A sharpening of tensions between Greece and Turkey reflects both the ruling classes of these nations attempting to get a bigger share of the oil and gas under the Eastern Mediterranean and the changed balance of power between the two countries. The labour movement of Greece and Turkey need to stand firmly against any warmongering or nationalist division and engage in united struggle for a socialist transformation of society!
The escalation of the ongoing confrontation between Greece and Turkey is not just a peripheral phenomenon, but is part of the general intensification of worldwide tensions between the imperialist powers. As the world economy heads towards a new recession and the “pie” of profits is shrinking, competition between the imperialist powers for raw materials, markets and commercial outlets is becoming sharper. The confrontation in the Eastern Mediterranean is not exceptional. Similar confrontations can be seen in the Pacific Ocean, in Africa, in Asia and, generally speaking, throughout the world.
An important element in all this is, on the one hand, the relative economic and military weakening of American imperialism, compared to 30 years ago (in this context it is worth mentioning that, in 1960, the USA produced 40 percent of world GDP, but by 2017 this had fallen to 24 percent) and, on the other, the simultaneous empowerment of peripheral imperialist powers such as Russia and China. The weakening of the USA as the world’s policeman has opened up more room for local imperialist powers to take on a more independent role. Thus, the enemies of the USA are becoming more audacious in pursuing their interests (for example, Russia’s embroilment in Ukraine and Syria). On the other hand, the USA’s allies are becoming less stable, depending on the ability of American imperialism to guarantee their interests. A particular example is Turkey, which was on the verge of a rupture with US imperialism because the latter supported the Kurdish militias in Syria.
In the present conditions, a world war is out of the question because of the class balance of forces on the one hand and the fact that the weapons of mass destruction of today have immense mutually destructive power. The bourgeoisie fears the huge destabilizing, and potentially revolutionary, consequences that a world war would have. At the same time, however, the growing instability and the sharpening of inter-imperialist contradictions will lead to more local conflicts and wars. And to the extent that the working class fails to overthrow the rule of capital in these two countries, the perspective of a peripheral war between Greece and Turkey is always a possibility.
The underlying causes of the confrontation between the Greek and Turkish bourgeoisie
The historical confrontation between Greek and Turkish capitalism de-escalated after the crisis of Imia in 1996. The main reasons for this were the intervention of American imperialism, which had no interest in such a military confrontation, the development of closer financial cooperation with commercial agreements between the two countries, and also the perspective of Turkey’s integration into the EU, from which the Turkish bourgeoisie was looking forward to important benefits.
Nevertheless, none of the main issues of the confrontation between Turkish and Greek capitalism were solved. The Cyprus question, the issue of the minorities in Thrace and competition in the Aegean Sea over territorial waters, the continental shelf and EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) remained unsolved.
All of these conflicts of interest are now coming back with a vengeance. The main reason for this is the discovery of hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean and the fact that the multinational companies are close to being able to extract them, from which both the Greek and Turkish bourgeoisies are hoping to benefit financially. For the Turkish bourgeoisie the energy resources of the Eastern Mediterranean are of great importance because Turkey is presently totally dependent on oil imports from Iran and Russia.
On the other hand, the perspective of Turkey’s integration into the EU has become less likely (if not completely ruled out). Thus, the Greek bourgeoisie cannot use the perspective of Turkish integration into the EU as a bargaining chip. Furthermore, the semi-Bonapartist regime of Erdogan is becoming weaker as the Turkish economy begins to sink and living standards are falling sharply. This explains the escalation of nationalist hysteria and the warmongering mood which is being used to divert the attention of the masses away from the domestic problems.
The belligerent tone of the Turkish ruling class does not mean, however, that the Greek bourgeois state is merely responding to external aggression. The claims of the Greek ruling class that they are respecting International Law, while it is only Turkey that is violating it, is a big lie on their part as both of them interpret International Law according to their own narrow national interests.
