Trapped into Fantasies: On the recent escalation of Greco-Turkish relations

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Following what seems to be a general trend in international relations, tensions have been escalating in the last months between Greece and Turkey, two states whose rivalry, with many ups and downs, goes back to the time that they have both been politically formed as modern nations. The word “war” has not been officially voiced by any of the two involved parties in the form of a willful political choice, they rather present themselves as peace-loving nations (even when they invade another country (!), like Turkey.

Trapped into Fantasies: On the recent escalation of Greco-Turkish relations

Shameless—armored in shamelessness—always shrewd with greed!
How could any Argive soldier obey your orders, freely and gladly do your sailing for you or fight your enemies, full force? Not I. no.
It wasn't Trojan spearmen who brought me here to fight. The Trojans never did me damage, not in the least, they never stole my cattle or my horses, never in Phthia where the rich soil breeds strong men did they lay waste my crops. How could they? Look at the endless miles that lie between us ...
The Iliad, Book I, 174-184

Following what seems to be a general trend in international relations, tensions have been escalating in the last months between Greece and Turkey, two states whose rivalry, with many ups and downs, goes back to the time that they have both been politically formed as modern nations. The word “war” has not been officially voiced by any of the two involved parties in the form of a willful political choice, they rather present themselves as peace-loving nations (even when they invade another country (!), like Turkey. Still, there is a steady frequency in aggressive rhetorical statements and show-offs of military preparedness and strength, like the (declared in an interview) mobilization of soldiers on the border by the Greek ministry of defense. If fantasies of war always prepare for real wars, the specter of an armed conflict has made its appearance for good. Naturally, as we live in Greece, our experience and perspective cannot but derive from the way events are perceived, represented, and mediated here. The statement concerns also debates and discussions taking place within the local left and anarchist/antiauthoritarian space, in whose problematic and concerns we share and want to contribute. On the other hand, a balanced analysis of the situation requires to extend the scope to Turkish politics, as part of a movement of thought that seeks along with a roundup understanding to encounter similar movements coming from the “other” side of the Aegean.

Enzo Traverso has said that civil war is always a tragedy.1 The same surely can be said of war in general, even more so indeed from the perspective of an internationalist political vision that conceives of (and practices) solidarity, mutuality, and cooperation among peoples as constitutive features of a just international system. And yet, peace can many times be the form of the worst tyranny. That war is always a tragedy does not foreground pacifism as an axiomatic political stance; like civil wars, there may be wars that deserve our participation. Therefore, to determine what political attitude must be adopted in a crisis that involves war as its immanent possibility, it is necessary, here as elsewhere, to follow Lenin’s prescription and analyze the concrete situation.2

The concrete issues which have served to fuel the tension between Greece and Turkey are many: from the refusal of the Greek courts to hand in the Turkish officers who have fled to Greece after the failed 2017 military coup in Turkey, to the revisionist statements coming from Turkish state-officials (the President included) about the Lausanne treaty, to the recent detainment of two Greek soldiers who (according to the official version) accidentally crossed the Greco-Turkish borders,3 to the far more serious issue of drilling operations in the east Aegean, which aims to explore the magnitude of natural gas reserves. While these events may seem to lack an intrinsic connection, they are weaved together in the rivaling narratives of the two states, narratives that serve to produce the necessary discursive/ideological background in the unfolding tension.

This main thrust of the dominant narrative in Greece, expressed not only by official state-sources but also from the big Mass Media, is that Turkey follows an aggressive policy towards Greece, “Turkish provocation” being the watchword in official statements and media reports. This is the perspective adopted, in a relatively mild form, by EU officials in the recent summit with Turkey. An interesting question would be why the European political elite has chosen to play this card, while its agreement with Turkey concerning the containment of refugees still stands. The EU has also shown no interest in trying to inhibit the Turkish invasion in Syria, apart from expressing some rather weak humanitarian concerns. But this is an aspect of the issue, the role of “Great Powers”, that we will not attend to in any detail. The main point at present is that the story, as told in Greece, has a dragon, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is largely being depicted as a megalomaniac dictator, a “Sultan” as the Greek media like to say.

