For Greece and Turkey, an Old Rivalry Flares

Eight Turkish military officers who may or may not have been involved in the attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last July are now at the center of a tense standoff between Greece and Turkey. At a time when Greece’s economy is still in limbo and Turks are caught between an increasingly authoritarian government and a surge in terrorist attacks, neither country can afford such a distraction. Yet the two neighbors find themselves at odds once again.

The men — two majors, four captains and two noncommissioned officers — turned up in the northern Greek town of Alexandroupolis in a military helicopter the day after the attempted coup. They have claimed that they were not knowingly involved in the rebellion — that they followed orders but were not aware a coup was in progress — but fled to escape persecution, asking for political asylum.

The government in Athens, one of the first to condemn the coup attempt while it was developing, was flustered. On the day the men turned up in Greece, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, spoke by telephone with his Greek counterpart, Nikos Kotzias, and demanded their extradition. On Twitter, he wrote that Mr. Kotzias told him “that eight traitors who fled to Greece will be returned to Turkey as soon as possible.” The Greek Foreign Ministry said the asylum request would be examined on the basis of “the provisions of Greek and international law,” but “it will be borne very seriously in mind that the arrested parties stand accused in their country of violating constitutional legality and attempting to overthrow democracy.”

Since then, the officers have become a touchstone by which many Greeks are testing the independence of their own judiciary and their country’s democratic principles. Those Greeks feel that even if the eight were involved in trying to topple a legitimate government, they should not be sent back to face a judicial system that, they fear, cannot guarantee fair trials. For the Turkish government, however, the eight are traitors, and their flight to Greece was in itself a provocation.

Greece and Turkey have been rivals for centuries. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, taking over the center of the Eastern Orthodox world and subjugating the Greeks to their rule for nearly 400 years. The Greek state was established after a war of independence that began in 1821, and over the next 100 years the two nations clashed repeatedly as Greece tried to liberate fellow Greeks still under Ottoman rule. After Turkish forces routed a Greek army in Asia Minor in 1922, the Lausanne Treaty established the borders of the Republic of Turkey. An exchange of populations ended over two millenniums of a Greek presence in Asia Minor. The two NATO members again nearly went to war in 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus, and also in 1987 and 1996 over disputed territory and rights in the Aegean Sea.

A Turkish military officer being transferred to court in northern Greece in July. Antonis Pasvantis/Associated Press
A Turkish military officer being transferred to court in northern Greece in July. Antonis Pasvantis/Associated Press

Turkish military planes and ships continually test Greece’s sovereignty in the Aegean, with frequent flights over islets that Turkey claims were not ceded to Greece in treaties. Lately, the pressure has increased. Mr. Cavusoglu recently declared that a pair of islets — called Imia — are “Turkish soil,” while an opposition party leader claimed that Greece occupied 18 islands in the Aegean. Athens responded angrily to both claims. Mr. Erdogan has even taken to questioning the Lausanne Treaty itself, threatening to disrupt the agreement that settled the two countries’ common border.

Meanwhile, negotiations under United Nations auspices to end the Turkish occupation of part of Cyprus and reunite Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots on the independent island are at a crucial phase. A conference starting in Geneva on Jan. 12, which will include Greek and Turkish delegations, will depend very much on good will from Ankara for a breakthrough in one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

Equally important, Turkey can control the flow of refugees and migrants toward the European Union through Greece. An agreement whereby the European Union will expedite Turkey’s accession while the latter will keep migrants from leaving for Europe is looking increasingly fragile. Ankara’s persecution of lawyers, judges, academics, journalists, opposition politicians and others is one of the main causes of friction with the European Union and human rights organizations. Greece, a member of the European Union and already struggling with more immigrants than it can handle, now has to balance respect for asylum seekers with the possible fallout from an angry Turkey.

Some 300 lawyers and 3,000 judges were arrested or detained in Turkey after the failed coup, according to the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (C.C.B.E.), which represents more than one million lawyers in 45 countries. “Human rights and rule of law have been severely undermined by way of 11 decree laws enacted under the state of emergency legislation,” it said in a statement on Dec. 12. “Hundreds of civil society organizations have been shut down, with many being detained incommunicado, a wide censorship on media has been put in place, thousands of public servants (including judges and prosecutors) have been removed from office and arrested. Against this background, lawyers are facing overwhelming obstacles in defending their clients.”

The head of Turkey’s bar association, Metin Feyzioglu, put it bluntly in a statement distributed by the C.C.B.E.: “The governmental decrees of the state of emergency are directly targeting the right to defense and the legal profession. The actual targets are the fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizens which are being defended by lawyers,” he said. “Our citizens no longer trust the judiciary. The judiciary is no longer the guarantee of the country.”

This is what alarms Greek intellectuals, lawyers, human rights activists and members of the public. To them it is inconceivable that their judiciary and government could reject the supplicants, sending them to face the risk of harsh treatment and an unfair trial — perhaps even death, if Mr. Erdogan carries out his threat to reinstate the death penalty. A recent poll found that 60 percent of Greeks were opposed to upholding Turkey’s extradition request. On the other hand, Greek officials are aware that Turkey holds the key to many serious issues between the countries.

Kostis Papaioannou, who was secretary general for human rights at the Justice Ministry until November (resigning after a cabinet reshuffle), noted that no one could question the Turkish government’s right to protect legality. But regarding the eight, he added: “We are not interested in the level of their involvement in the attempted coup, our sole concern is their fate if they find themselves in the hands of the Turkish authorities. Greek judges are called on to rule on the basis of their conscience and not according to unspecified appeals regarding national interests.”

The story so far underlines the extent of the anxiety that the eight asylum seekers have provoked. A council of Appeals Court judges, in two separate sessions with different judges, ruled that Turkey’s extradition request for five should be rejected, while the same court, with other judges, decided that three should be sent back. The difference prompted suspicions of political pressure on the judges. The Supreme Court will now hear the cases on Jan. 10, 11 and 13, and Justice Minister Stavros Kontonis could have the final say if the government chooses to override the court’s ruling. On Tuesday, Mr. Kontonis rejected activists’ claims of government intervention in the issue.

People have always crossed the Aegean in search of asylum. Even Themistocles, the great Athenian leader whose strategy and tactics defeated an invading Persian army in the fifth century B.C., found refuge in Asia Minor, then ruled by Persia, when his fellow citizens turned against him. For the Greek government, it might have been easier if the asylum seekers were intellectuals or artists, not alleged conspirators against a legitimate government. But it is in respecting the rights of all — regardless of who they are — that democracies must measure themselves.

Nikos Konstandaras, the managing editor and a columnist at the newspaper Kathimerini, is a contributing opinion writer.

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