Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Greece and Turkey: Rivalry in the New Energy Game in the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East

"Cyprus is always in our minds and hearts"-Greek PM Alexis Tsipras

Greece Pivots Towards the East.

Syriza's election victory in Greece has awoken hopes across the EU's southern littoral states of a Mediterranean Spring in 2015, a process of radical democratic change that would rejuvenate politics in Spain, Portugal and Italy and challenge the enforced economic orthodoxies of austerity.

While years of budget cuts and youth unemployment have seen little sustained economic improvement since the financial crash of 2008, far less attention has been paid to deeper threats to the economic stability of these states that have arisen from ecological and energy crises.

While Mediterranean states such as Greece have not got problems with overpopulation-as have others such as energy starved Egypt-its fate is bound up inextricably with both a huge debt problem and the danger to its gas supply made even more protracted by the outbreak of war in Eastern Ukraine.

For several winters there were warnings of gas cuts and the Greek government was keen to work along with Greek shipping companies to act as carriers spot loads of compressed and liquefied natural gas on the international market. Extra imports from Algeria were considered as well.

The high cost of energy, and the poverty caused by the EU, ECB and IMF insisting Greece pays its debts within a short time frame while the economy continues to languish, has reduced Athenians to 'burning old doors ( and ) scavenged timber and rubbish to heat their homes' ( Patrick Cockburn ).

Since 2010 Germany as the largest lender has become the target for Greek ire as the largest Eurozone power. It is the Great Power which has been at the forefront of demanding the debts racked up by Greek banks profligate lending are repaid and Greek public finances 'reformed'.

Syriza has echoed the street protesters message that the fault for the debt crisis and the inability to pay is the consequence of failed economic dogmas, a distant bureaucracy and the way two political parties, one conservative the other nominally 'socialist', mismanaged the economy.

As the Greek government privatised Greek assets to raise finance to repay the debts, the oligarchs of the conservative New Democrats and Pasok, who control media and large business conglomerates, could snap up state assets at bargain prices. They planned to sell them as the economy recovered.

The oligarchs by all accounts started squirrelling away their financial assets into the high end of the London property market to a tune of £ 8.8bn. Meanwhile, a quarter of the economy was destroyed and by 2015 and unemployment rate stood at 26%  ( over 57% for Greek youth ).

Greeks ranged against the oligarchy in Athens were not seen as officially sanctioned democracy promoters, as they were in the Euro Maidan protests in Ukraine in late 2013, because they were protesting against the power of the EU, IMF and even NATO instead of for it against Russia.

In Ukraine the battle was effectively between one set of more pro-western oligarchs, backed by Western financed democracy initiatives, and the more pro-Russian oligarchs of the eastern regions, with the people brought on stage as bit players and led on by dreams of a wealthy future in the EU.

In Greece, however, Syriza and the street protesters there were cautioned about their need to be 'responsible'. The evident double standards inherent in that position, lectures from Germany on the need for both more prudence and gratitude, and high fuel costs have led Syriza towards Russia.

Not since the Greek War for Independence in the 1820s or the Greek Civil War ( 1945-1947) has Greece been such a cockpit for clashes that involve not only contending domestic forces arguing over social justice and liberty but also external powers vying to extend their power and influence.

For what has not been emphasised in the Greek crisis is that it that it has been made more protracted by recurrent forest fires caused by climate change making the Mediterranean lands hotter and dryer and by high energy costs which have helped keep wages low and production costs high.

In turn, this has led Greek governments to start looking towards Cyprus and Russia for energy and as part of a regional reconfiguration of power politics in the Near East in which Turkey is drifting away from the EU and Greece wants to remain in it through an energy strategy that excludes Ankara.

Aphrodite : The Unresolved Cypriot Question and the Rise of Greco-Turkish Antagonism.

So it is hardly surprising that Alexis Tsipras' first foreign visit as Greek Prime Minister was Cyprus. Tsipras affirmed that he and President Nicos Anastasiades were 'on the same page' as Anastasiades referred to Greek Cypriot opposition to Turkey’s violation of the island’s exclusive economic zone.

The EEZ is rich in hydrocarbons. In 2011 a huge reservoir of natural gas was discovered containing an estimated 5 trillion cubic feet (tcf) in maritime waters it shares Israel which has proposed a gas pipeline to link its reserves to run through Cyprus on to Greece to the west and Egypt to the south.

That pipeline plan, and the request for EU funds as part of an offer to help it diversify its gas supplies away from too much dependence on Russia, came just one day in December 3rd 2014 after Putin announced the South Stream pipeline, set to run under the Black Sea, had to be dropped.

South Stream would have run via Bulgaria and Greece via Macedonia, Serbia and then onwards to Hungary. All these states, apart from Hungary, have a traditional orientation towards Russia as a protector and Great Power counterweight towards the dominance of Turkey in the Balkans.