People can believe all sorts of crazy things, but usually, a story to be convincing must have a grain of truth. It is certainly not a lie that Turkey and its leader have been following an aggressive and rhetorically inflammatory foreign policy on all fronts, under the twin pressure of the volatile domestic situation and geopolitical developments in the wider region. Nor is it Greek propaganda that Erdogan after the coup has been purging the state mechanism of all opposition, real or imaginary, and is methodically setting up an authoritarian regime. As the recent repression of protests against staged celebrations for the victory in Afrin shows, repression of the domestic enemy is a necessary presupposition and moment in any expansionist foreign policy. To be sure, we are skeptical with any reduction to individual psychopathology as well as with the use of words like “fascist”, which some comrades in Greece are using to refer to Erdogan. Not that the Turkish regime lacks fascists elements, but it is important to be cautious with categories which are basic tools in the official narrative of the Greek state (the Greek media have even become sensitive to the drama of Kurdish people in Afrin in order to support the image of an aggressive Turkey guided by a ruthless ruler). Turkish foreign policy, both in the Aegean and in the Middle East, has rational motivations dictated by geopolitical and economic interests. More than that, some of Turkey’s moves are probably reactive in nature, responding to initiatives taken by other agents.

Affirming its rational dimension does not contradict that, like all states, Turkish foreign policy has a paranoid core, which induces a state to relate to its outside by measuring and evaluating it according to its own self-posited image and standards. In the case of Turkey, this paranoid core during the years of Erdogan’s AKP hegemony (Justice and Development Party, Turkey’s ruling party since 2002) has been framed by an uneasy blend of traditional Turkish (“Kemalic”) nationalism, committed to maintaining the unity/integrity of the state and on modernization, with “Neo-Ottomanism”. Admittedly, the latter notion is something of a red herring, but whatever its overall conceptual merits it does refer to a real process, the desire to make Turkey the leader of the Muslim world along the lines of the Ottoman Empire, itself subject to systematic ideological rehabilitation. Obviously, much like revolutions, one cannot just will an empire into being and Turkish foreign policy is a far more complex affair than a calculated expansionist plan aiming to create a “neo-Ottoman Empire”. Yet, the desire for political hegemony – which would, of course, bolster also economic growth and power – must not be dismissed as a potent factor of Turkish foreign policy. Nor is this desire a matter of wishful thinking; rather its growth under the guise of Neo-Ottomanism runs parallel to the marked economic and political growth that Turkey has been undergoing since 2000. Imperial ambitions are traceable, apart from the torrent of revisionist claims coming from AKP, in Turkey’s policy in the Middle East. The instability (verging on chaos) that reigns in the region may not have been of Turkey’s design but it has enabled the Turkish state to seek to expand its influence, from the support to the opposition groups (including the officially denied yet probably real aid offered to ISIS), to the recent direct military invasion in north Syria. In this context, the affective interplay between, one the one hand, fears for security and territorial integrity and, on the other, ambitions for expansion appears to be reaching the intensity of delirium (which is not to be confused with being “irrational”). This makes Turkey a factor of destabilization and thus a potential problem to the eyes of other big players, notably the United States, but also the EU. Will Great Power realpolitik make Erdogan a victim of his own fantasies? It remains to be seen, although as long as he enjoys popularity inside Turkey and is in control of the Turkish state, toppling him will not be easy (assuming that this ever becomes a real plan).

Given its heavy engagement eastwards, it may seem that the Turkish state has no reason to escalate tensions westwards. But foreign policy is not a geopolitical game of chess played by calculating machines. At a time when the fantasies and delirium of a state increase it should be expected to infuse its interest-driven choices with a good deal of adventurism and risk, especially so when Greco-Turkish relations continue to offer to Erdogan an outlet for releasing pressure and for cheap boasts. Whether it can be called properly fascist or not (a thesis which, as said, we are skeptical of), to the extent that it installs a dynamic form of authoritarianism – like historical fascism was – the Ergodan regime appears to share the propensity to war as a means to maintain its élan but also to manage domestic tensions. The actual extent that this is the case remains to be seen, along with the extent the developing authoritarianism of the regime will be formalized (Turkey, let’s not forget, is still constitutionally a Republic, whose ruling power is sanctioned by nominally free elections). In all cases, however, the way the Erdogan regime has chosen to use the incident with the two Greek soldiers as an opportunity of diplomatic escalation is indicative of the fact that current Greco-Turkish relations involve a pressured but also aggression-emitting center of power, which may well choose to escalate the tension even further.

