A Turkish effort to lure tourists with a “TurkAegean” promotional campaign – against a backdrop of historic Greek sites and the sound of the bouzouki – has elicited anger and embarrassment in Athens.
With its western shores that straddle the Aegean, Turkey says the time has come to stop associating the region exclusively with Greece. Last December, he lodged a request with the EU’s intellectual property office to trademark the term TurkAegean.
Approval of the application, made public last week, caught Greek politicians off guard. “Some people … quite simply, did not do their job well,” said the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
Amid cries of their culture being usurped, Greek officials have gone on the offensive. “Obviously the government will exhaust every legal possibility to deal with this development,” Mitsotakis told reporters started at the end of last week’s Nato summit in Madrid.
With its ancient Greek name derived from Aegeus, the father of the mythical king Theseus who founded Athens, the Aegean’s Hellenic heritage has rarely been disputed – even if the two Nato rivals have long sparred over issues of territorial sovereignty in the sea.
As Turkish claims mount in the region, Greece’s top EU official, the European Commission vice-president, Margaritis Schinas, demanded the decision be reviewed. In a tersely worded letter to Thierry Breton, his counterpart in charge of internal markets, Schinas chided the EU body for failing to properly publicize Ankara’s request to use the term in the tourism campaign.
The TurkAegean slogan, predominant in the advertising of what Turkey has also labeled its “coastline of happiness”, has in recent days been rolled out with a vengeance, further riling Greeks.
“The Turkish Aegean is one of the most exquisite regions Türkiye has to offer,” the nation’s culture and tourism minister, Mehmet Nuri Ersoy, told the Financial Times, referring to an area with ruins that include ancient Troy and the port city of Ephesus, once viewed by Greeks as the most important trading center in the Mediterranean.
“It boasts coastlines wrapped in clear blue water, numerous historical sites dating back to the second century BC, and idyllic beaches to soak up the beaming sun.”
Advocates of rapprochement point out what TurkAegean makes evident: that from spectacular coastline to music and food, the two countries have more in common than they might like to believe.
But the campaign also follows rising tensions between the historic foes over their opposing claims in the Aegean Sea, mineral exploration in the eastern Mediterranean and war-divided Cyprus. More worryingly, communication through diplomatic channels has all but broken down. By Friday, hopes of relaxation in the wake of Madrid’s Nato summit had waned dramatically after the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, reiterated he would not be meeting Mitsotakis until he “pulls himself together”. In May, Erdoğan announced he would cut off ties with Mitsotakis after the Greek leader called on Washington to not sell F-16 fighter jets to Turkey during a speech before the US Congress.
Ankara has accused Athens of deliberately militarizing islands close to the Turkish coast in contravention of international treaties. In a move that sparked further concerns among EU diplomats stationed in Athens, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, warned last month that Turkey would challenge the status of Greece’s eastern isles if troops were not withdrawn.
Athens argues it has a right to defend itself on its own soil, noting repeated air incursions by Turkish fighter jets and Ankara’s longstanding threat of war in the event of territorial waters being extended. Erdoğan has repeatedly invoked the Greek-Turkish war of 1919-22, which ended in military defeat for Athens, saying that, 100 years on, Greece should not be bristling for a fight that it would once again “regret”.
Greek politicians said that Ankara’s TurkAegean campaign had to be seen in the context of the strategy the embattled Turkish president was pursuing in the lead-up to elections in 2023.
“It is not just an innocent advert but another argument that is being used to ultimately question our sovereignty over Greek islands in the Aegean and our rights in maritime economic zones,” said the former foreign minister and leftwing Syriza MP George Katrougalos. “If they were just saying that they have coastline in the Aegean, that, of course, is geographically right. But the term implies, as a corollary of their propaganda, that all, or most, of the Aegean is Turkish and that is clearly wrong.”
With Greece also facing the prospect of general elections as early as September, analysts have not ruled out tensions spiraling into a military clash either deliberately or by accident.
“There has been a very aggressive, almost apocalyptic upgrading of Turkish claims in the Aegean,” said Constantinos Filis, professor of international relations at the American College of Greece. “It is like Turkey is preparing the international audience for what could possibly lie ahead.”