Greece and Turkey: The Rocky Islet Crisis

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Greece and Turkey: The Rocky Islet Crisis
Carol Migdalovitz
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division
The dispute between Greece and Turkey over the sovereignty of Imia/Kardak islet
escalated rapidly because bilateral relations are hampered by historic distrust and
unresolved issues, and because both countries have weak governments. Each marshalled
legal arguments to support its position. The United States acted to defuse the crisis and
restore the status quo ante, but some State Department comments complicated U.S.-
Greek relations. In the aftermath, a politically damaged Greek government temporarily
distanced itself from the United States and sought support from its European Union
partners. The crisis did not affect efforts to form a government in Turkey, which sought
to counter Greece’s moves in Europe.
Crisis Chronology
On December 25, 1995, a Turkish cargo ship went aground on a small, uninhabited,
rocky islet, about 10 acres in size, that Greeks call Imia and Turks call Kardak.
Previously, no nation’s flag flew there and no military forces were present. The ship’s
captain initially refused assistance from Greece because, he said, the islet was Turkish.
The mayor of a neighboring Greek island raised his national flag on Imia. Turkey’s
Foreign Ministry addressed a note to the Embassy of Greece, asserting that the islet was
Turkish. Greece rejected the claim.
Greek and Turkish media trumpeted the incident later in January. On January 28,
Turkish journalists landed on the islet, lowered a Greek flag, and hoisted a Turkish
standard. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry disapproved of the journalists’ action and called for
problems to be solved through diplomatic channels. Athens protested to the Turkish
ambassador, saying that Imia was Greek. Later that day, Greek Navy commandos lowered
the Turkish flag and restored that of Greece. Greek Prime Minister Konstandinos Simitis
warned, “Our response to this and any other aggressive nationalism ... will be strong,

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immediate, and effective.”1 Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller insisted, “We can’t let a
foreign flag fly on Turkish soil. The flag will come down.”
By January 29, both nations had dispatched naval vessels to the vicinity of the islet
and Greek forces were put in the highest state of alert. On January 30, the Greek Defense
Ministry reported that “the entire Greek fleet is sailing in the Aegean” and that at least
eight Turkish navy vessels had been deployed. Greek Defense Minister Yerasimos Arsenis
said that Greek warships had warned a Turkish frigate to leave Greek waters; Greek planes
had intercepted Turkish planes violating Greek airspace. At various times, up to 20
vessels were reported around Kardak/Imia. Turkey requested that Greek troops be
recalled from the rocks and that all signs attempting to prove Greek sovereignty be
removed. It claimed that it had “only a normal amount of ships in the area.” Prime
Minister Simitis responded, “The Turkish claims have no basis at all. There is no space
for negotiations in ... matters which concern our sovereignty.” Early on January 31,
Turkish commandos landed on an adjacent outcrop where they planted a Turkish flag.
Turkish Foreign Minister Denis Baykal said that the troops would be removed when Greek
forces withdrew from the neighborhood.
The United States detected signs that Greece had plans to reinforce the islet and that2
Turkey had plans to take it, and sought to keep the dispute from igniting. On January 31,
U.S. mediation achieved agreement on mutual withdrawal and a restoration of status quo
ante, including no flags on the islet. While withdrawing, a Greek navy helicopter crashed,
killing three crew members — the only lives lost during the crisis. The withdrawal was
completed within hours. Defense Minister Arsenis observed, “... any incident could have
led to all-out war.”
Legal Issues
Athens says that Imia is Greek by virtue of the 1923 (Lausanne) Treaty of Peace with
Turkey, the Protocol to a 1932 Convention between Turkey and Italy, and the 1947 Treaty
of Peace with Italy. In Article 15 of the Lausanne Treaty, Turkey renounced in favor of
Italy “all rights and title over the following islands: Stampalia (Astrapalia), Rhodes
(Rhodos), Calki (Kharki), Scarpanto, Casos (Casso), Piscopis (Tilos), Misiros (Nisyros),
Calimnos (Kalymnos), Lipsos (Lipso), Simi (Symi), and Cos (Kos), which are now3
occupied by Italy, and the islets dependent thereon . . . .” The 1932 Protocol between
Italy and Turkey established rights concerning islands, waters, and rocks, and delimited
a maritime frontier. The Protocol set the midpoint between numerous listed islands and
the Anatolian coast as a border, including a midpoint between Kardak (Italy) and Kato
(Turkey). In Article 14 of the 1947 Treaty, Italy ceded sovereignty over the 12 islands,
commonly called the Dodecanese, named in the Treaty of Lausanne, and adjacent islets to

1Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations in this section are from Reuters reports, January

29-31, 1996.