The fact that Erdogan seems to conform to the image of a megalomaniac ruler makes him all the more conducive for playing the role of the villain in the narrative that the Greek state has set about “Turkish provocation”. However, for all the undeniably provocative and aggressive attitude of the Turkish government, the point of fact is that the escalation of Greco-Turkish relations is not entirely unidirectional but unfolds through actions committed by both states.

It is hardly necessary to engage in extensive geopolitical analyses to grasp that the main material content of the tension between Greece and Turkey is control of the Aegean, especially at a conjuncture when there is the potential for a significant upgrade in the area’s significance as a center of energy production. The potential, real enough to attract giants of the energy-industry, serves to aggravate the traditional rivalry the two states have over a very important geostrategic area. On this issue there is little to be doubted: the current tension is at its heart an expression of interstate rivalry and of all the organized interests that are housed within. Moreover, it is to be expected that each state justifies – in the substantial sense of representing as just and rightful – its own claims, while castigating the other side’s claims as aggressive. Such a need for justification, always present, becomes even more necessary at a historical period when interstate relations are supposed to be under the international rule of law.

It is sad, yet once again to be expected, that a large part of the Greek Left endorses to a greater or lesser degree the official Greek narrative. Although with significantly different shades, from the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) to the numerous left-nationalist parties/groupuscules, the patriotic Left has long identified with the Greek state, to which it aspires to give its proper form. Hence, it naturally adopts (even critically and with the necessary distinction between the ruling classes and the toiling people) the Greek state’s perspective in cases of interstate tensions. The Macedonian issue is another very recent example of this identification. Leftist patriotism is spiced by a good dash of leftist fantasy, that like in the past (the 1940s partisan war of liberation again Nazi rule) the Left will be called upon to fight and prove that it is the true patriotic force. Unfortunately, for those who harbor them, these expectations connect very little to the realities of modern warfare, which does not require the mass mobilization of soldiers, even when armed conflict escalates further than a low scale military engagement. What leftist patriotism does, apart from feeding its own fantasies, is (unwittingly or consciously) legitimizing the nationalist narrative of the Greek state, adding simply some good old anti-imperialist verbiage about the sinister role of NATO and the “Americans”.

Questioning the official Greek narrative does not mean opting for the opposite scenario of “Greek provocation”, not at least at the level suggested by some analyses offered in Greece as a leverage to prevailing nationalist narratives. To be sure, Greece’s actions hardly conform to the image the Greek state loves to represent itself, that of a “factor of peace and stability in the region”. The Greek state has consistently and unilaterally reserved a right to extend its waters in the Aegean to 12 miles, a change that clearly cannot have Turkey’s approval. More recently the Greek state has sought to exclude Turkey from the energy circuit that is prospected to be established in the Aegean region. To the very real interests of Greek capitalists and the compulsion for economic growth that drives their actions must be added, as potent factor, the identification of the Aegean as a sea that is Greek by historical right, an idea that has long nourished the collective imaginary as well as the paranoid core of the Greek state. Ambition combined with fears of security – which feed the paranoia of all states and which in the Greek case are heightened by the rivalry with a powerful and ambitious state (Turkey) – underscore the recent geopolitical moves of the Greek state, notably the choice to build a stronger alliance with Israel and Egypt. In this way, the Greek state follows an extremely risky strategy, dubbed as “geostrategic upgrading”, which puts it deeper into the ugly mess of escalating Great Power rivalries. It is not the first time when ambition-cum-(ill-advised)-trust in powerful allies has led the Greek state to look beyond its real capacities; sadly, last time this happened, in 1922, when the Greek state under the auspices of the Allies waged war into Asia Minor against the rising Turkish state, Greece faced a catastrophe of world-historic proportions.

