Turkey’s arrest on March 2 of two Greek soldiers on suspicion of espionage, after the pair entered a “prohibited military zone” along the border, should be cause for alarm in the West. When they were arrested – in the small space between Turkish and Greek guard posts — Angelos Mitretodis and Dimitris Kouklatzis explained that they had simply strayed by a few meters in the thick forest, due to the poor weather conditions. They had difficulty seeing where they were going, and so followed tracks in the snow.
Their lawyers’ plea for their release was rejected by a court in Edirne, on the grounds that “images were found in the cell phones of the soldiers, who intended to send the footage to their superiors.”
In Brussels, to urge European intervention on the matter, Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos responded by saying that as member states of NATO, Turkey and Greece need to resolve the incident peacefully, “after negotiations between the two armed forces.” European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini expressed the EU’s “full hope that there will be a swift and positive outcome.”
The former chief of Greece’s armed forces, Manousos Paragioudakis, was less diplomatic. He accused Turkish special forces of “ambushing” the soldiers and called the arrests a “set-up.” Paragioudakis also stressed that patrols from both Turkey and Greece frequently cross each other’s borders unintentionally, but when this happens, the issue is “resolved on the spot,” through communication between Greek and Turkish commanders in the field. Until now, he said, there have been no arrests as a result of such incidents.
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, for his part, urged Turkey “to apply the provisions of international law and not turn a routine procedure into a major legal and political problem.”
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, however, dismissed his call, and insisted that the “judiciary will do what it must.” He also pointedly remarked, “It has turned into a habit to take all issues relating to Turkey to the European Union and seek support there. This issue and other similar attempts will neither advance nor downgrade our relations with the EU in the slightest degree.”
Ankara’s detention of the two Greek soldiers appears to be the latest instance of what has come to be called Turkey’s “hostage-taking diplomacy.” Other examples include a German-Turkish journalist, Deniz Yücel; a French journalist Loup Bureau, and an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, among others. All were imprisoned in Turkey on trumped-up terrorism-related charges.
In 2017, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan openly used Brunson’s detention as a bargaining chip. In exchange for Brunson’s freedom, Erdoğan demanded the return to Turkey from the United States of self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom he has accused of being behind the failed coup against him in the summer of 2016.
“America wants us to return a priest,” Erdoğan said.
“You also have a priest. You should give him to us too. Then we will try and return the one here. But you then say, ‘Don’t mix them up.’ What is that supposed to mean? That you have judiciary and we don’t? In fact, the one here is tried. But the one over there [Gülen] is living in a palace in Pennsylvania. It would be much easier for you to return him to us.”
It should be noted that Pastor Brunson has been behind bars since October 2016, but the Turkish judiciary has yet to produce an indictment spelling out the charges against him.
American Pastor Andrew Brunson, pictured with his wife Norine, has been jailed in Turkey since October 2016 on spurious charges of “being a member of an armed terrorist organization”. The Turkish judiciary has yet to produce an indictment spelling out the charges against him. “He is being held simply because of his Christian beliefs and is facing grave danger in a Turkish prison,” according to the American Center for Law and Justice.
According to Freedom House project director Nate Schenkkan, “Turkish hostage-taking has become one of the most pressing problems in relations between Ankara and its Western allies. It is something that everyone knows is happening, but political leaders and diplomats are reluctant to call it by its name.”
Given the recent arrest of the two Greek soldiers, Turkey’s hostage-taking appears now to be directed at Athens, as well. It is possible that the pair will be used as leverage against Greece to extradite eight Turkish military personnel who sought asylum in Greece during the failed coup. Although they deny involvement in the coup attempt, the Turkish government has accused them of “treachery” and “terrorism.” Greece has thus rejected Ankara’s demand to return the officers, on the grounds that they would not receive a fair trial in Turkey, and that their lives would be at risk.
This latest act of potential “hostage-taking diplomacy” comes at a time when tension is already high between Greece and Turkey, with Erdoğan and other leading Turkish politicians repeatedly threatening to invade Greece and take back the Aegean islands.
Last month, a Greek coast guard vessel was rammed by a Turkish patrol boat off Imia. Turkish warships also recently violated the natural gas drilling rights of Cyprus — whose northern part has been illegally occupied by Turkey since 1974 — by preventing an Italian exploratory gas rig from drilling there.
It is high time the West had a serious discussion about whether Turkey’s aggressive and illegal actions in the region really comply with the principles of NATO and the EU.
Uzay Bulut is a Turkish journalist currently based in Washington D.C.