Greek-Turkish Relations: History, Issues and Perspectives

Greek-Turkish Relations: History, Issues and Perspectives


Written by George Meneshian, Member of the Editorial Team of Libertas 


The Greece – Turkey dispute over the maritime zones in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Southern Aegean Sea is not a recent issue, and it is part of a wider Greek-Turkish conflict which essentially started in the 1950’s. In this article I will present the history, the content and the nature of this conflict as well as the arguments on both sides regarding the disputed issues, and I will conclude by presenting my personal opinion regarding a possible resolution of the conflict between Greece and Turkey.

After the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922 and the Treaty of Lausanne, and especially after the rapprochement of 1930 and the Balkan Treaty of 1934, the relations between the two countries became friendly. Both sides feared Bulgarian revisionism and that is why they maintained close ties until World War II and the Axis occupation of Greece. During the War, Turkey remained neutral but started supressing its Greek minority by imposing a wealth tax known as ‘Varlik Vergisi’.

Following the Second World War developments in the island of Cyprus worsened the relations between the two nations. The Greek Cypriots composing the 82% of the island’s population, started a rebellion against the British who controlled Cyprus since 1878. The rebels aspired to a union of Cyprus with Greece. However, Turkey was against the union of that island with Greece both for geostrategic reasons and from a desire to better protect the Turkish Muslim minority of the island. Reacting to these developments she persecuted the Greek community of Istanbul (the 1955 pogrom), and, in the following years (mid 1960s), it deported the possessors of Greek citizenship thus reducing the Greek population of the city, and actually greatly violating the Treaty of Lausanne which protected the more than a 100.000 Greek minority of Istanbul in return for the protection by Greece of the 110.000 Muslim minority in Western Thrace. To this day, the Greek minority in Istanbul comprises just 2.000 people while the Muslims of W. Thrace numbers over 120.000 citizens.

In 1959, a year after the inter-communal violence between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, the Zurich-London Agreements were signed, and Cyprus became an independent sovereign State. A triple guarantee was foreseen though making Greece, Turkey, and the United Kingdom the three guarantors of Cyprus’ security and integrity. In 1963 a constitutional crisis broke out which was followed by bloody clashes between the two communities.

In 1967, a military coup overthrew the democratic government of Greece and eventually exiled King Constantine II. In 1973 another coup occurred replacing the colonels’ regime with a fiercer and even more authoritarian regime. The new Greek dictator plotted a coup against the Cypriot leader archbishop Makarios III. Following the toppling of Makarios, Turkey using her prerogative as a protecting power invaded Cyprus, in 1974. The result was the occupation of the northern part of the island by Turkey.

In the meantime, Turkey from 1973 onwards, had started contesting the potential Greek continental shelf in the Aegean Sea. Earlier, from 1964 onwards, Turkey also claimed that the Greek islands in the Eastern Aegean must be demilitarised as foreseen in the Treaties of Lausanne (1923) and Paris (1947). After the invasion of Cyprus, new claims arose from the Turkish side, namely the challenging of the sovereign right of Greece to extend her territorial waters to 12 nautical miles (n.m.) under Article 3 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; the questioning of the boundaries of the Athens Flight Information Region (FIR); the geographical limits of the Greek operation line as accordant by NATO; the issue of the different boundaries of Greek territorial waters (6 n.m.) and national airspace (10 n. m.) - the “Greek Paradox”; the limits of the Search and Rescue (SAR) zone of Greece; and later, the challenging of the Greek sovereignty over a number of islands in the Aegean Sea with an intent of creating ‘Grey Zones’ in the archipelago. More recently (after 2011), Turkey started claiming that the Greek islands in the Eastern Mediterranean have not continental shelf at all. In the meantime, Ankara started questioning and actively denying the Cypriot Excluding Economic Zone (EEZ).

Of all these Turkish claims, Greece considers as acceptable for discussion only the delineation of maritime zones (continental shelf and EEZ), claiming that the other Turkish claims have no basis in international law or/and cannot be accepted for negotiations given that they are pertaining to the sovereign rights of the Hellenic Republic.

Other, non-official, issues between the two nations are: the political, religious and cultural interference of Turkey in Western Trace and the labelling of the Muslim Minority as ‘Turkish’ as well as the protection of the rights of this minority, the closure by Turkey of the Theological Seminary of Halki, the denial of the Pontic Greek Genocide by Turkey, the migration/refugee crisis, and, most recently, the transformation of Hagia Sophia and Kariye (Chora) into mosques.