There is certainly thus an aggressive element in the foreign policy of the Greek state. Yet, there is very little to suggest, other than already formed conviction, that the official strategy pursued by the Greek government in the current conjuncture is to pursue war with Turkey, even less so an “expansionist war”. We need here to take under consideration that the Greek government, in view of the coming elections in 2019, is in real need of proving to the citizens that the days of the crisis are left in the past. Adopting a hardline attitude towards Turkey may seem one possible way to do it, and the Greek state’s recent geostrategic moves show that it regains its nerve after the political turbulence of the 2010-2015 period. Then again, the economy shows signs of a return to growth and a possible war may prove very costly in various ways. Also, there is a question of whether the main partner of the current government, SYRIZA, is ideologically equipped to lead a war which would force them to adopt policies in situations that the (far) right is theoretically more prepared to manage. At any rate, this is a side-thought not weighing on the overall argument. The main point is that the current government, at least its major partner, does not seem to have a war as its main priority. For sure, as it always happens, there are warmongering fractions within the state-mechanism, which far from being marginal are represented in official positions and can press towards an escalation of tensions. Let’s not forget that the junior partner of the government is a nationalist right party, whose president (and minister of defense) is almost a Greek minor version of Trump. Yet, at a period when a fragile stability has been achieved and the economy has started to recover (in terms of numbers at least), whilst fundamental aspects of domestic policy are still under close foreign supervision, we cannot see how such hardliners (the “hawks” of the Greek state) can be really considered to dictate foreign policy. Equally ill-advised is to take geopolitical scenarios, this mixture of fantasy and realpolitik that earns a living to many bureaucrats of state-thought, as proof of an unfolding plan. All state rivalry entails war as its immanent possibility and in wanting to exclude Turkey from the prospected spoils that the exploitation of Aegean’s energy resources will bring the Greek ruling class takes a conscious risk. Perhaps, the Greek ruling class, having survived the political crisis that the struggles of previous years had brought, maybe also reconsidering the Greek state’s position in the region. In this context, it may even contemplate the extent that a minor incident with Turkey may elevate its status, though truth be told we are not sure if a few sea-miles suffice to call a war “expansionist” in a meaningful rather than formal sense. But this is a long away from deliberately provoking war and there is not much in the diplomatic moves of the Greek government to support such a claim.

Another problem with the idea that Greece is preparing for an aggressive war with Turkey is that it undermines the Greek state’s status in the wider geopolitical structure forming the global capitalist system. The greco-turkish rivalry does not take place in a vacuum, it unfolds in a geopolitical map defined by the big players, the Great Powers of today’s world. If Turkey can legitimately entertain fantasies of being one of them, Greece certainly cannot. From the days of its independence, to the heydays of its ambitions for expansion in 1914-1922 and later of its economic expansionism in the 1990s, to its recent bailout in 2010 until today’s supervision, the Greek state and its ruling class have been depended in more than one ways on (mostly Western) imperialist powers. This does not mean that Greece is simply a servile executioner of imperialist dictates, without its own ambitions and interests. But its position in the geopolitical hierarchy prevents it from following a fully independent foreign policy. To this extent, talking today about “Greek imperialism”, as if the fantasies of the past still hold sway on the realities of the present, does not seem to us to be politically helpful or analytically intuitive. In any case, the point of the matter is that to our eyes the idea that Greece seeks irrespective, or worse in defiance, of USA’s and EU’s wishes to provoke a war with Turkey is difficult to sustain. How can indeed be ignored that Turkey holds one of the biggest armies of NATO (to which Greece belongs) but also has an agreement with the EU to contain refugees (many of whom would pass to/from Greece)?

