The year ahead promises to be a tough one for Greece’s relations with Turkey. Not that those before have been easy, but the situation may become even worse if certain quarters seek to exploit emotionally charged historical milestones.
Here in Greece, the 100-year anniversary of the Smyrna Catastrophe will bring the tragic events of that period back to the fore. Images and painful stories that have scarred Greek society, coupled with historical documents and political analyses of those events will create an atmosphere of heightened sensibility, which politicians will have to handle with restraint and maturity. The government first and foremost, but the opposition too, will be judged by their actions.
There will be events, presentations and lectures marking the anniversary, and Turkey will, inevitably, come under fire. For its part, the latter will undoubtedly respond, expressing some frustration and giving its own interpretation of events. Some may even launch threats.
In Turkey, meanwhile, 2022 comes just before its 100-year anniversary as a modern state. It will be a landmark for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has all but openly stated that his intention is to make an even bigger mark on the country’s history than its founder Kemal Ataturk and will exploit every opportunity to do so.
The same year, 2023, will also bring elections in Turkey, which Erdogan will be desperate to win not just to stay in power – with everything that entails politically, economically and socially, and with respect to his international image and role – but also for historic reasons as he will want to lead Turkey into the dawn of its second century.
All these events will come at a time when Erdogan may also seek to avert public attention away from the dire straits of the economy and onto a non-domestic issue. The risk of such a policy being pursued is even greater due to the presence at his side of nationalist leader Devlet Bahceli, who draws political oxygen from tensions with Greece and Turkey.
It is obvious from this confluence of factors that we’re looking at a powder-keg situation and a serious risk of increased populism.
There is nothing we can do to control events in Turkey, apart from hoping that our neighbors will keep cool and avoid extreme reactions that could not only harm bilateral relations further, but also negatively impact Turkey’s economy and its relations with the United States and Europe – hopefully the perils are obvious to the serious minds on the other side of the Aegean.
Here in Greece, we will all – politicians, intellectuals and opinion shapers – be judged by whether we stir public sentiment or act maturely and responsibly during 2022, a year when history will cast a heavy shadow over our relations with Turkey, creating a rather tense setting that will require some very deft management.
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