Clear examples are the conflicts over territorial waters, the continental shelf and EEZ. These legal terms were coined after the Second World War when the technology for the extraction of raw materials from the seabed began to develop. Initially, territorial waters were first determined as those falling within the distance of three nautical miles (n.m.) from the coastline of a country and were set mostly for defence purposes. In 1936 this was extended to six n.m. and in 1992 the idea was raised of a 12 n.m. limit. Continental shelf was established as being 200 n.m. from the coastline, where each country has the right to exploit the underground terrain and the bottom of the seabed. The EEZ was agreed only in 1982 and includes a similar area to the continental shelf (200 n.m.) but also includes, apart from the exploitation of the seabed, the utilization of the surface waters and grants rights to hydrocarbon drilling. The latter constitutes the most serious terrain for conflict in this particular case.
When the distance between the coastlines of two states is less than 400 n.m., as in the case of Greece and Turkey, then the EEZ must be determined by a special agreement between these two countries, something that has failed to materialise between the Greek and the Turkish states.
The Greek bourgeoisie insists the EEZ is mapped out using as a starting point the coastlines of the Greek islands that border Turkey. If within this plan the small Greek island of Kastelorizo is included (southeast of Greece), then Turkey’s EEZ would be confined to a tiny strip of water just off its shores, de facto excluding Turkey from exploiting the hydrocarbons of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Greek bourgeoisie has formed an alliance with Cyprus, Israel and Egypt in an effort to achieve this exclusion of Turkey or, at least, to limit to a minimum the claims of the Turkish bourgeoisie in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Turkish bourgeoisie, on the other hand, wants to define the EEZ on the basis of the continental coastlines of the two states and not the island coastlines. Also, in no way will it accept that a small island of a few hundred inhabitants, such as Kastelorizo, can be used to block its road in setting an EEZ in the Eastern Mediterranean. In order to defend their interests, they are using their own “interpretation” of International Law. For example, the EEZ that was set between France and Britain did not take into account the small British islands which are situated close to France, but only the continental coastlines of the two countries. In another example, the EEZ which was set between Malta and Libya was determined based on the lengths of the coastlines of the two countries and not by measuring the middle of the distance between the two countries, which meant that much more space was conceded to Libya.
In the last analysis, however, International Law doesn’t represent supra-historical laws but only a given balance of power between different capitalist states. And here we should mention another factor in the sharpening of relations between Greece and Turkey, i.e. the changed balance of forces between Greek and Turkish capitalism over the past 20 years. Significantly, at the beginning of 2000, Turkey’s GDP was double that of Greece’s. Today, because of the ongoing crisis of Greek capitalism, while the economic development of Turkish capitalism continued until two years ago, Turkey’s GDP is four times that of Greece.
This is also reflected in the difference of military strength between the two countries which has widened even more. The Turkish state not only has more military personnel, tanks, helicopters and equipment, but it also a more experienced army (gained in the wars in Kurdistan and Syria) and also technologically better weaponry (such as modern drones, S 400s). Furthermore, it has a much bigger capacity in conducting military operations, as 65 percent of its equipment is produced in Turkey itself, including helicopters, tanks and drones. The Greek state on the other hand, imports almost all of its military equipment. Turkey’s army is ranked 9th in a list of 137 countries, while the Greek army is ranked 23rd.
The Turkish ruling class is out to exploit this changed balance of forces to make real gains in terms of its rights to the hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Greek bourgeoisie is hoping to cover its weakness by exploiting the conflict between Turkey and the USA, proceeding to upgrade its role within NATO with the recent “defensive” agreement with the USA. It is also attempting to use the confrontation between the EU and Turkey, and, as we have seen, it has also established an economic and military alliance with Israel, Egypt and Cyprus in order to share out the rights to hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean, excluding Turkey.
However, these moves do not seem to have had the desired results for the Greek bourgeois. The conflict of interests between the USA and Turkey has its limits. Turkey is a valuable ally of American imperialism, especially now that the conflicts in the Middle East are intensifying. Undoubtedly, the USA are hoping for a change of regime in Turkey that would be more American-friendly and, until that materialises, they are going to put pressure on Erdogan, but their goal is not a rupture with the Turkish bourgeoisie. Indicative of this stance of the USA was the Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis’s failure to get from Trump even one statement of support for the claims of the Greek bourgeoisie when he visited Washington recently.