Based on this rough sketch of Greco-Turkish rivalry and the forces that drive it, we may conclude that responsibility for Greco-Turkish rivalry lies in both states but the recent escalation stems mainly from the deliberate provocations of Turkey, which in their own turn, however, have been partly agitated by concrete moves of Greece in the Aegean (more directly those that concern exploitation of potential energy resources and more indirectly from its new geostrategic alliances). In a sense, therefore, as with so many past wars, a possible armed conflict would happen for the “oil” (in this case the “gas”). But our analysis suggested that there is much more involved. Indeed, important as it is to stress the role of economic interests, it does not suffice to ward off popular support either of the drilling or even of a war. For it is the very essence of the nation-state to produce libidinal and imaginary identifications between the state apparatus and its citizen body. From this point of view – especially at a time when capitalism still appears to most as the evident form of economic activity – entitlement to the resources of the Aegean will not be reduced to the direct economic agents who undertake and profit from the operations; at best, there will be demands for a fairer distribution of gains. Having said that, we are not sure that the prospect of Greece becoming an energy producing-state is enough to mobilize or legitimize war at present. It is rather the experience of being threatened and provoked, in a word victimization, which will not only legitimize war but may even make it a (perversely) pleasurable spectacle, at least to the eyes of some. Without, thus, disregarding the need to stress the class dimension immanent to the tensions, that the few will gain and the many will pay, it is of utmost significance to systematically challenge the official narrative about “Greece the innocent victim of Turkish provocation”. This needs to be done however in a focused way which does not deny or undermine that there are provocations coming from a regime on its way to more formal forms of authoritarianism.

Part of this critical operation entails dispelling the ideas that the patriotic Left promotes about “dangers to Greek sovereignty” (or vice versa to Turkish sovereignty). The discourse means to evoke collective specters of Turkish occupation, which are central to the construction of modern Greek identity (and we suppose similar specters of Greek invasion would be raised by Turkish state propaganda). It also serves to justify the patriotic Left’s attitude; for who would deny that fighting to resist occupation, i.e. loss of political independence or of inhabited territories, is not a just cause, one that deserves to support and identify with? But no less than a spectral Greek imperialism is Turkish neo-Ottomanism a sufficient analytical frame for understanding the unfolding tensions. Erdogan and the power block he represents may well fantasize a restoration of the Ottoman Empire as the proper form of Turkish politico-economic growth. Less grandiosely, the Turkish state certainly has aspired to act as a hegemonic power in the wider region and it also entertains revisionist aspirations. But it is to be seriously doubted whether at this moment Turkish foreign policy aims to expand westwards. After all, even if changes in the geopolitical map are entertained by the Turkish regime there are too many factors in the equation (NATO, EU, a not-negligible Greek Army) to take into consideration before deciding a full-scale invasion. The only territorial stake in a potential war between Greece and Turkey currently concerns entitlements to the exploitation of the Aegean as defined by sea miles. So, once again, all this endless talk about Greek sovereignty being threatened is an expression of the Left’s identification with the interests of the Greek state. For a truly internationalist perspective, which a leftwing perspective supposedly embodies, would be to propose for and promote a mutual, collective management of energy resources, not defending the right of one state vis-à-vis the other and thus augmenting its paranoid investments. For rivaling fantasies tend to spill out and to fuel each other, making the conflict of real interests all the more dangerous.

There is nothing in the current rivalry that is worth the support of people who are committed to an improvement of the living conditions of the working classes and even less to a radical transformation of current sociopolitical structures. Principled opposition to nationalist discourse and a potential war is to our eyes the only consistent option for those who belong to the left political spectrum, or more specifically to its anti-authoritarian/anarchist wing. But this does not correlate adopting defeatism as a political tactic, with the hope that the defeat of one’s own state will lead the war to a revolutionary direction. We admit finding in the whole discussion an extremely thin connection to our historical conjuncture. In contrast, as with the patriotic Left’s fantasies about popular mobilization against a foreign threat, the promotion of defeatism reveals how our image of the present is mediated by past experiences, verifying Marx’s classic adage about the burden that the dead exert on the living.4 At the current historical moment, a war between Greece and Turkey will not take the form of generalized warfare requiring mass mobilization, or leading to mass slaughter, it will be what is technically called a “minor incident”. There is very little to be gained by a defeat of the Greek state in this scenario; “defeat”, indeed, will not mean a general collapse of political legitimacy as much as a perceived (and media boosted) national humiliation that will discredit the current government and open the way for a more reactionary rightwing government to come to office. To avoid misconceptions, this hardly means support for the government or the war effort in case it actually breaks out. In such a case we continue to hold that, as long as the terms of the conflict remain what they are now, we should push for an immediate ceasefire without any territorial changes or adverse terms for any of the two countries.

