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To say that 2015 was a fascinating year for Hellenism would be an understatement. We ushered in the New Year with an election in Greece, Turkey maintaining its invasion of the Republic of Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone and keeping reunification negotiations on hold, and instability throughout the Balkans and Eastern Mediterranean. The summer ushered in both more volatility (with the Greek economic crisis leading to referenda, bank closures, and negotiations that reminded one of torture tactics; an unprecedented refugee crisis) and some hope (Cyprus talks back on track with a more willing Turkish-Cypriot partner, the US engaging more substantively both on Greece and Cyprus). Yet the end of 2015 leaves us with more open fronts on Hellenic issues than one can remember existing at one time.
2016 will bring no respite for Hellenism, and Athens, Nicosia, the Phanar and the worldwide diaspora must be prepared to hit the ground running in January. Here are a few developments that will be upon us immediately and may well have a lasting effect:
The next round of negotiations between Greece and its creditors
The capital controls imposed this summer in Greece are still in force, and the economy has fallen back into recession. The Tsipras government is intent on exiting the bailout program in 2016; if a further bailout program is needed, it wants the IMF excluded. This is where things get complicated – the IMF is in favor of debt relief (which is the major accomplishment that successive Greek governments have been striving for), but wants deeper cuts to pensions (which Athens argues cannot be cut further). The European Union and the European Central Bank are not in favor of debt relief, but would have to allow Greece to refinance/borrow on triple A term in perpetuity to make Greek debt levels sustainable. The creditors’ review of Greece’s reforms is due in January; Greece may run out of cash again in February. Can Tsipras survive another showdown either with Greece’s creditors or with rebels within Greece’s Parliament? If the government falls, will New Democracy have made itself strong enough to capitalize? Who becomes the king maker (ANEL, PASOK, Potami) if all this plays out?
Cyprus reunification negotiations
There are several reasons why 2016 should be the year the occupation of Cyprus ends. The turmoil in the region makes Cyprus look like the easiest problem to solve, the extra financial incentive of natural gas gives every stakeholder in Cyprus reason to come to an agreement, and it is hard to imagine a combination of leaders who will have a better rapport than President Nicos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci. But there is one big reason why it won’t: Turkey has not made any serious concessions. In the last few weeks, it seems that diplomats are trying to establish the conventional wisdom that a Cyprus solution is – in John Kerry’s words – “within reach”. It would be nice if Secretary Kerry or Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon could detail what “within reach” means or what exactly Turkey has done to bring it a little closer. Every time the State Department tells the community that Turkey is being “helpful”, we are directed to positive rhetoric coming out of Ankara. It’s hard not to treat these “positive” comments as being uttered with forked tongues when they are accompanied by: further challenges to Cyprus’ EEZ; by Turkish government correspondence to the EU declaring its non-recognition of the Republic of Cyprus; by Prime Minister Davutoglu’s request for more settlers to be given “citizenship” of the pseudo-state (“Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”) in the occupied north.
2016 could indeed be the year that Cyprus is freed from over four decades of Turkish occupation and Greek and Turkish Cypriots come together and start building a better future. Yet it is equally likely that this is the year that intellectually dishonest diplomacy – the kind that treats the Cyprus issue merely as a bi-communal problem and holds that Turkey’s invasion and occupation are not core issues; the kind that leaves the hardest possible issues (i.e., how to rid Cyprus of Turkey’s insistence on security guarantees/right to intervene, how to pay for the $20 billion cost of reunification) to the very end of the process – will leave us lamenting missed opportunities in 2016.
The religious freedom of the Ecumenical Patriarchate
This March 25, it will be four years since President Obama stood next to then Prime Minister Erdogan and congratulated him on his decision to open Halki Seminary. Halki was supposed to be the first domino to fall in the road to restoring full religious freedom to the Ecumenical Patriachate. Four years later, Halki remains closed, and proposed amendments to Turkey’s constitution that would increase religious freedom are unlikely to see the light of day. The Gulen movement and its allies in Turkish government – whom the Church relied heavily upon – are on the run in the Turkey and around the world, as the Erdogan government has clearly decided to eliminate Gulen and his followers as a political force in Turkey. Now the Ecumenical Patriarchate is stuck in the middle of the latest spat between Russia and Turkey, with its ability to host a pan-Orthodox council (the first since 787 A.D.) now in question.
That the issue of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s religious freedom has virtually disappeared as a political priority in the West is inexcusable. Turkey’s oppression of the Patriarchate has been one of the harbingers of the terrors visited on Christians across the Middle East today. There are no longer any tolerant forces in the Turkish government, and if Washington, D.C. and Brussels fail to press the issue with Ankara, the Patriarchate will be slowly eliminated.
Several more issues are set to emerge center stage – the Macedonian name issue will surely heat up as the NATO Summit approaches, the refugee crisis is not subsiding, Albania has taken to challenging Greek sovereignty – but the above will dominate attention from the beginning. 2016 promises to be more volatile than 2015 and we must all be on guard.