Explained: What’s behind recent tensions between Turkey and Greece

Context: NATO allies Turkey and Greece have locked horns twice over the past two months – first after Turkey converted the 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque, and then over who gets to explore hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean.


  • Relations between the two nations have seen a marked downturn this year. In February, Turkey had allowed thousands of migrants to cross the border into Greece and the European Union, irking the latter.

The Mediterranean neighbours

  • Greece won independence from modern Turkey’s precursor, the Ottoman Empire, in 1830.
  • In 1923, the two countries exchanged their Muslim and Christian populations – a migration whose scale has only been surpassed in history by the Partition of India.
  • The two nations continue to oppose each other on the decades-old Cyprus conflict, and on two occasions have almost gone to war over exploration rights in the Aegean Sea.
  • Both countries are, however, part of the 30-member NATO alliance, and Turkey is officially a candidate for full membership of the European Union, of which Greece is a constituent.

The Hagia Sophia Row

  • The centuries-old Hagia Sophia, listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, was originally a cathedral in the Byzantine Empire before it was turned into a mosque in 1453, when Constantinople fell to Sultan Mehmet II’s Ottoman forces.
  • In the 1930s, however, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, shut down the mosque and turned it into a museum in an attempt to make the country more secular.
  • Many Greeks continue to revere the Hagia Sophia, and view it as a key part of Orthodox Christianity. So, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the structure open to Muslim worship last month, tensions escalated.

Energy rivalry in the Eastern Mediterranean

  • Greece has condemned new Turkish gas exploration off the coast of the divided island of Cyprus.
  • Turkey alone recognises the self-styled Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
  • The Republic of Cyprus, Greece and Israel are also exploring for gas.
  • In July a new “East Mediterranean Gas Forum” (EMGF) was launched by these three countries, plus Egypt, Jordan, Italy and the Palestinian Authority. However, Turkey was excluded.
  • But Turkey challenged the pipeline project and reached an agreement with Libya’s Tripoli-based government, which Ankara is backing, to form an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) from its southern shores to Libya’s northern coast across the Mediterranean.
  • Greece claimed the Turkish zone violated its maritime sovereignty. Later, Greece announced its EEZ with Egypt, which clashes with Turkey’s zone.
  • It is difficult to demarcate the maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean, which is dotted with Turkish and Greek islands.
  • The Eastern Mediterranean is reckoned to be rich in natural gas: the US Geological Survey estimates the deposits to run into trillions of cubic metres, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, besides millions of barrels of oil.
  • Relations between France and Turkey have been icy as France has accused Ankara of violating the sovereignty of Greece and Cyprus — claims Turkey rejects.
  • France recently announced it was “temporarily reinforcing” its military presence in the eastern Mediterranean in support of Greece.
  • That decision only further worsened France’s tensions with Turkey — already high because of opposing approaches to the Libya conflict and other parts of the region.

August 2020: Turkey says it will hold military drills in east Mediterranean

  • The Turkish navy issued the latest advisory, known as a Navtex, saying it will hold the shooting exercises in the eastern Mediterranean off the coast of Iskenderun, northeast of Cyprus, which have fuelled tensions with Greece.
  • It also extended the seismic work of its Oruc Reis survey vessel, southwest of Cyprus, until September 1.
  • The announcement came hours before Parliament in Greece is expected to ratify an agreement with Egypt, which defines maritime boundaries between the two countries, a step which Turkey considers an affront.
  • Greece and Turkey, both members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have been locked in a dispute over control of eastern Mediterranean waters, which escalated after Ankara sent a seismic survey vessel to the disputed region this month in a move which Athens called illegal.
  • They are at odds over the rights to potential hydrocarbon resources, based on conflicting claims over the extent of their continental shelves.
  • As the dispute widened, France said it was joining military exercises with Italy, Greece and Cyprus in the eastern Mediterranean.
  • Cyprus was divided in 1974 following a Turkish invasion triggered by a Greek-inspired coup.
  • Turkey recognises the Turkish-populated north of Cyprus as a state, which is not recognised by other countries.
  • Parliament in Greece is expected to ratify an accord defining its sea boundaries with Egypt, having ratified a similar deal with Italy.
  • Greece now plans to extend its territorial waters in the Ionian Sea to 12 nautical miles from its coast, from six nautical miles. Turkey has warned that a similar move by Athens in waters east of Greece would be a cause for war.