The first major post-1974 crisis occurred in 1976 when Turkey started an exploratory mission with the seismic vessel called Chora. A greater crisis elapsed in 1987 when the Turkish survey ship ‘Piri Reis’, and later the ‘Sismik’ vessel, was sent to the area of Thasos as a response to Greece which was preparing to drill for oil in that particular area. In 1995 the Turkish parliament passed a bill according to which Turkey will declare war to Greece if the latter extends her territorial waters to 12 n.m. A casus belli which was reaffirmed in 2004 and was never withdrawn ever since. The third crisis was the Imia Islets Crisis in 1996, when Turkey challenged Greek sovereignty in a couple of islets and started using her ‘Grey Zone’ claims regarding the situation in the Aegean. In this context there was limited but critical military confrontation in the Imia islets resulting in the death of three Greek Navy officers. Another, crisis of a different n nature was the Cyprus Missile Crisis (1997-1998) which begun when Cyprus purchased the Russian S-300 missile system and ended when Greece transferred the missiles to Crete.  In 1999, a new crisis occurred when Turkey accused Greece of offering shelter to the leader of the Kurdish separatist armed group Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in the Greek embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.

Relations between Greece and Turkey improved after the 1999 Helsinki Summit where Turkey received the EU candidacy status as well as after Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rise to power. From 1999 onwards, explanatory talks were held between the two countries in order to find common ground for negotiating on the dispute(s). These talks were adjourned in 2016 and were supposed to restart in October 2020 but they never resumed. At this point, I would like to remind the reader that, until early 2010’s, Erdogan mostly behaved as a pro-Western, moderate and ‘liberal’ politician. He started becoming more authoritarian and adopting Pan-Islamic and nationalist rhetoric after 2010 and especially following the 2016 coup attempt.

Following the discovery of large amounts of hydrocarbon reserves in the Egyptian, Israeli and Cypriot EEZs, Turkey extended her interest from the Aegean to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, presenting maps with her claims over the Cypriot and the potential Greek EEZs (Blue Motherland), sending research or drill vessels (Yavuz, Oruc Reis, Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha) but also warships. Ankara believes that the Greek islands of Kastellorizo, Rhodes, Karpathos and Crete are not qualified for having continental shelf and thus EEZ. This thesis led to the Memorandum of Understanding signed between Turkey and the Libyan Tripoli-based Government of National Accord in November 2019. In March 2020, Turkey threatened the EU with unleashing thousands of migrants through her land borders with Greece in Evros but she was forced to evacuate the migrants from the area because Greece efficiently guarded her borders, the EU showed its solidarity to Greece but also probably because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the summer 2020, Turkey send vessels and warships to the area of Kastellorizo thus escalating the conflict with Greece.


But what about the arguments of both sides?

Territorial Waters

Turkey has extended her territorial waters in the Black Sea to 12 n.m. while Greece has just recently done the same in the Ionian Sea.

Greece relies upon both customary and conventional (UNCLOS) law in view of her intention to possibly proceed to the extension of her territorial waters to 12 n.m. in the Aegean Sea.

Turkey has her objections:

  1. She advocates that in the case of an enclosed or semi-enclosed sea, there must be a consensus between the two or more parties involved. However, international law says that the countries are obliged to cooperate only regarding environmental, search and research issues (Articles 122 and 123, UNCLOS). Expanding territorial waters, is a sovereign right for every State.
  2. Turkey also argues that, if Greece extends her territorial waters to 12 n. m., issues will arise regarding free maritime navigation in the Aegean. Yet, international law clearly foresees that in such cases, transit routes can be established to maintain the safe international shipping navigation.

In order to prevent the extension of the Greek territorial waters, the Turkish parliament has passed a bill (in 1995 and 2004) according to which, the extension of territorial waters to 12 n.m. by Greece is a casus belli (a case for war). This decision violates Article 2 (Paragraph 4) of the Charter of the United Nations according to which States must avoid threatening with the use of force.

National Airspace

As already mentioned, Greece has a 10 n.m. national airspace and 6 n.m. territorial waters. Turkey argues that Greece’s airspace cannot exceed the length of the territorial waters. Ankara recalls the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation according to which the extend of a countries national airspace must be in line with that of its land and territorial waters. With Greece’s declared intent to extend her territorial waters to 12 n.m. the country claims that the difference will be overcome. Another Greek argument is that from 1931 – when Greece declared her airspace – until 1974, Turkey did not react to Athens’ decision and thus she silently accepted the current Greek national airspace limits.

Continental Shelf (and EEZ)

Turkey has signed agreements regarding the demarcation of maritime zones with all the countries of the Black Sea (apart from Romania) and most recently with the Tripoli-based Libyan government. The Turco-Libyan Agreement is, according to UNCLOS, illegal and has no legal consequences given that it ignores that Greek islands possess continental shelf and EEZ. Greece on her part, has signed agreements for the delineation of maritime zones with Italy and Egypt (partially).

Greece on the one hand, believes that the fairest solution to this dispute is the application of the median and equidistance lines. Turkey on the other hand, argues that there are ‘special circumstances’ in the Aegean Sea and in the Eastern Mediterranean and she believes that solution to this issue must be found based on the principle of equity. Furthermore, Turkey denies the universally accepted fact that islands have continental shelf and EEZ.

