A Turkish effort to lure tourists with a “TurkAegean” promotional campaign – against a backdrop of historic Greek sites and the sound of the bouzouki – has sparked anger and embarrassment in Athens.
With its western coasts straddling the Aegean Sea, Turkey says the time has come to stop associating the region exclusively with Greece. Last December, he applied to the EU Intellectual Property Office to trademark the term TurkAegean.
The approval of the request, made public last week, caught Greek politicians off guard. “Some people…just didn’t do their job well,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said.
Amid cries of usurpation of their culture, Greek officials have gone on the offensive. “Obviously the government will exhaust all legal avenues to deal with this development,” Mitsotakis told surprised reporters at the end of last week’s NATO summit in Madrid.
With its ancient Greek name derived from Aegean, the father of the mythical king Theseus who founded Athens, the Hellenic heritage of the Aegean has rarely been disputed – even though the two NATO rivals have long argued over issues of territorial sovereignty at sea.
Amid growing Turkish claims in the region, Greece’s top EU official, European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, demanded that the decision be reviewed. In a terse letter to Thierry Breton, his counterpart in charge of internal markets, Schinas chastised the EU body for not properly publicizing Ankara’s request to use the term in the tourism campaign.
The TurkAegean slogan, prominent in advertising what Turkey has also dubbed the “coast of happiness”, has been rolled out in recent days with a vengeance, further angering Greeks.
“The Turkish Aegean Sea is one of the most exquisite regions Turkey has to offer,” national culture and tourism minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy told the Financial Times, referring to an area with ruins which include ancient Troy and the port city of Ephesus, once considered by the Greeks to be the most important trading center in the Mediterranean.
“It has coastlines shrouded in clear blue water, many historic sites dating back to the 2nd century BC, and idyllic beaches to soak up the glorious sunshine.”
Proponents of rapprochement point to what TurkAegean highlights: that from spectacular coastline to music and food, the two countries have more in common than they would like to believe.
But the campaign also follows growing tensions between historic foes over their opposing claims in the Aegean Sea, mineral exploration in the eastern Mediterranean and war-torn Cyprus. Even more worryingly, communication through diplomatic channels is virtually interrupted. On Friday, hopes for a detente following the NATO summit in Madrid had dimmed considerably after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterated that he would only meet Mitsotakis when he “come together”. In May, Erdoğan announced he would sever ties with Mitsotakis after the Greek leader called on Washington not to sell F-16 fighter jets to Turkey during a speech to the US Congress.
Ankara has accused Athens of deliberately militarizing islands near the Turkish coast in violation of international treaties. In a move that has sparked fresh concerns among EU diplomats in Athens, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu warned last month that Turkey would challenge the status of Greece’s eastern islands if the troops were not withdrawn.
Athens argues it has the right to defend itself on its own soil, noting repeated aerial incursions by Turkish fighter jets and Ankara’s long-standing threat of war should territorial waters be extended. Erdoğan repeatedly invoked the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22, which ended in a military defeat for Athens, saying that, 100 years later, Greece should not bristle at a fight it would “regret” one more time.
Greek politicians have said Ankara’s TurkAegean campaign should be seen in the context of the strategy the embattled Turkish president is pursuing ahead of the 2023 election.
“It is not just innocent publicity, but another argument that is used to ultimately question our sovereignty over the Greek Aegean islands and our rights in the maritime economic zones,” said the former Minister of Foreign Affairs. Foreign Affairs and left-wing Syriza deputy, George Katrougalos. “If they just said they had a coastline in the Aegean, that is of course geographically correct. But the term implies, as a corollary to their propaganda, that all or most of the Aegean is Turkish and this is clearly false.
With Greece also facing the prospect of general elections as early as September, analysts have not ruled out that tensions could turn into a military confrontation, deliberately or accidentally.
“There has been a very aggressive, almost apocalyptic leveling of Turkish claims in the Aegean Sea,” said Constantinos Filis, professor of international relations at the American College of Greece. “It feels like Turkey is preparing the international public for what could possibly happen.”