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Columnists

Maps Matter

I sat through a speech Greek Minister of Defense Nikolaos Panayotopoulos delivered at the AHEPA Convention Grand Banquet last week. The minister opened by praising the U.S. House of Representatives for voting an amendment to the annual defense spending bill restricting the sale of F-16 fighter jets and modernization kits to Turkey. The amendment requires Congress ascertains the Turkish government has not violated the sovereignty of Greece, including through territorial overflights, before considering such sales in the future. The minister then spoke about Greece’s bid to acquire Lockheed-Martin’s F-35 fighter planes and from there, he went on to discuss a range of issues related to Greek-Turkish relations and Greece’s relations with the diaspora and AHEPA’s history.

I am not sure an AHEPA Banquet is the best venue for such a broad and comprehensive speech, notwithstanding the present critical moment in Greek-Turkish relations. My sense is any Greek- American audience of non-experts does not have much background knowledge and has a shorter attention span, especially towards the end of an over four-hour long AHEPA Banquet with a lot of speech making. That same evening Archbishop Elpidophoros limited his own speech to only ten minutes.

If one was to be succinct about the current state of Greek-Turkish relations for the benefit of a Greek-American audience one way would be to focus on the map of the Aegean which Turkish nationalists created and shared on social media recently. The map shows the islands of the northern Aegean, the Dodecanese islands, and Crete all shaded in red, similarly to mainland Turkey. In other words, it shows a big part of Greece belonging to Greater Turkey.

To focus on this map may seem somewhat simplistic. The map’s claims appear to be so far fetched that no one should take them seriously. Yet they do echo the rhetoric emanating from Turkey’s leader who has been making spurious allegations about the status of those islands and their supposed ‘militarization’ by Greece.

It is also true that maps matter – they have significant implications and thus offer themselves as a good way to understand the essence of complicated and technical issues.

Maps matter in at least three important ways. The first is that there are a pictorial representation of a nation and its boundaries. We first learn about our nation by the maps that hang in the school classroom or appear as illustrations in our schoolbooks. We can think of our nation’s map as its symbol, its logo, the most immediate way we can imagine it. In this case it is a stark depiction of the expansionist vision of a greater Turkey by Ankara, which seeks to revise longstanding diplomatic agreements.

Second, maps have mattered a lot in the history of the Balkans. When the Ottoman rule over Epirus, Macedonia, and Thrace began to loosen in the late 19th century there was a proliferation of so-called ethnographic maps depicting the geographic presence of ethnic groups in support of the claim’s nations were making on those areas the Ottomans were about to surrender. Leading European geographers and cartographers joined their colleagues in the Balkans in producing some of the more authoritative maps which the Great Powers relied upon to determine their positions at the Paris Peace conference of 1919. The current Turkish map, however, is a caricature of those earlier maps because the borders have been agreed upon a long time ago, nor does it have any factual basis.

Third, maps have also mattered because producing wildly inaccurate ethnographic maps can easily backfire on their authors. In the early 1990s when the naming of present-day Northern Macedonia was raging, Slavo-Macedonian nationalists produced exaggerated maps that included Thessaloniki and most of Greek Macedonia within their nation. One map even included the town of Larissa, which is in Thessaly, south of the Greek province of Macedonia. Those maps were used by Greek diplomats to demonstrate and discredit the aggressively expansionist plans of their Slavo-Macedonian authors and bolster Greece’s arguments and its position in the dispute. Former ambassador Alexandros Mallias wrote recently that Greece distributed 5,000 copies of the map at the United Nations in 1992-93 and did so again fifteen years later, this time on Capitol Hill, where the issue was being discussed. In his words, “the map brought us better results than any of our memoranda on this policy issue.”

The Turkish map of the Aegean seems to be an example of self-defeating overreach that Greece should be using to its advantage. Why not also reproduce this map, explain its arbitrary basis and aggressive aims, and distribute it widely? It would be an opportunity to educate Greek-Americans more effectively than talking about flyovers or particular fighter planes. They could then share it with opinion makers, foreign policy observers, and most importantly, their legislators. And in doing so help discredit the claims against Greece.

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