IN DEPTH – Volume 17 Issue 5 – September 2020

Andreas Theophanous
Professor of Economics and Public Policy
President, Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs
Head, Department of Politics and Governance
University of Nicosia
Andreas Karyos
Special Educational Staff
Department of Politics and Governance - School of Law


In recent months, tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean have escalated over maritime rights. Turkey’s issue of NAVTEX, on 21 July 2020, to carry out research for hydrocarbon, dispatching seismic vessel Oruc Reis and warships of the Turkish Navy, was followed by Greece’s decision to dispatch a fleet to the region. One week later Ankara announced suspension of surveys and its willingness to commence talks with Athens. However, the signing of a maritime border agreement between Greece and Egypt infuriated Turkey and led to a statement that Oruc Reis would resume energy exploration in the region. Moreover, on 16 August 2020, the Turkish government fueled further tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean publishing another NAVTEX and announcing that the drillship Yavuz would continue its energy surveys off Cyprus (in a maritime zone which was delineated by Cyprus and Egypt).[1] In the meantime, all these tensions prompted other countries or organizations to intervene. For instance, the EU, siding with Greece and Cyprus, has been considering potential sanctions against Turkey. Also, France backed Greece and temporarily joined naval exercises with Greece off Crete. Turkey responded with rival exercises in the area south of Crete.[2] Recently, the Greek government has announced its intentions to strengthen its military forces (through purchases from France).[3] Eventually, by mid-September 2020 Oruc Reis returned to Turkey following the expiry of the NAVTEX, which was not renewed.[4]

The use of “gunboat diplomacy” by Ankara in its competitive relationship with Athens, to fulfill the Turkish objectives in various fronts, is not a recent phenomenon. It had been preceded by the summer 1976 Chora/Hora Incident and the March 1987 Sismik 1 Incident. After the major impact of the 1973-1974 oil crisis on the Turkish economy, Ankara started considering underwater energy surveys in the Aegean Sea.[5] It therefore dispatched the Turkish vessel Sismik 1 (ex Chora/Hora) to carry out energy exploration in the region. Various states (e.g. USA and USSR) intervened in order to defuse a forthcoming crisis, however Ankara remained adamant. Sismik 1 conducted its energy surveys, in 6-15 August 1976, not only in Turkish waters but also in a maritime area (nearby the Greek islands of Ayios Efstratios and Lesvos) which was contested by both Ankara and Athens. While carrying out its mission, Greek Navy ships shadowed the Turkish vessel. At the same time each one of the two rival countries conducted Air and Navy exercises.[6] Athens and Ankara reached on the brink of a war.[7] Eventually, despite Andreas Papandreou’s (leader of the Greek party of PASOK) vivid rhetoric calling the Greek government to attack Sismik 1, the Greek Prime Minister, Constantinos Karamanlis, decided to self-restrain, opt for a diplomatic response and appeal to the UN Security Council.[8] The latter concluded a resolution calling Greece and Turkey to engage in Greek-Turkish dialogue as well as appeal to the International Court of Justice. Turkey refused to take the Greek-Turkish dispute into The Hague.[9]

It is important to trace the reasons behind Ankara’s decision to resort to “gunboat diplomacy” in 1976. The Turkish leadership flared up tension in summer 1976 in order to fulfill its goals on multiple grounds: firstly, the government of Suleiman Demirel was under strong pressure by the Bulent Ecevid-led opposition. Ecevit claimed that Demirel followed a “submissive policy”; therefore, the latter tried to take a decisive stance against Greece in order to dissolve such accusations and increase its popularity in the domestic political scene. In addition, Demirel aimed at distracting the Turkish public from Turkey’s alarming domestic problems. Also, Turkey wanted to increase its negotiating leverage in the discussions for the continental shelf delimitation, as well as promote its view that the Aegean dispute required a regulation based on political and not legal criteria. In addition, Ankara sought to counter-act the Greek maritime surveys that had been carried out since 1961. Finally, the Turkish government intended to undermine the Greek accession talks with the EEC (commenced in July 1976).[10]