While Turkey obviously no longer has an territorial designs on the Balkans, Ankara does have greater leverage over neighbouring countries the greater number of pipelines from Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East are routed through its land. As South Stream was shelved,Turk Stream was taken up.

As Turk Stream benefitted Russia and enhanced Turkey's position, so Greece moved quickly to press on with the Cypriot-Israeli pipeline plan as a longer term countermove in energy strategy that would see Greece become a rival east-west energy transit hub to unstable Ukraine and old enemy Turkey.

Both Greece and Cyprus share a common language and ethnic ties. They also share hostility towards Turkey's refusal to make a formal peace. Without this it refuses to acknowledge Turkish Cypriots in the north as legal inhabitants of the island entitled to have any stake in the EEZ's gas reserves.

In November 2014 Turkey sent a gas research vessel into a maritime zone where Greek Cyprus has licensed other companies to drill for gas. Tsipras slammed this forthrightly as a “gross violation of international law” that undermined any return to peace talks until removed.

President Derviş Eroğlu of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) rejected that and made it plain to Turkish Cypriots that “if Tsipras wants to contribute to peace in the region, he needs to make radical changes to his country's policies on Cyprus.” In short, he should recognise his 'state'.

With burgeoning tourism in both parts of Cyprus, the frontier divide which runs straight through the centre of Nicosia would appear an antiquated throwback to cities such as Berlin that were divided at the height of the Cold War or else to less developed regions in the Balkans such as Kosovo.

Unfortunately, prior to the gas being discovered, the best opportunity for reconciliation came when Cyprus was already about to join the EU in 2004 when it voted No to the UN's detailed plan for eventual re-unification. That was back during a period when Turkish entry to the EU seemed likely.

The Changing Geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Nearer East.

However, a series of vast changes in the geopolitical landscape of the Near East would appear to have made both Turkey and Greece's relationship with each other and with the West even more complicated with the discovery of gas reserves that the region and the EU states covet.

Greece has long occupied a strategic position between Europe and the Near East. At end of the Second World War Greece was pulled into the Western orbit along with Turkey as part of the USA's plan to contain Soviet expansionism through the Black Sea towards the Near East.

One of the main reasons for that, apart from the potential Soviet threat to the sea corridors of the Eastern Mediterranean, Suez Canal and Red Sea, was the menace to supplies of oil to the economies of Western Europe as they recovered from the impact of the war

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent states in the Caucasus and Central Asia, a New Great Game of competition between powerful states for control and influence over oil and gas pipeline has opened up and gathered impetus as post-communist states develop.
 


While that was confined previously to 2010 to the Caucasus and in the former Soviet republics in Asia, it has spread directly into a region which previously was more of a strategic region vital as the gateway to the Middle Eastern oil as opposed to one rich in hydrocarbons itself.

Though the discovery and exploitation of shale oil and gas has proved a 'game changer' for the US in being able to refocus its geopolitical attention towards East Asia after withdrawing from Iraq in 2011, the dramatic impact of the geopolitical upheavals triggered off by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 remain

The removal of Saddam's secularist dictatorship as well as the collapse of Syria as a functioning state in 2011 have jointly unleashed the re-emergence of religious based sectarian warring and nationalism across both these two lands carved from out of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.

Turkey was opposed to that war and the instability it created had made it all the more important as a bulwark of stability and order against the war and jihadist threats. However, this put it at odds with Israel which backed both the Iraq War and the Kurdish cause in northern Iraq.

Israel has long regarded an independent Kurdistan as a potential buffer state between it and the rest of Iraq and Syria through to Lebanon where Iran exerts influence via the Alawi state of Assad and the Shi'ite militia of Hezbollah. But Iran remains resolutely against a Greater Kurdistan.

In this, Iran and Turkey are aligned in common opposition to the creation of a Kurdish state while being ranged against each other in Syria through their rival backing of Shi'ite and Sunni militants respectively. Erdogan is far more obsessed with Assad being deposed than he is even of ISIS.

Israel would appear, on the other hand, to be quite content for the war in Syria to keep boiling over as it diverts Hizbollah into the struggle there and also keeps any Sunni militant threat at bay. The Israeli approach is somewhat akin to Kissenger's in the Iran-Iraq War'-it's a pity they can't both lose'.

Israel looked on with hostility at the Arab Spring of 2011 not merely because of the view that Arabs are unfit for democracy and end up voting for Islamists hostile to it-as with the election of Hamas in Gaza in 2007. It posed a direct threat to its energy security in Egypt after Mubarak was ousted.

The discovery of huge reserves of gas off Israel in 2009-2010 and the decision by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government to cut off the gas in 2012 gave additional impetus for Israel to crush Hamas and so stand in a better position to be able to tap Gaza's Marine's ample offshore reserves too.