According to the Law of the Sea, in seas with the geographical characteristics such as of the Mediterranean, when maritime zones are disputed, the countries involved must negotiate and agree on the limits of the continental shelf and the EEZ. If the parties do not reach an agreement, they should sign an arbitration agreement and jointly take recourse to the International Court at the Hague.

Turkey has not signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) or the 1958 Convention on the Continental Shelf. However, by signing the arbitration agreement, Turkey will de facto recognize the jurisdiction of the Court.

Demilitarisation of islands

Ankara demands the implementation of the Treaties of Lausanne and Paris and the demilitarisation of the Greek islands in the Eastern Aegean Sea. According to the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), the north-eastern Aegean islands nearby the Straits (Samothraki and Lemnos but also the Turkish-controlled Imbros and Bozcaada/Tenedos) must be fully demilitarised while the Eastern Aegean islands partially demilitarised. According to the Treaty of Paris (1947) the Dodecanese must be also fully demilitarised.

What are the Greek arguments?

First, Greece underlines that there are no military personnel stationed in the Aegean islands but only a National Guard protecting the islands. Besides, Greece answers that given the might of the Turkish “Aegean Army” with 120.000 strong right opposite these islands, it is only natural and in accordance with the UN provisions to exercise the elementary right of self-defence to militarise them. Let us not forget that apart from the amassment of troops there is the famous casus belli, a direct threat of war, and that there is the sad precedent of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Afterall, Turkey is the country which just invaded Syria and Iraq, and actively participated in other conflicts as in Libya and Nagorno Karabakh. Regarding the islands of Lemnos and Samothraki, Turkey remilitarised the Bosporus Straits in 1936. It is a natural consequence therefore that the islands facing the Straits should follow suit.

Grey Zones

The 1996 Imia Crisis brought another Turkish claim to the fore: disputing of the Greek sovereignty over several small islands and islets. Most of the disputed isles are located in the Dodecanese. However, Article 15 of the Treaty of Lausanne as well as the Turco-Italian Agreement of 1932 are clear about the status of these islands. Articles 12 and 16 of the Treaty of Lausanne are equally clear about the islands of the Aegean Sea. The Treaty highlights that only Imbros and Tenedos belong to Turkey.

Imia are part of the Dodecanese. According the 1932 Agreement between Turkey and Italy, all isles and islets that are located 3 miles beyond the Turkish coasts do not belong to Turkey but to Italy. Imia are located 4,2 miles from the Turkish coast thus they belonged to Italy. After World War II, according to the Treaty of Paris, Greece is the successor State regarding the sovereignty of the Dodecanese. Besides Turkey was not cosignatory of the Treaty of Paris. Therefore, it is clear that the Turkish claims are not complying with international law neither the relevant treaties.



It is clear that the Greek-Turkish relations are problematic and the disputes between the two nations are many and complex. War must be avoided. This is why the two parties must start anew a dialogue and negotiate in order to find a common ground. To achieve stability and prosperity international law must be implemented. The best way to resolve the conflict, is to agree on a framework that will eventually lead to a resource in the Hague. In order to follow this course of negotiation and the recourse to the Hague, Turkey must immediately stop its provocations particularly those of a military nature. It is also clear that there cannot be peace and stability in the region if the Cyprus Issue remains unresolved. Turkish forces must evacuate the island so Greek and Turkish Cypriots can implement the establishment of a bizonal, bicommunal federation. Afterall, it was for Cyprus that the two nations started their confrontation since 1955. It was the spark. Let it be now a final positive chapter. This will help the entire set of Greek-Turkish relations ameliorate. To proceed with the Greco-Turkish dialogue, it is also imperative for the European Union to agree on a concrete framework for its relationship with Turkey based on rules and principles. This, perhaps, will contribute to the talks between Greece and Turkey. Concluding, the long-standing Greco-Turkish conflict can be resolved in the context of an honest dialogue between the two nations based on international law. However, this dialogue must start through diplomacy thus the provocative actions and the sending of vessels in disputed areas constitute an obstacle to the Greek-Turkish dialogue.


About the author: 

George Meneshian is an international affairs analyst and a political consultant. He has studied International, European and Area Studies at Panteion University, Athens and he is a Master of Letters (MLitt) Candidate at the University of St Andrews, UK on Middle East Caucasus and Central Asia Security Studies. He is the Research Coordinator of the Foreign Policy, Defence and Security task group of the Centre for Russia, Eurasia and Southeastern Europe (Institute of International Relations). He is also a member of the Hellenic Institute for Strategic Studies and Young Liberals Greece. He is a regular contributor to the Greek news website “” and has published a series of articles and minor studies in various academic publications, electronic newspapers, and blogs. He is co-author of the book “The Greek-Albanian Relations: problems and perspectives” (2020). He speaks Greek, Armenian, English, and French.


posted on

November 19 2020

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