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Letter from Athens: Greece-Turkey Earthquake Diplomacy Not on Solid Ground

February 12, 2023

There was no more joyous image in the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake in Turkey – that also hit Syria – than the image of Greek and Turkish rescue teams working together in the rubble and plucking out a 7-year-old girl alive.

Alas, the harmony won’t last. Maybe for ordinary Greeks and Turks who aren’t enemies and whose cultures share so much, but not in the politicians tripping over themselves to express solidarity and wondering how they can gain from tragedy.

This horror hit weeks before elections in both countries, Greece’s polls perhaps as soon as April 9 – a week before Easter – and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, facing a serious challenge to his 20 years in office, making his May 14th.

But you can bet as sure as that there are aftershocks after an earthquake that it won’t be long before the sniping starts again from Erdogan, especially if he fears he could be ousted, which isn’t going to happen.
The earthquake got Erdogan to finally talk again to Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis after cutting off communications when the Greek leader addressed the U.S. Congress in the spring of 2022 and asked lawmakers to reject President Joe Biden’s plan to sell Turkey more F-16s and upgrade Turkey’s Air Force.

In the immediate aftermath of the destruction there was talk of so-called Earthquake Diplomacy again as happened in 1999 when Turkey – and then Greece – were hit with deadly quakes and there was relative peace for a decade.

But that was then and this is now, when there’s social media, and political savagery and deceit is done with the push of a computer or cell phone key and lies spread faster than the speed of night.
In the United States, the earthquake wasn’t news to a lot of people who don’t know where Turkey is (Turkey? Is that a country?) and were more interested in the Super Bowl, when Kyrie Irving will destroy another team in the NBA, and LeBron James passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for the all-time scoring record.

Until the ground shook and buildings fell, Turkey and Greece were already engaged in a verbal war that threatened to become a real conflict over Turkish threats to invade and that it would be a cause for war if Greece doubled maritime boundaries.

That stuff will stop for some time now because even Erdogan can sense the indecency of trying to capitalize on the earthquake although it didn’t stop him from going to the scene for a photo opportunity and hope he didn’t clash with suffering.

Mitsotakis got it right when he told CNN that, “the Greek and Turkish peoples are friends. We may have our political differences, but at the end of the day we have nothing to fight about with the Turkish people,” but you can bet Erdogan won’t care.

The Greek leader has properly balanced building an arsenal and foreign alliances against Turkey, further isolating Erdogan after he authorized purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems that undermine NATO and threaten Greece.

Pretending to care and showing his face isn’t made of rock will be too tough for Erdogan as the days pass and even the earthquake begins to slip down in the headlines despite what looks like a long road to recovery and finding remains.

Mitsotakis, for all his patrician privileged elitist upbringing and wooden bearing, displays genuine emotions even if he doesn’t really understand the plight of people while Erdogan is an automaton with one central command – stay in office.

To the Turkish Sultan, resistance is futile and his mechanical buttons will soon kick in again to go after Mitsotakis and Greece and find some way to use the utter horror of what happened in Turkey to take advantage of it.

Yes, he will talk to Mitsotakis now because it’s in his interest but sooner or later Erdogan will grow weary of trying to appear human or care about those who are because his people are just expendable integers to him.

Germany’s state broadcaster Deutsche Welle noted Turkey’s Ambassador to Greece, Burak Ozugergin, said at Christmas 2002 as he was leaving he hoped, “we won’t need fires, earthquakes, or other disasters to remind us that we are neighbors.”

Greece sent condolences and then rescue squads to help look for survivors in the rubble and the disaster even quieted some truculent Turkish politicians who had ramped up tensions and wanted Greece invaded.

“So-called ‘earthquake diplomacy’ is taking effect – a phenomenon that brought about an unexpected rapprochement between Greece and Turkey once before,” in 1999, the German news site said.

“Compassion, solidarity, and concrete help eased the extremely strained relations between Ankara and Athens, and the term ‘earthquake diplomacy’, was coined,” Deutsche Welle said of the 1999 rapprochement.

“In both countries, election campaigns are underway; both Greek and Turkish politicians like to use nationalist slogans, and so far they have shown little willingness to compromise,” said the report.

Erdogan rejected help from Cyprus, a country he doesn’t recognize and whose ships and planes are barred from Turkey, showing his true colors and he will turn on Greece like a pit bull when it suits him, and soon.

“A country without a strong leader will go down,” he has said, and he’ll make sure he’s standing even if the buildings aren’t.

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This article is part of a continuing series dealing with reports of Greek POWs in Asia Minor in the Thessaloniki newspaper, Makedonia in July 1936.

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