  • NAVTEX, an acronym for navigational telex (navigational text messages) is a device used on-board the vessels to provide short range Maritime Safety Information in coastal waters automatically.
  • It can be used in ships of all types and sizes.
  • The area covered by Navtex can extend as far as 400 nautical miles from the broadcast station.
  • A NAVTEX receiver on board prints out navigational and meteorological warnings and forecasts as well as urgent Marine Safety Information to ships.
  • It forms a vital element of the Global Maritime Distress Safety System (GMDSS).

Cyprus Dispute

  • In 1570, the predominantly Greek-speaking island of Cyprus came under the control of the Ottoman Empire.
  • Over the centuries, many Turks settled on the island and a sizeable Turkish Cypriot community grew up.
  • By the time Cyprus became an independent country in 1960, the Greek-speaking community made up around three-quarters of the population but Turkish speakers were still a sizeable minority.

What happened in 1974?

  • Relations between the two sides came to a head in July 1974 when the military junta that was ruling Greece at the time staged a coup d’etat so it could annex Cyprus as a part of Greece.
  • Responding to this, the Turkish military staged an invasion and captured the northern city of Kyneria, the northern corridor between Kyneria and the capital Nicosia and the Turkish quarter of Nicosia itself.
  • A UN-backed ceasefire was eventually declared with a buffer zone running through the country which remains in place today.

What is the status of Northern Cyprus?

  • Turkey recognises Northern Cyprus, which takes up around 36% of the island’s landmass, as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
  • The United Nations recognises it as a territory of the Republic of Cyprus currently under Turkish occupation.
  • Cyprus and Turkey have had no formal diplomatic relations since 1974.

What has this got to do with energy exploration?

  • The dispute comes because the area where Turkey is sending ships is off the northern coast of the island.
  • Cyprus and the EU consider the north to be part of the Republic of Cyprus and the waters surrounding it to be part of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which means EU nations have the exclusive right to fish, drill and carry out other economic activities.
  • But as Turkey recognises Northern Cyprus as independent, with its own EEZ, Ankara says it is within its rights to drill there.
  • Cyprus is physically divided with the southern part ruled by the internationally recognised government and the northern part controlled by Turkey.
  • The Turkish Navy recently said the Oruc Reis ship will restart activities in the region, including the south of Kastellorizo.
  • Greece claims rights over the waters around its island of Kastellorizo but Turkey says the island’s close proximity to its longer coastline makes the territory a legitimate area for its vessels to explore.
  • Greece, a member of the EU, claims the waters are part of its continental shelf and has enlisted the support of the 27-nation bloc, which has condemned Turkey’s “illegal activities” and plans to blacklist Turkish officials linked to energy exploration.
  • Turkey disputes Greece’s claims that waters, where it’s searching for hydrocarbons, are part of Greece’s continental shelf, insisting that Greek islands near Turkey’s coast cannot be taken into account when delineating maritime boundaries.

Aegean Sea

  • The Aegean Sea — the smaller passage that separates Greece from Turkey — has become an increasingly popular route for refugees and, by extension, an increasingly deadly one.
  • The short distance has encouraged smugglers to take increased risks at the expense of the refugees.

East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF)

  • It is an intergovernmental energy forum, formally established in September 2020, based in Egypt and consists of Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Jordan.
  • The Palestinian Authority is also part of the forum.
  • It seeks to promote natural gas exports from the eastern Mediterranean and that Israel hopes will strengthen ties with Arab neighbours.
  • The group unites regional rivals of Turkey, which has been locked in a bitter dispute with European Union members Greece and Cyprus over gas drilling rights in the region.
  • France has applied to join, with the United States and European Union requesting observer status.
  • For Israel, the forum “brings regional cooperation with Arab and European countries, the first of its kind in history, with contracts to export (Israeli) gas to Jordan and Egypt worth $30 billion.
  • Egypt began importing Israeli gas at the start of this year, for possible re-export to Europe or Asia.
  • The 2015 discovery of the giant offshore Zohr field had unlocked interest in Egypt’s energy market and encouraged Cairo to promote itself as a regional hub.

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