2Engelberg, Stephen. U.S. is Trying to Help Cool Aegean Anger. The New York Times,
January 31, 1996. p. A6. Holbrooke said, “There were clear warnings that the Turks were going
to retake this islet by force, which would have been easy to do.” Reuters, January 31, 1996.
3The Greek name is in parentheses. Hurewitz, J.C. Diplomacy in the Near and Middle East:
A Documentary Record 1914-56, Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1956. p. 120

Greece. Islets were not named.4 Greece claims that these documents establish a decades-
old legal framework and status quo concerning sea borders in the southeastern Aegean and
prove incontrovertibly that Imia is Greek.
Ankara contends that possession of small islands, islets, and rocks in the Aegean has
not been determined clearly by agreement. It claims that League of Nations Covenant
Article 18 required members to register all treaties with the Secretariat and that the 19325
Protocol was not registered. Moreover, Greece had tried to include a reference to the
Protocol in the 1947 Peace Treaty, but was unsuccessful. Turkey maintains that Kardak
Rocks are neither adjacent to the named islands nor islets as the terms are used in the 1947
Treaty. Ankara also notes that the Treaty stipulates that the Dodecanese shall be
demilitarized. Since Greece, according to Turkey, has failed to fulfill this obligation, it
cannot selectively invoke other alleged Treaty rights. Moreover, Turkey finds that its
fishermen’s long-term uncontested use of the islet adds to its legal case.
Minutes of the 1947 Peace Conference indicate that the 12 islands were named in the
Treaty in response to a Greek amendment proposed to avoid ambiguity as to the
expression “Isles of the Dodecanese,”6 perhaps not foreseeing that “islets” could be
ambiguous or relying on international legal definitions of the time. Further, the Treaty
commission suggested that Greece propose a draft map defining maritime frontiers of the
Dodecanese in lieu of accepting a Greek amendment referring to the 1932 Convention and
Protocol.7 Greece says that it never drafted a map because it had succeeded to all rights
previously pertaining to Italy concerning boundaries of the Dodecanese. The 1932
Protocol appears to be the crux of the legal dispute.
Other Unresolved Bilateral Issues
Centuries of mistrust afflict Greek-Turkish relations. Some date tensions to the 15th
century when the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople, the heart of the Greek
Byzantine Empire, others to 1828 when Greece became the first nation to achieve
independence from the Ottomans. In modern times, unresolved bilateral issues have
festered to worsen relations. In 1974, in response to a coup in Cyprus instigated by a
military junta then ruling Greece, Turkish troops landed in Cyprus and eventually seized
the northern third of the island. Cyprus remains divided, with Greek Cypriots controlling
the internationally recognized government and the southern two-thirds of the island and
Turkish Cypriots in the northern third governed by a self-declared, but internationally
unrecognized, “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.” Two decades of negotiations have
failed to resolve the issue.

4Treaties and Other International Agreements of the United States of America, 1776-1949,
Vol. 4 (Multilateral) 1946-49. p. 318.
5Greece maintains that the Protocol did not have to be registered since the Convention itself
had been.
6House Documents. Foreign Relations, 1946, Vol. IV. 80th Congress, 1st Session.
Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 694.
7Ibid., p. 310.

Other differences concern territorial rights in the Aegean Sea, where there are over

2,300 islands, islets, and rocks, mostly uninhabited, but important for defining borders.

