandoned Varosha resort on the occupied side of Cyprus and got away with it. He's drilling in Cypriot waters and getting away with it.

Why? Because he can, because no one will stop him. Too late after the fact of his former rule as Prime Minister and New Democracy leader, Antonis Samaras said Erdogan doesn't understand bouquets, only brickbats. Too bad Samaras didn't toss some when he had the chance.

“These are not negotiations and do not have a binding effect,” Greek government spokesman Christos Tarantilis said. “The aim is to pick up the thread from the point where contacts were interrupted in 2016 to see if there is a point of convergence in order to lead us to negotiations.”

The shibboleth is that diplomacy will work. Maybe if there's 161 rounds of exploratory talks because that's all they're doing, so when does the negotiating start?

The next round of polite photo opportunities where nothing will happen while Erdogan plays for time will be in March, in Athens, but these are low-level affairs without anyone of authority, ahead of the next EU meeting.

You can't count Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman and chief advisor for Erdogan because he doesn't open his mouth until he makes sure strings are attached to the Sultan's hand to do the pulling.

Erdogan has also alternated between sweet talk and hammering Greece with threats, including that it would be a cause for war if Greece, as it did off in the Ionian Sea off the west coast, extends its territorial waters from six to 12 miles in the Aegean and East Mediterranean where Turkey is claiming much of the seas.

Against that backdrop, with Turkey reportedly not bringing up other issues it demanded be on the table, such as Greece removing troops from islands near Turkey’s coast, the talks were designed to be just that.

EU officials are running scared, not wanting to provoke Erdogan in fear he will send more refugees and migrants who went to his country, to the EU through Greece and its islands, some 100,000 of them already in Greece.

Erdogan is in the catbird's seat as usual, and Mitsotakis is in danger of ceding away any advantage Greece has, but you can't blame him because he's new at the game and it was inevitable he'd get played by the Sultan's deviousness.

So Mitsotakis might think of this when Erdogan makes his next move. The most important rule of political fight club is F— the rules.

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