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Turkey and Greece revive earthquake diplomacy

Kaki Bali Athens
February 7, 2023

Greece is assisting Turkey in dealing with the earthquake. The disaster may prove, once again, that Athens and Ankara can be good neighbors when it really counts.

Greek firefighters in uniform are standing in front of a red fire department vehicle
Greek rescue workers were among the first to make their way to the disaster zoneImage: picture alliance/dpa/AP

In his farewell speech shortly before Christmas 2022, Burak Ozugergin, the Turkish ambassador to Athens at the time, expressed the hope "that we won't need fires, earthquakes, or other disasters to remind us that we are neighbors."

A few weeks later, these words proved almost prophetic. The catastrophic earthquake that rocked the border region of southern Turkey and northern Syria seems to have brought the two hostile neighbors, Turkey and Greece, closer together.

In Greece, both politicians and the general public have responded to the natural disaster with shock and dismay. Athens immediately offered help, and there have been declarations of solidarity at every level: The Greek president, government, political parties, unions, and all sorts of civil society organizations immediately expressed their sympathy and willingness to help.

Greek firemen, with sniffer dogs and luggage, standing underneath a military plane on the tarmac
Greek firemen brought sniffer dogs to help in the rescue operationsImage: picture alliance/dpa/AP

It is not a long way to Gaziantep from Greece, and because of its own experience in dealing with earthquakes, Athens has advanced expertise in the field. Within just a few hours, Greece's special EMAK unit was heading to the disaster zone, dispatched by the government in Athens. A C130 military cargo plane also left for Turkey laden with humanitarian and medical supplies and carrying sniffer dogs, doctors, and first-aiders. Seismologists and the president of Greece's Earthquake Protection Agency, Efthymios Lekkas, were also on board.

Memories of the 1999 earthquake

For the time being, Greece has set aside its difficult bilateral relations with Ankara in view of the drama currently playing out in southern Turkey and northern Syria. The towns and villages there, already afflicted by poverty and war, have now been hit by the earthquake as well. So-called "earthquake diplomacy" is taking effect — a phenomenon that brought about an unexpected rapprochement between Greece and Turkey once before.

Just three years after the Imia crisis over two small uninhabited islands in the Aegean took them to the brink of war, two natural disasters in 1999 resulted in an easing of tensions. On 17 August, Turkey was rocked by a strong earthquake around the industrial city of Izmit, near Istanbul. At least 17,000 people died in the rubble of their houses; hundreds of thousands were made homeless.

A woman in a green top and grey leggings stands in the sun in front of two ruined village houses.
Earthquakes are a frequent occurrence in Greece, too. This damage was caused by a 6.3-magnitude quake in March 2021Image: Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP/Getty Images

The Greek foreign ministry immediately sent rescue workers and trained rescue dogs, doctors, and mobile hospitals. Greek civil society collected donations and organized thousands of tents, medicines, water, clothing, food, and blankets.

One month later, another earthquake struck the Greek capital, Athens. And Turkey immediately reciprocated: This time it was Ankara's turn to send rescue workers to help its neighbor. Back then, compassion, solidarity, and concrete help eased the extremely strained relations between Ankara and Athens, and the term "earthquake diplomacy" was coined. The positive atmosphere lasted another ten years before quarrels regained the upper hand.

Mitsotakis and Erdogan are speaking again

It's hard to predict, though, whether it will be enough to reconcile the hostile neighbors this time. In both countries, election campaigns are underway; both Greek and Turkish politicians like to use nationalist slogans, and so far they have shown little willingness to compromise.

Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis
The Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has put Greece's earthquake response forces at Turkey's disposalImage: Dimitris Papamitsos/Greek Prime Minister's Office/AP/picture alliance

Now, though, the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have at least spoken again, by phone. Mitsotakis assured Erdogan that Greece would put all its resources at Turkey's disposal, and conveyed the support and deep condolences of the government and the Greek people over the loss of life.

The Greek president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, also spoke to Erdogan by phone, and expressed her hope that as many lives as possible would be saved. The Turkish president thanked her for both the support of the Greek people and the aid already sent.

And foreign minister Nikos Dendias, who is currently in Brazil, contacted his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Cavusoglu to express his condolences to the victims, and to emphasize the Greek government's readiness to provide immediate support for the rescue efforts.

Everyone wants to help

There is cross-party support in Greece for the earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria — with the sole exception of the fascist fringe. All other party leaders pledged their solidarity with the affected Turks, Kurds and Syrians, and backed sending urgently needed international assistance, to rescue those trapped in the rubble and provide support for the victims.

A heap of rubble surrounded by tall apartment blocks, with people and rescue workers standing on and beside it
International assistance is urgently needed to rescue survivors trapped in the rubble, as here in Adana, southern TurkeyImage: Hussein Malla/AP Photo/picture alliance

Unions in Piraeus and Thessaloniki have been collecting blankets, powdered milk, medicines, bandages, diapers, soap, and other toiletries since Monday afternoon. Many non-governmental organizations are already en route to southern Turkey. 

This article has been translated from German.

A woman (Kaki Bali) with shoulder-length brown hair and blue eyes stands in front of a bookcase and smiles into the camera
Kaki Bali DW correspondent in Athens