Despite the usual tough language that EU officials have been using, together with some (minor) financial and other sanctions, they cannot afford to enter into an all-out frontal confrontation with Turkey. And this is because Erdogan has the powerful diplomatic card of the flow of refugees, with which he threatens Europe openly. This issue weighs much more in the final decisions that the European bourgeois are going to take, than the “sovereign rights” of the Greek bourgeoisie.
The EastMed pipeline
The Greek bourgeoisie, in its competition with Turkey, is also trying to take advantage of the natural gas pipelines and particularly the attempt of the EU to lessen its reliance on Russian oil and natural gas, which covers nearly 40 percent of its needs. (By the way, this is the real reason for the investments of the European bourgeois in alternative forms of energy and not any genuine environmental awareness).
The fruits of this effort is the plan to create an EastMed pipeline which would transport natural gas from Cyprus to Greece and Italy and would cost 6.7 billion euros. The length of the proposed pipeline would be 900 kilometres and it could cover 4 percent of the needs of the European Union. However, they have still not worked out whether this plan is going to be viable financially. In any case, its realization will be determined by how high the price of natural gas reaches on the international markets.
It should be mentioned that it would be much cheaper, more environmentally friendly and viable if this pipeline were to pass through Turkey and were connected with the existing pipelines. The main criterion, however, is determined by inter-imperialist competition and, specifically, the attempt to bypass Turkey which has moved closer to the sphere of influence of Russia at this stage. Furthermore, similar calculations are being made by the Russian oligarchy as they proceed with the creation of Nord Stream and TurkStream that are designed to detour Ukraine, which has fallen within the sphere of influence of the USA.
The conflict in Libya and the importance of the Libya-Turkey 'Memorandum of Understanding'
The current situation in Libya has its roots in the, initially, revolutionary movement of 2011, that was part of the great Arab Revolution. As in Syria, the movement failed to overthrow the Gaddafi regime. A decisive factor in this outcome was the fact that the working class did not come to the forefront, as it did in Tunisia and Egypt. The regime regrouped and this is what led to the bloodshed and early death of the revolution.
As in Syria, in Libya the imperialists intervened under the guise of helping the rebels to overthrow the dictator Gaddafi (with whom, up until then, they had had an excellent relationship). And as in Syria, the result of this intervention was to transform a relatively developed country, with a high standard of living, into a living nightmare, with phenomena of barbarism, such as the slave trade.
The country fragmented into areas controlled by local warlords backed by different imperialist powers. The main forces now are the government of Al-Sarraj, which controls Tripoli and a small area around it, and the Haftar forces that control almost the rest of the country.
Although the Tripoli government was officially recognised by the UN, this has not prevented various imperialist powers from openly supporting Haftar. In this particular situation, apart from the initial support for the government of Tripoli, American imperialism did not play the decisive role. The government of Tripoli is supported by Turkey, Qatar and Italy, while the forces of Haftar are supported by France, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, which has sent around 1500 mercenaries.
It is not difficult to understand why the imperialists are hurrying in to support one of the two warlords. Libya is the 11th largest oil producer where major multinationals, such as French Total and Italian Eni, operate. Libya supplies a large amount of oil to energy-dependent Europe, in 2018 covering 6.7 percent of the EU's oil needs.
Also, following the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, Libya became a key crossing point to Europe for refugees from Africa. The EU has given over 330 million euros to the government of Tripoli since 2014 to transform the capital into a large refugee camp, where more than 700,000 refugees are crowded in inhumane conditions. Beyond the energy question, the German capitalists are keen to stabilize the situation in the country in order to restrict the flow of immigrants, and that was one of the reasons they called for the Berlin Conference on Libya, but without providing any solution, since soon afterwards hostilities were renewed, despite the ceasefire decision.
Turkish capitalism has been present in Libya since the time of Gaddafi, with Turkish construction companies undertaking multi-million dollar projects. Following the collapse of the Gaddafi regime, Erdogan saw a golden opportunity to participate in the plundering of the oil-rich country.