After US mediation, Greece and Turkey resumed talks. In November 1976 the two Aegean powers signed the Berne Declaration on the procedure to be followed for the delimitation of the continental self. Eventually, this effort came to be considered by the Greek side as futile and reached a deadlock.[11] When Papandreou rose to power he stated that no Greek-Turkish dialogue could take place as long as Cyprus’s northern part remained under Turkish military occupation. Therefore, in 1981-1987, relations between Greece and Turkey got icy, allowing space for mutual distrust to grow even further. The 1987 crisis broke out after the Papandreou government, in its effort to avoid tensions with Turkey, tried to nationalise a Canadian-led consortium that planned to conduct oil surveys eleven miles east of the Greek island of Thasos. Ankara stated that Athens’ decision was a clear indication that the latter had broken the Berne Declaration to refrain from drilling until their disputes were resolved. In March 1987, Turkey announced the dispatch of the vessel Sismik 1 escorted by warships to search for oil into a maritime zone claimed by Greece. The crisis escalated and armed forces of both states were on alert. Not only that but also both countries threatened military action in a test of wills.[12] Once again, Athens and Ankara reached on the brink of a war. Karolos Papoulias, the Greek Foreign Minister went to Sofia to discuss the stance of the Bulgarian leadership in the event of a Greco-Turkish war. Simultaneously, Papandreou requested the temporary closing of American military bases in Greece.[13] USA and NATO feared the southeastern flank of NATO might breach and put the Turkish government under pressure. Eventually, the crisis was eased when the Turkish Prime Minister, Turgut Ozal, ordered Sismik 1 to sail only into Turkish (and not into contested by Turkey and Greece) waters.[14] Soon, the two powers were forced by international community to engage themselves into another round of talks. Melek Firat pointedly comments: “The traditional motive of Turkish-Greek relations was the commencement of dialogue after each crisis”.[15]

With reference to Ankara’s motives, it should be noted that the Turkish intense reaction and use of “gunboat diplomacy” were dictated by the misinterpretation of the Greek initiative to nationalise the international corporation: Greece’s efforts led to the opposite effect due to the cold relations and the absence of communication between Ankara and Athens in 1981-1987.[16] Furthermore, when the crisis erupted, Ozal was temporarily absent from Turkey (for medical treatment). This gave the opportunity to bureaucrats in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Army who believed that Ozal had been following an appeasement policy towards Greece to take a hard line over the Aegean disputes, try to preempt what they perceived as an anticipated event (the Greek drilling)[17] and force the Greek leadership to participate in talks, but on Ankara’s own terms.[18]

To conclude, the main lessons to be drawn from the investigation of the 1976 and 1987 Greek-Turkish crises are the following two: Turkey did not hesitate exploiting “gunboat diplomacy” and test its opponent’s (Greece’s) will in its effort to prevent an anticipated event. At the same time, the Turkish activities aimed at attracting (or forcing to) international mediation that would result negotiations for which all the Turkish preconditions, or part of them, would be accepted. As for the crisis erupted in July-September 2020, the lessons described above can be used as interpretative tools for the Turkish multifaceted objectives in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey once again resorts to “gunboat diplomacy” to counter an anticipated event from becoming fait-accompli: the continuation of the Republic of Cyprus’s undersea exploration program without the participation of Turkey in the decision-making process (through the Turkish-Cypriots). At the same time Ankara makes use of “gunboat diplomacy” to undermine the strengthening of the tripartite partnerships in the Eastern Mediterranean (Greece-Cyprus-Israel, Greece-Cyprus-Egypt) and force them to recognise a dominant role to Turkey. The fulfillment of all these objectives is pursued by Turkey as a step toward achieving its strategic aim for regional hegemony.

The implications for Greece and Cyprus are clear. These two countries would be successful in achieving a honorable compromise with Turkey if they manage to counterbalance Ankara’s supremacy in the region.  If not, Turkey would continue to use military power to impose its will on Athens and Nicosia. The experience especially in relation to Cyprus should be taken seriously into consideration.





[5] Sotiris Rizas, The Greek-Turkish Relations and the Aegean, 1973 – 1976 (Athens: Sideris, 2006), p.27 [in Greek].

[6] See newspaper Macedonia, 6-15 August 1976.

[7] Melek Firat (Alexis Heraclides ed.), Greek-Turkish Relations and the Cyprus Problem (Athens: Sideris, 2012), p. 199 [in Greek].

[8] Angelos Syrigos, Greek-Turkish Relations, 2nd edition (Athens: Pataki, 201), p. 316 [in Greek].

[9] Firat, Greek-Turkish Relations, pp. 197-200.

[10] Syrigos, Greek-Turkish Relations, p. 325.


[12] Syrigos, Greek-Turkish Relations, pp. 378-381;

[13] Syrigos, Greek-Turkish Relations, p. 381.


[15] Firat, Greek-Turkish Relations, p. 245;

[16] Syrigos, Greek-Turkish Relations, p. 379.

[17] Ibid., p. 379, 401; Firat, Greek-Turkish Relations, p. 243.

[18] Syrigos, Greek-Turkish Relations, p. 410.