Imia/Kardak may be added to this list. Greece claims a 10-mile airspace limit, rejected by
Turkey and other parties. Greece repeatedly protests Turkish violations of airspace. The
continental shelf between the two neighbors has not been delimited. Greece, in possession
of most Aegean islands, maintains that islands have a continental shelf, while Turkey
argues that the continental shelf is a geological extension of its Anatolian mainland. The
two also differ over Greece’s right to militarize several islands in the eastern Aegean.
Territorial waters are a potent issue. In May 1995, Greece ratified the Law of the Sea
Treaty, which would allow it to claim a 12-nautical mile territorial sea limit. Greece
asserts it has the right to declare 12 miles, but has not exercised it. Turkey has not signed
the Treaty, and says that a Greek declaration of 12 miles would be an act of war. Greek
islands fringe Turkey’s Anatolian coast; therefore, Turkey contends that expanding the
islands’ territorial waters would impede its access to the high seas. In response to the
Greek Treaty ratification, the Turkish Parliament gave the government the power to go
to war if Greece declares a 12-mile limit.
Ethnic or religious disputes continue. Greece complains about Turkey’s alleged
mistreatment of the Greek Orthodox Church, headquartered in Istanbul, and Turkey
protests Greece’s alleged mistreatment of its Muslim populace, whom Turkey refers to as
“Turks.” Ankara also charges that Athens supports a separatist Kurdish terrorist group
that has waged an insurgency since 1984 - a charge Greece denies.
Domestic Situations
Weak Greek and Turkish governments appear, in part, to have been provoked into
action over Imia/Kardak by nationalistic media. The Greek government had just ended
two months in limbo during the protracted illness of former Prime Minister Andreas
Papandreou, culminating in his resignation. Papandreou, an historic and charismatic
figure, had dominated Greek politics. The new Simitis government was barely a week old,
seeking to establish its own identity, when the crisis erupted. On the other side, Turkey
had an inconclusive national election in late December and competing politicians had been
unable to agree on a new coalition government. The opposition Islamist Refah party was
the largest vote-getter and hovered over the negotiations and other events. Ciller headed
a caretaker government, without a mandate, until a new one was formed. The uncertain
political climate in Athens and Ankara made each vulnerable to provocations by
exploitative press, causing the crisis to spiral rapidly out of control. Ironically, Greece and
Turkey accused each other of taking advantage of its domestic uncertainty for aggressive
U.S. Policy
The United States sought to prevent a military confrontation between its two NATO
allies and to restore the status quo ante. On January 30, the State Department urged both
governments to exercise restraint and to draw back. The highest level U.S. officials
intervened to defuse the crisis, with Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs
Richard Holbrooke mediating actively. Greece and Turkey eventually made withdrawal
reassurances to the United States, because they would not make them to each other.

The State Department later sought to avoid being drawn into the legal dispute over
the islet’s sovereignty, refusing to take a position on the issue. However, a Department
spokesman said on February 1 that there may be other islands or islets on which the United
States takes no position on sovereignty and promised to produce a list of them. Greeks
were outraged because they believed that their territorial sovereignty was being
questioned. Several days later, the Department retracted its statement, saying that there
was no list, while expressing concern that the United States was “being labeled as part of8
the problem rather than part of the solution ....” On February 7, a U.S. official said that
since the validity of at least one of the documents (i.e. the 1932 Protocol) that bear on the
question of ownership and sovereignty was disputed, the United States believed that the
best venues for addressing questions would be the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or9
another consensual, impartial body. The State Department refused comment on whether
other bilateral Aegean disputes should be brought to the Court.
Greece’s domestic and foreign affairs were unsettled by the crisis, despite its
abatement without violence. The government, which claimed success from the
disengagement of forces and de-escalation of the crisis, was weakened by what was
perceived at home as a “national humiliation.” Questions were raised about who
authorized the flag to be lowered and why there had been no response to Turks landing
on nearby rocks. Opposition leader Miltiades Evert said that the withdrawal of Greek
forces and the flag lowering constituted an abandonment of national territory and an act
of treason.10 The opposition boycotted a vote of confidence to confirm the new
government; the government, which has a parliamentary majority, won. On February 8,
the Greek Chief of Staff was fired, mostly for commenting publicly on government
discussions during the crisis.
Many Greeks blamed the United States, assessing its neutrality as equivalent to siding
with Ankara. At the end of the crisis, Holbrooke had said that he would travel to Greece11
and Turkey to defuse tensions. After the State Department’s February 1 comment about
disputed islets, a Greek government spokesman observed that “State Department positions
(i.e., failing to recognize Greek sovereignty) create the basis for a permanent source of
tension in the area.”12 On February 5, the Prime Minister announced that Holbrooke’s visit
did not fit the government’s schedule. Since Greek officials had said that sovereignty was
non-negotiable, and since the national media remained irate, the government apparently
decided to cut its political losses and to mollify critics by snubbing Holbrooke — alleged
perpetrator of its “humiliation.” The State Department announced that the trip was