True, no harm is done by theoretical discussion over tactics, since at some point these may prove productive; provided however that these are not taken out of their historical context. In these terms, we hold to the thesis that defeatism makes at the current conjuncture very little sense.

Opposition to war does not only mean agitating domestically against home-grown nationalism. It also means staying true to an internationalist perspective and establishing contacts with anti-militarist forces from the “other” side. We consider it to be of huge importance to initiate an open discussion and honest communication in and between both sides of the Aegean among those that hold internationalism, one also that is class-focused, to be the right stance in this conflict. It is essential that we do not consider ourselves as pawns in the hands of those forces that are pushing for war in the Aegean. But if the building of an antiwar movement that spreads in both states is one of the critical stakes today, is it also a real possibility?

Truth be told the Left and even more, the anarchist/authoritarian space lacks the power to block a war. A possible military engagement, even of a minor type (as is the most likely possibility at present), is sadly expected to lead to an inflation of nationalist sentiment in both sides of the Aegean. The nationalist fantasies that feed of and sustain the very real geopolitical rivalries between the two states will intensify, but some of them will also be frustrated and the ideological battle over the necessary mediation of the experience will continue. Highlighting how much of the relevant leftist discourse is trapped to its own fantasies does not mean that we claim to speak from a realist standpoint free from its own imaginary investments. But it is imperative, to be honest, self-critical, and never lose sight of the historical conjuncture, with its concrete power relations and the particular problems and tasks it poses.

It has been also admitted that politics, as a form of collective thought, need to anticipate, even the worst scenarios. Given especially how the current escalation of Greco-Turkish relations is just one among many tensions that prefigure a generalized collapse of order, the various trends in the anarchist and radical left space in Greece and in Turkey have the duty to think through what such a scenario would mean for the projects that they are carriers of, without however confusing anticipation for reality. In this context, it is worth offering the last note. It is sad to see many analyses that have become experts in geopolitics to have nothing positive to say on the Kurdish struggle. Surely, there has been also some idealization, fueled by yet other forms of imaginary investment. But, important as geopolitics maybe, not simply as a context but as an effective force that crosses through and materially influences class-relations and subaltern struggles, it continues to be a state-language that concerns the relations of forces between molar crystallizations of organized power. A critical discourse committed to emancipation and radical change must always look at the lines of flight that at any given moment and conjuncture unsettle and interrupt the molar segmentations of geopolitics. For all its inevitable contradictions and impasses, which require critical attention, the Kurdish struggle in Syria is we believe such a line of flight, especially in the political and social forms with which it experiments. Revolutionary fantasies? Perhaps, but at least, instead of feeding nationalism or resurrecting relics of the past, they allow thought to look forward.

What the future will hold and ask us to confront remains to be seen. At present, the immediate task on both sides of the Aegean is to resolutely oppose the escalating rivalries and promote instead internationalist solidarity.

Comrades from the anarchist space of Athens

  • 1. E. Traverso, Fire and Blood: The European Civil War 1914-1945, (London and New York: Verso, 2017).
  • 2. See, for instance, ‘On Slogans’, in Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings from 1917, ed. S. Žižek, (London and New York: Verso: 2002), pp.62-68.
  • 3. The detainment of the two Greek soldiers still moves within legal bounds. Yet, the incident as such is quite common in the Greco-Turkish borders. Hence it is dealt procedurally on the level of military administration. There is little doubt that their ongoing detainment is a political choice at the top levels of state-power. That is why the two soldiers increasingly start to look as if they are in an unofficial, quasi-hostage status.
  • 4. K. Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/.