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Greece-Turkey-Cyprus Relations

The Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire began in 1821 and concluded with the winning of independence in 1830. With the support of England, France, and Russia, a monarchy was established. A Bavarian prince, Otto, was named king in 1833. He was deposed 30 years later, and the Great Powers chose a prince of the Danish House of Glucksberg as his successor. He became George I, King of the Hellenes.

The Megali Idea (Great Idea), a vision of uniting all Greeks of the declining Ottoman Empire within the newly independent Greek State, exerted strong influence on the early Greek state. At independence, Greece had an area of 47,515 square kilometers (18,346 square mi.), and its northern boundary extended from the Gulf of Volos to the Gulf of Arta. The Ionian Islands were added in 1864; Thessaly and part of Epirus in 1881; Macedonia, Crete, Epirus, and the Aegean Islands in 1913; Western Thrace in 1918; and the Dodecanese Islands in 1947.

Greece entered the Great War in 1917 on the side of the Allies. After the war, Greece took part in the Allied occupation of Turkey, where many Greeks still lived. In 1921, the Greek army attacked from its base in Smyrna (now Izmir), and marched toward Ankara. The Greeks were defeated by Turkish forces led by Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk) and were forced to withdraw in the summer of 1922. Smyrna was sacked by the Turks, and more than 1.3 million Greek refugees from Turkey poured into Greece, creating enormous challenges for the Greek economy and society and effectively ending the Megali Idea.

Greece and Turkey have unresolved disagreements regarding the Aegean maritime boundary, the treatment of the Orthodox Church and Greek minority in Istanbul, the Muslim (primarily ethnic Turkish) minority in western Thrace, and the expanding flows of undocumented migrants, many from zones of conflict in South Asia and the Middle East, across the Aegean into Greece. The Cyprus question is the most divisive issue between Greece and Turkey.

Greece and Turkey enjoyed good relations in the 1930s, but relations began to deteriorate in the mid-1950s, sparked by the Cyprus independence struggle and Turkish violence directed against the Greek minority in Istanbul. The July 1974 coup against Cyprus President Makarios -- inspired by the Greek military junta in Athens -- and the subsequent Turkish military intervention in Cyprus helped bring about the fall of the Greek military dictatorship. It also led to the de facto division of Cyprus.

Since then, Greece has strongly supported Greek-Cypriot efforts, calling for the removal of Turkish troops and the restoration of a unified state. The Republic of Cyprus has received strong support from Greece in international forums. Greece has a military contingent on Cyprus, and Greek officers fill some key positions in the Greek Cypriot National Guard, as permitted by the constitution of Cyprus.

The Turkish-Greek dispute over territorial claims in the continental shelf areas in the Northeastern and Southwestern Aegean Sea began in November, 1973, when the Turkish government conceded part of the Northeastern shelf to the Turkish Petroleum Company for development, and continued when the Turkish government later conceded a part of the Southwestern Aegean seabed to the same company. At the center of the dispute is the definition of boundaries of the continental shelf and a rule of international law that holds that islands have continental shelves as well as continental territories.

In Turkey’s view, the fundamental source of the tension is Greece’s conviction that the Aegean Sea is Greek. Greece’s determination to expand the limit of territorial waters from six to twelve miles would diminish the Turkish and international share to an unacceptably low level, as would Greece’s claim to a ten-mile national air-space limit. The Turks believe they are seeking only to ensure Turkey’s freedom of access to the high seas and international airspace.

Greece claims that several international treaties have provided an acceptable territorial regime in the Aegean and that Turkish actions in the 1970s challenged this status quo by claiming additional airspace and seabed rights. The January 1996 crisis over the islet of Imia/Kardak intensified Greek apprehensions about Turkey’s aims to undermine the territorial integrity of Greece. The Greeks believe that all the Aegean issues are legal matters that can best be arbitrated in international courts; the Turks insist on viewing them as political matters requiring bilateral negotiations.

These claims were longstanding, but did not gain serious dimensions until early in 1974 after oil was found off the Greek island of Thassos, suggesting that the Aegean might overlie other significant deposits. The Turks had long been frustrated by seeing valuable oil reserves discovered near their borders (in lands formerly part of the Ottoman Empire), while Turkey has had only minor success in finding oil in commercial quantities within its own boundaries.

New tensions over the Aegean surfaced in November 1994, precipitated by Greece's ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty and its ensuing statement that it reserved the right to declare a 12-mile territorial sea boundary around its Aegean islands as permitted by the treaty. Turkey stated that it would consider any such action a cause for war. New technical-level bilateral discussions began in 1994 but quickly fizzled.

At times over the decades, tensions between Greece and Turkey have almost reached the point of armed confrontation. In 1996, President Bill Clinton intervened to help avert a possible armed exchange after a dispute over ownership of a tiny, uninhabited Aegean islet called Imia (Kardak in Turkish). A significant breakthrough in relations took place when major earthquakes hit Turkey and Greece in 1999. Both countries and peoples responded generously to the other's need, helping turn around official perceptions that rapprochement was too risky politically. Since that time, Greek and Turkish foreign ministers have increased the quantity and quality of bilateral exchanges, both official and unofficial.

Greece has endorsed and supported Turkey's bid for candidacy to the European Union since the Helsinki EU Summit in 1999. Greek opinion leaders generally believe that Greece's long-term interests are best served by Turkey's successfully fulfilling the requirements for membership and joining the European Union. The EU opened accession talks with Turkey on October 3, 2005.

Shortly after his inauguration, Prime Minister Papandreou visited Istanbul and met with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, signaling his intention to reinvigorate bilateral relations and increase rapprochement between the two countries, which Papandreou had spearheaded when he was Greece's Foreign Minister (1999-2004). Following an exchange of letters between Erdogan and Papandreou, both Greece and Turkey agreed to the creation of a "High Level Cooperation Council" headed by the two prime ministers to increase bilateral dialogue. Greek Alternate Foreign Minister Droutsas met with his counterpart Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu in Ankara in April 2010 and announced shared military confidence-building measures between Greece and Turkey.

Since 1974 the largest source of tension in the bilateral relationship between Greece and Turkey has been the Cyprus conflict. After the UN-brokered "Annan Plan" to reunify the island failed to gain support among Greek Cypriots in a 2004 referendum, the Government of the Republic of Cyprus in September 2008 reopened inter-communal talks with the Turkish Cypriot side toward a comprehensive settlement on the basis of a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. The UN has welcomed this development and continues to encourage both parties to address the key problems of the Cyprus issue. Greece has expressed its support for the talks.

In December 2006, amid continuing dispute over Cyprus, the EU froze talks with Turkey on eight chapters regarding accession and stated that no chapters would be closed until a resolution is found. Of the 35 chapters, 33 have been opened, with one chapter closed and six additional chapters blocked by Cyprus. Greece continues to support Turkey's EU aspirations, granted it meets all obligations toward the EU and its member states without any special concessions.

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