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What Separates
Aegean Neighbors

As Greece and Turkey head for talks, Ankara is expected to seize the opportunity to push its longstanding claims towards Greece

By George Gilson, Athens News
Reprinted by Permission

AT FIRST blush, the Greek-Turkish dialogue on the Aegean that was formally agreed to by Foreign Minister George Papandreou and his Turkish counterpart Ismail Cem could satisfy longstanding aims of the two sides.

Athens has for years been eager to agree to the delimitation of thecontinental shelf with Ankara, insisting even now that this is the only real Aegean dispute between the two sides.

Turkey, given the apparent lack of any strict parameters for the agenda of talks, will be able to formally raise all its claims against Greece in the Aegean, over which it has until now unsuccessfully attempted to draw Athens into a no-holds-barred dialogue.

The two ministers will discuss the talks again at a February 12-13 Islamic Conference-EU meeting in Istanbul.

An agreement with Ankara to refer the continental shelf issue to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague could well be depicted as a success for Greece.

Still, opposition parties have expressed concerns that the prospective discussion of the long agenda of Turkish claims against Greece, which has burgeoned since the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus, may well drag Athens into uncharted - and perilous - waters.

Nearly a dozen separate attempts at Greek-Turkish dialogue on Aegean issues over the past quarter century have failed to produce results and sometimes increased tensions. At a May 1976 meeting between premiers Constantine Karamanlis and Suleyman Demirel, Ankara agreed to refer the continental shelf issue to the ICJ, only to later back off and demand that the matter be resolved through dialogue.

In 1987 an exploration licence granted by the Andreas Papandreou government to a private company led Ankara to send the exploration vessel Sismik-Iwith warships into the Aegean. US intervention defused the crisis.

Papandreou and Turkish PM Turgut Ozal held abortive talks in Davos, Switzerland, in January 1988 after Athens agreed to hold off on Aegean oil exploration.

Later in the same year, a positive breakthrough was achieved with the Aegean confidence-building measures - including a summer moratorium on military exercises - agreed to by Greek foreign minister Karolos Papoulias and Turkish counterpart Mesut Yilmaz.

But the February 1996 Imia crisis, where the two countries reached the brink of war and Greece was forced to bring down its flag on its own rock islet, inaugurated Turkish claims to "grey zones" in the Aegean. PM Costas Simitis later signed the 1997 Madrid declaration by which Greece for the first time recognised "vital interests" of Turkey in the Aegean. Following are issues that could be raised in a dialogue.

Continental shelf

ANKARA first raised claims to the Aegean continental shelf in November 1971, just as Greek dictator George Papadopoulos had undertaken an abortive experiment to effect a smooth transition to democracy.

At the time, Ankara issued a licence authorising the Turkish Petroleum Company to conduct oil exploration in the Aegean, even west of the Greek islands.

Turkey seeks the right to exploit the natural resources of half of the Aegean seabed, drawing the line at the mid-point between its western Anatolian coast and the Greek mainland, claiming that the said continental shelf is a natural extension of the Anatolian coast.

Ankara rejects Greece's contention - based on the 1958 Geneva Convention, the 1982 Montego Bay Convention on the Law of the Sea, and a 1969 ICJ ruling on delimitation of the North Sea continental shelf - that the Greek islands have their own continental shelf.

While Greece has insisted that the matter be jointly referred to the ICJ - even though previous cases have not completely satisfied any of the international litigants - Turkey has to date refused to recognise the jurisdiction of the court. That led the court to declare its lack of jurisdiction when Greece unilaterally petitioned it in 1976.

"Greece affirms that, for the delimitation of the continental shelf, the applicable principle under international law is that of the median line. This principle is foreseen by article 6 of the Geneva Convention of 1958, and is widely recognised as the basic principle of international law in such cases," reads an older Greek foreign ministry statement on the subject.

In August 1976, Ankara provoked a crisis by sending the Hora research vessel into the Aegean for oil exploration. Three months later, the two countries signed the Berne Protocol, which provided that negotiations aimed at achieving a delimitation of the continental shelf were to continue in good faith. Notably, both countries were to refrain from further exploration pending an agreement.

Ankara accuses Athens of violating the agreement in 1981 through "seismic and related activities and planned drilling operations in the disputed areas", according to a Turkish foreign ministry document.

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