That quest to subdue the threat Hamas poses to Israel's regional energy programme is opposed by Turkey which was favourable to Morsi's government for reasons as much to do with opposing the development of a rival energy co-operation bloc that freezes out Turkey altogether than with Gazans.

Cyprus, however, has complained of Turkey's 'gunboat diplomacy'. In November 2014 Nicosia hosted talks with Egypt and Israel to deepen energy co-operation and to discuss piping Cypriot gas down through to Egypt so as to shore up Sisi's regime which came to power through a coup in 2013.

That was part of its strategy to counter the Turkish decision to send exploration vessels flanked by naval escort to the maritime waters south of Cyprus. In February 2015 it was reported that Noble Energy in Egypt was planning to press ahead with constructing a pipeline to be ready by 2017.

How Turkey and Greece deal with each other, as Greece pivots more towards Israel so as to stand to benefit from a potential gas pipeline from Eastern Mediterranean gas fields, is crucial to peace and stability in the Near East. Far more than just Greece's economy has been at stake there since 2010.

With the collision between a German dominated EU insisting and Athens on repaying its debts, Tsipras has been flirting with Russia as has the Cypriot government. While Russian financial aid is not a 'thought on the table' that does not mean it had never been a consideration or could be again.

Turkey and Russia.

Turkey would look with hostility of any east-west pipeline route that bypassed it. Yet it could not afford to use military measures against Greek Cyprus if Russia's state controlled Gazprom were to be given a stake in drilling for the gas. That was considered in 2013 when Russia offered a bank bail out.

Turkish Cyprus once feared it could become like the Gaza Strip and it would be unsurprising if Erdogan's neo-Ottoman policy did not result in bigging up its potential to become like Gaza in becoming a 'Singapore of the Eastern Mediterranean' should it stake its right to develop the gas.

This is precisely why Turkey and Qatar have aligned with Hamas against Israel. Neither Sunni Islamic states want Israel to develop Gaza marine gas for the benefit of Israel, Greek Cyprus and Greece as part of their rival regional strategy to dominate Eastern Mediterranean gas flows.

The grand design of empowering Sunni democratic Islamist forces in Egypt, Gaza, Yemen and Syria has failed. In Syria it helped cause the rise of ISIS. This ensured the plan to build a gas pipeline from the Persian Gulf through to Turkey and then onwards into EU markets has been thwarted.

Not only that Russia muscled in to develop Syria's offshore gas reserves in December 2013. Both Greece and Israel could back Kurdish secessionism as a way of checking Turkish and Qatari strategies to control east-west gas flows as well as causing trouble for Iran on its north west borders.

These regional power contests could up the stakes in that other remaining legacy created by the break up of the Ottoman Empire which is the division of Cyprus. The failure to resolve this frozen conflict dating back to 1974 could end with the squabble over gas heating up older animosities. 

With fall of the oligarchy which has ruled in Athens since that same year when Turkey invaded Cyprus, Greece could find itself ranged against Erdogan, not least as the HDP, a Turkish and Kurdish leftist party, is supported by Syriza and played a part in the Istanbul protests of the summer of 2013.

Erdogan has been reported to have become increasingly paranoid about 'enemies within' Turkey and to admire Putin's strong man approach to global power politics to the north across the Black Sea. Despite the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Erdogan remained rather muted on this.

Erdogan might have been expected to be vocal in his condemnation of Putin's actions but he has to balance any concern for the fate of the Turkic Crimean Tatars with the obvious fact Russia supplies Turkey with large amounts of gas and could play a decisive role in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Russia has sought to revert to its traditional foreign policy of exerting its influence through the Black Sea down to the Bosphorus and into the Caucasus. It is thought Russian backing for the Eastern Ukrainian separatists is part of a strategy to recreate a land bridge between Moscow and Crimea.

With the US pivoting its diplomacy and military power towards the Asia-Pacific, in order to contain China's emergence as a regional and potentially global superpower, it has fallen to Russia to become a decisive balancing force in the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Israel's partners.

A Civilisation of Clashes.

So new emerging geopolitical struggles over energy routes along with re-emerging nationalisms and religious based identities could cut across the Cold War pattern of alliances in which Israel, Greece and Turkey were once more firmly aligned against a Russian dominated Soviet Union.

This, in fact, has been clear since the gas reserves were discovered in 2011 when the financial crash, banking crisis and economic slump had already begun to hit both Greece and Greek Cyprus very hard. The Arab Spring in the same year only upped the regional power stakes all the more.

What Niall Ferguson calls the 'civilisation of clashes' within the Middle East could be spreading westwards into the Balkans which once part of the Ottoman Empire too. As with Ukraine and Syria, Greece could become the third arena for great power politics and a geopolitical tug of war.

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