04 December 2022

Is Turkey voting
this Christmas
for a new Aegean
conflict with Greece?

Ephesus, a major Greek classical site, is at the heart of a new Turkish tourism campaign for the Aegean (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The phrase about ‘Turkeys voting for Christmas’ is often used to describe a situation when a choice is made that is clearly against one’s self-interest. The phrase is not easily explained outside these islands, because while turkeys are commonly associated with (non-vegetarian) Christmas dinners here, in the US they are associated with Thanksgiving, which falls on the fourth Thursday in November.

‘Turkeys voting for Christmas’ is an idiom with a very recent history. It seems the first time that phrase was used in 1977 by the Liberal politician David Penhaligon, when he said Liberal MPs voting the proposed ‘Lib-Lab’ pact between the Liberals and the Labour party was ‘like a turkey voting for Christmas.’

The phrase was used again in 1979 when the Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan said Scottish Nationalists voting alongside Conservative MPs against the Labour government was ‘the first time in recorded history that turkeys have been known to vote for an early Christmas.’

Sunset in the Aegean at Kusadasi … a popular destination for Irish tourists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

* * *

The ‘Avian Flu’ epidemic has created a shortage of turkeys in many places this year. And since earlier this year there has been no Turkey at the United Nations either.

Turkey is now known officially as Türkiye at the UN, following a formal request from Ankara. Several international bodies are being asked to make the name change too as part of a rebranding campaign launched a year ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

‘Türkiye is the best representation and expression of the Turkish people’s culture, civilisation, and values,’ he said last December.

Although most Turks know their country as Türkiye, the anglicised form Turkey is widely used, even within Turkey. The Anglicised forms of the names of many countries are commonly used in the English language – think not only of Ireland, but also Germany, Spain and Greece. Indeed, Erdoğan has no problems about using the name Yunanistan for neighbouring Greece when he is speaking Turkish.

The Turkish state television channel TRT explained the reason for the image rebrand, saying Ergdogan was unhappy of the association of his country’s name with the Christmas, New Year or Thanksgiving bird. TRT also pointed out that the word is also used in some dictionaries as a synonym for ‘something that fails badly’ or ‘a stupid or silly person.’

Turkish and Greek flags fly side-by-side on a ferry between Samos and Kusadasi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Tension rooted
in old wounds

For the past year, tension has been growing between Greece and Turkey, rooted in old wounds, stoked by insults and causing frayed nerves. Hardly a day has gone by this year without shots being fired between the two armies. On national news channels, military and diplomatic experts daily debate the risks of conflict.

A visit to Istanbul in March by the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis was expected to lead to attempts to bridge the gap between both sides. But Erdoğan is known for his outbursts, anger and insults. In recent months, his insults have been directed in particular at the Greek government and Mitsotakis.

At the G20 meeting in Bali last month, Erdoğan issued new threats to Greece, warning Greeks that the Turks may ‘overnight come suddenly.’ Speaking at a press conference, Erdoğan was defiant as he took the advantage of a unique international to repeat the threat that ‘one night we will come suddenly.’

He was repeating the words of an old Turkish song that says: ‘I can come suddenly one night.’ The same song was regularly broadcast on Turkish radio during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus almost half a century ago in 1974.

He said: ‘I insist on one night we will come suddenly. This statement is important to me. Greece must know its borders and the terms of the neighbourhood ... If they read the past, they will see what has happened. What I said is not a question of power, it is a question of the heart.’

At the same time, Erdoğan told a Turkish television station: ‘What I’ve been saying for ever, that we can come suddenly one night, this is a basic principle. To me, this is a phrase that cannot be taken back … So, we can suddenly get there again.’

But he has been saying the same throughout the year. On the eve of the European Summit in Prague in October, the Greek prime minister left the official dinner during a speech in which Erdoğan once again threatened Greece with the words of that old Turkish song, ‘I can come suddenly one night.’

‘For me, no one named Mitsotakis will exist any longer from now on,’ Erdoğan said at the end of May. ‘I will never accept [seeing] him again,’ he added, accusing the Greek Prime Minister of being ‘dishonest.’

