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Tense calm in the Eastern Mediterranean

Greece and Turkey clash over maritime claims in the Eastern Mediterranean, with Cyprus involved. Art by Gabriela Turrisi

"We didn't start this," Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis recently told GZERO Media about his country's heated dispute with Turkey over who controls what waters in the Eastern Mediterranean. Days later, both sides agreed to a NATO-led plan to cool things down, including a hotline to avoid incidents that could lead to armed conflict.

So, what have Greeks and Turks been bickering about all summer, and why does this quarrel between historical enemies — who are NATO allies – put the EU in a terrible spot?


The latest beef between Greece and Turkey is about who controls the energy-rich seabed off the island nation of Cyprus.

Like Greece, Cyprus is a member of the European Union, and the majority of its population is Greek Cypriot. But the northern third of the island, inhabited mostly by ethnic Turks, is controlled by a pro-Turkish administration recognized only by Ankara, which keeps thousands of troops there. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has granted Turkish energy firms licenses to start offshore drilling for oil and natural gas — which the Greeks and the official Cypriot government view as illegitimate.

The fracas escalated over the summer, when Turkey sent a maritime research vessel (escorted, in a show of force, by Turkish warships) to the disputed waters. Greece responded by calling for EU sanctions against Turkey, while France fanned the flames by backing Greece and offering military support. As the rhetoric got hotter, Turkey's decision to turn Istanbul's Hagia Sophia into a mosque made things worse, and for a short time it looked like both sides might actually go to war. A German-led diplomatic effort got them to back off for a bit, but the threat of EU sanctions still looms for Turkey.

Overlapping claims by Greece, Cyprus and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean. Graphic by Gabriella Turrisi

International law is on the side of Athens. Under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Greece is entitled to claim exclusive economic zones (EEZs) extending out from the coastline of its many islands in the disputed area, like Kastellorizo which lies right off the Turkish coast. Cyprus has made the same legal argument to sign EEZ agreements with non-EU members Egypt, Lebanon, and Israel.

Turkey — which has not signed UNCLOS — rejects the Greek and Cypriot EEZs because they overlap with areas claimed by Turkey or its allies.

Why does Turkey care so much? First, Ankara is keen to curb its dependence on Caspian Sea natural gas from suppliers like Azerbaijan, which is inching close to its own war with Armenia. Second, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would benefit from a surge in Turkish nationalism to boost his approval ratings at a time when the economy has been hit hard by COVID-19.

Third, the more emboldened Erdoğan becomes in his increasingly aggresive push for Turkey to project military power beyond its shores, the more this dispute may start to look like China's quest to dominate the South China Sea.

Finally, the EU is in a bind. On the one hand, Brussels must defend the territorial waters of two EU member states. On the other hand, it cannot afford to antagonize Turkey because Ankara has leverage over the EU's migration policy — especially after a recent fire at the bloc's largest refugee camp left thousands of migrants with nowhere to go. What will Brussels do?

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When Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday — plunging the country into chaos as it faces once-in-a-generation public health and economic crises — he became the fourteenth Italian to vacate the prime ministership in three decades. (For contrast, Germany has only had three chancellors since 1982, and France has had five presidents.)

But Conte, who had no previous political experience until he was tapped for the top job in 2018, is not so much throwing in the towel as he is taking a massive gamble that President Sergio Mattarella will again appoint him to head Conte's third coalition government in less than three years.

The recent dysfunction is unique even within the context of instability-prone Italian politics. How did Italy get here, and what might come next?

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Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics on this week's World In (More Than) 60 Seconds:

What did you think of Xi Jinping's speech at the virtual World Economic Forum?

Well, his last speech at the real World Economic Forum in Davos, I remember being there four years ago, and given that Trump had just been elected, Xi Jinping gives this big, "We want to stand up and be leaders while the Americans are doing America first." And generally speaking, was probably the most important speech of the week. People liked it. This is a pretty different environment, not so much because Trump has gone, but rather because support and belief in Xi Jinping is pretty low. I will say one thing that was generally well responded to was the call not to enter into a new Cold War. Anybody in the business community generally supports that. There's so much integration and interdependence between the US and the Chinese economies that when Xi Jinping says, "We need to find ways to continue to work together," I mean, this is the pro-globalization audience he's speaking to. They generally agree. But otherwise, the message fell pretty flat. So, the idea that China is going to be globally useful on issues of leadership, especially when it comes to anything that might threaten Beijing's sovereignty, they check global norms at the door. And a few examples of that, when Xi called for support for the rules-based international order, that's in obvious contrast with China's violation of the one country, two systems framework in Hong Kong. And they said, "Well, that's a domestic issue." Well, actually that's not what your agreement was with the British handover. And just because you're more powerful doesn't mean that norm doesn't matter anymore.

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Over the weekend, some 40,000 people in Moscow and thousands more across Russia braved subzero temperatures to turn out in the streets in support of imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. More than 3,000 protesters were arrested, and Navalny called on his followers to prepare for more action in the coming weeks.

But just who is Alexei Navalny, and how significant is the threat that he may pose to Vladimir Putin's stranglehold on power in Russia?

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Angry farmers take Indian fort: In a major and violent escalation of ongoing protests over new agriculture laws, thousands of Indian farmers broke through police barricades and stormed the historic Red Fort in New Delhi on Tuesday. At least one protester died in the chaos, while the government shut down internet service in parts of the capital. Farmers and the government are still deadlocked over the new laws, which liberalize agriculture markets in ways that farmers fear will undercut their livelihoods. The government has offered to suspend implementation for 18 months, but the farmers unions are pushing for a complete repeal. Given that some 60 percent of India's population works in agriculture, the standoff has become a major political test for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling BJP party.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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