8Reuters, February 6, 1996.
9Reuters, February 7, 1996.
10Foreign Broadcast Information Service. Daily Report, Western Europe, FBIS-WEU-96-

021 (hereafter FBIS-WEU), January 31, 1996. p. 18.

11Holbrooke perturbed Europe by noting its inability to act decisively in its own theater.
Drozdiak, William. U.S. Role in Aegean Revives Doubts on EU. The Washington Post, Feb. 8,

1996, p. A17.

12FBIS-WEU-96-024-A, February 5, 1996. p. 22-23.

canceled due to “scheduling difficulties in Greece” and the “state of political affairs in
Turkey.” A U.S. initiative on Greek-Turkish issues awaits a cooling off period or Greek
consent. Simitis and President Konstandinos Stephanopoulos, however, will visit the
United States separately in the spring.
Greece also viewed its European allies’ apparent neutrality critically and officials
visited European capitals to generate support. Greece, a European Union (EU) member,
threatened to reopen debate on implementation of an EU customs union accord with
Turkey, a non-member, to block an EU aid package that is part of the accord, and to hold
up Turkey’s share of EU funds destined for the Mediterranean. Greece contends that
Turkey, by its “aggression,” broke a commitment under the accord to have amicable ties
with EU members. Prime Minister Simitis said that Greece would cooperate with the EU
once Turkey agreed to ICJ jurisdiction, but that Turkey must initiate an appeal to the ICJ
since it is questioning Greek rights. The European Parliament supported Greece’s view
on sovereignty, but EU foreign ministers simply urged the parties to solve differences
amicably. Some EU members are concerned that Greece’s moves against Turkey would
violate the customs union accord and interfere with developing ties and access to Turkey’s
market. (The United States, a proponent of Turkish-European links, shares these
concerns.) French President Jacques Chirac “indicated that the fewer new problems
Greece created for EU-Turkish cooperation, the more likely France would be to show
solidarity with Greece.”13 Other European governments reportedly implied that if Greece
sabotaged the customs union, then they would stall talks on Cyprus’ EU membership.
Greek government activity in Europe may have been intended to deflect domestic attention
from its perceived humiliation. If so, it did not meet that goal. The political opposition
continued to criticizes the government unrelentingly, especially for its inability to get more
support from Europe.
The Turkish government claimed victory, although Refah accused it of caving in to
U.S. pressure, since the Turkish flag came after Holbrooke’s mediation. The crisis may
have boosted Ciller’s popularity, but she still could not form a government. Mesut Yilmaz
of the Motherland Party, her rival, formed a coalition with Ciller’s True Path Party. In
rotation, he will be Prime Minister first, followed by Ciller, and then by Yilmaz’s return.
The islet crisis did not affect these developments. Turkey regretted the cancellation of
Holbrooke’s visit. It prefers a dialog with Greece on all Aegean issues over adjudication
by the ICJ.14 Turkish officials visited Europe to explain their views and to counter
Greece’s attempt to impede Turkish-EU relations. Ankara recalled its ambassador from
Athens to protest Greece’s anti-Turkish actions in Europe. Greek-Turkish relations
appear to be at their lowest ebb in decades.

13Chirac spokeswoman Catherine Collona, quoted in Reuters, February 23, 1996.
14Greece rejects a “package” approach to Aegean issues and, heretofore, has wanted only the
continental shelf issue brought before the Court.