‘Warehouse: Greek Shop’ … a Greek sign seen in the Bazaar in Kuşadasi, once known to Greeks as Neopolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

* * *

Communications through normal diplomatic channels have all but broken down, and Turkish air patrols over Greek territory have never been so frequent as today.

Greek Ministry of Defence records show that between January and October this year there were 8,880 violations of Greek airspace by Turkish planes and drones, compared with 2,744 in 2021 and barely a few hundred in previous years.

A maritime and gas deal signed by Turkey and Libya earlier this year has been seen as an attempt by Turkey to expand its influence in the East Mediterranean. In response, the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias called off the first leg of a visit to Libya, and refused to get off his plane in Tripoli.

Greece and Turkey are both NATO members, but they came close to armed conflict in 1996 and again in 2020. Periklis Zorzovilis of the Greek Institute for Security and Defence Analysis points out, ‘When so many fighter jets fly over such a small area, the possibility of an accident is very real.’

Windmills in the harbour in Rhodes … a narrow strait separates Rhodes from the thin peninsulas of Anatolian Turkey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Aegean tensions on
identity and tourism

The tensions between Turkey and Greece are not only political and military, they have also become conflicts over culture, heritage identity and tourism. Turkey recently launched a campaign to lure tourists with a ‘TurkAegean’ promotional campaign – against a backdrop of historic Greek sites and the sound of bouzouki music.

Turkey’s west coast faces the Aegean Sea, and Turkey claims the time has come to stop associating the region exclusively with Greece. But the campaign has caused anger and embarrassment in Athens. The ancient Greek name is derived from Aegeus, the father of the mythical king Theseus who founded Athens, and the Aegean’s Hellenic heritage has rarely been disputed.

Turkey filed a request with the EU a year ago to trademark the term ‘TurkAegean.’ Angry Greek politicians and officials were caught off guard and accused Turkey of usurping Greek culture. ‘Obviously the [Greek] government will exhaust every legal possibility to deal with this development,’ Prime Minister Mitsotakis said. Margaritis Schinas, the Greek vice-president of the European Commission, demanded a review of the decision.

The TurkAegean slogan is being used in advertising and promoting what Turkey is labelling its ‘coastline of happiness’ with ‘idyllic beaches to soak up the beaming sun.’ The classical and historical sites in the area include ancient Troy, Ephesus, once the most important Greek port in the Mediterranean, and sites dating back to the second century BCE.

‘It is not just an innocent advert but another argument that is being used to ultimately question our sovereignty over Greek islands in the Aegean,’ the former foreign minister and Syriza MP, George Katrougalos, was quoted as saying. ‘… the term implies, as a corollary of their propaganda, that all, or most, of the Aegean is Turkish and that is clearly wrong.’

Analysts do not rule out these tensions escalating into a military clash, either deliberately or by accident. ‘There has been a very aggressive, almost apocalyptic upgrading of Turkish claims in the Aegean,’ Professor Constantinos Filis of the American College of Greece has warned. ‘It is like Turkey is preparing the international audience for what could possibly lie ahead.’

Fishing boats and tourist boats by night in the harbour in Fethiye, south-west Turkey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

* * *

For many decades, Turkey accepted the maritime boundaries in the Aegean, defined by treaties and agreements with the Italians in 1923 and 1932, and ratified by the Treaty of Paris in 1947. The boundaries were never challenged until 1996, when Turkish journalists from the daily Hurriyet landed on the tiny Imia islets, tore down the blue and white Greek flag and hoisted the red and white star and crescent of Turkey.

As the crisis deepened, I was sent as a journalist to Rhodes and Kos to look at the potential of war. Two years later, I wrote in The Irish Times how, looking across the narrow strait that separates Rhodes from the thin, finger-like peninsulas that jut out from Anatolian Turkey, it is easy to understand why local people talk in terms of ‘when the Turks come,’ and rarely ‘if …’

This year marks the centenary of the Greek-Turkish war of 1919-1922 and its culmination in the massacre of Smyrna and the military defeat for Greece. Erdoğan repeatedly invokes that war, saying that, 100 years on, Greece should not be bristling for a fight that it would once again ‘regret’.

Canon Patrick Comerford blogs daily at www.patrickcomerford.com. This feature was originally prepared for the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough)

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