The signing of the “Memorandum of Understanding” between Libya and Turkey includes the creation of a common exclusive economic zone (EEZ) between the two countries (which ignores Kastelorizo and passes very close to Crete), together with Turkey's provision of military assistance to the Government of Tripoli.
This memorandum was not accepted at the recent conference on Libya in Berlin. But this is not a serious problem for the bourgeoisie of Turkey. Erdogan is more interested in using this deal as a bargaining chip in the conflict over hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean and putting a brake on the EastMed pipeline plan, since if the Libya-Turkey Memorandum were recognised, then the pipeline could not be constructed without the consent of Turkey because it would pass through her EEZ.
On its part, the Greek bourgeoisie received yet another blow, as it was not even invited to the Berlin conference, although the final memorandum directly concerned it. In an effort to cover up its weakness, it invited Haftar to Athens and left open the possibility of sending soldiers to Libya. Hoping to also gain some support from the US and the EU in competition with Turkey, it agreed to engage more directly in imperialist rivalries in the Middle East, by accepting to send a “Patriot” anti-aircraft unit to the Strait of Hormuz.
Is there any prospect of a Greek-Turkish war?
As we have stressed in our earlier articles, the prospect of a generalised armed conflict between Turkey and Greece is unlikely at this stage, as it would seriously endanger the interests of the bourgeoisie in both countries. An extended war would come at a great cost, since it would shake both the economy and the present balance of forces between the classes in society, which in both countries is extremely fragile.
Turkish capitalism experienced a severe financial crisis in 2018 and from which it has not recovered. Particularly as the global economy is heading into a new recession, a war would tilt the Turkish economy towards collapse. In addition, despite the superficial image of social calm, there are very deep class contradictions building up below the surface of Turkish society. The deterioration of the standard of living of the workers in a generalized war, as well as the unresolved Kurdish national question, would inevitably lead to mass movements at some stage. Turkey's bourgeoisie understands this serious possibility and will think very seriously before proceeding to a war that could bring the prospect of a revolution closer.
For the Greek bourgeoisie, all-out warfare would also lead to an immediate economic catastrophe. With the Greek economy experiencing an anaemic recovery after nine years of recession, and with the sovereign debt at 180 percent of GDP, such a war would amount inevitably to a government default. On the other hand, the “social peace”, secured for some years by the leadership of SYRIZA with its betrayal, has not eliminated the reasons that gave rise to the great movements we saw in Greece in the previous period. The Greek bourgeoisie wants to avoid a military confrontation that would once again bring to the forefront the prospects of economic collapse and revolution.
The most likely perspective is therefore that we will not have, in the coming period, open warfare between Greece and Turkey. However, despite the wishes of the bourgeoisie in both countries, we could be facing a series of “hot incidents”, i.e. local and brief military engagements due to the increasing tensions between the two armed forces, such as the dangerous air “dog-fights” over the Aegean we have seen, or the recent attempt to ram a Greek national guard boat by a Turkish ship, and so on.
The fact that a generalized war is ruled out at this stage, does not mean, however, that a Greek-Turkish war is ruled out in the long run. For example, in a future phase of the socio-political situation in the two countries, amid an even deeper crisis of the bourgeois regimes that could bring to power in one of the two countries an even more openly bonapartist regime and also a more unstable regime than today's Erdogan, we could face the prospect of open warfare, which would be a desperate means of diverting the attention of the masses and cutting across the growing class struggle. The prospect of a Greek-Turkish war is a reflection of the fact that capitalism in both countries continues to rot as the working class, so far, has failed to overthrow it. There can be no doubt, that the only way to guarantee a peaceful future for the peoples of the region, is the united anti-capitalist and international struggle of the Greek and Turkish working class.
The tasks of the labour movement and the Communists
It is worth pointing out once again that the war tension cultivated by the bourgeoisie of both Greece and Turkey – although, as we have already explained, most likely it will not to lead directly to war – are part of a struggle over the profits that can be made from the hydrocarbons, and it is being whipped up in the context of the wider imperialist antagonisms and, in this sense, such a war would be reactionary on both sides.
To expose the fundamentally reactionary nature of this war is the basic political task of the Communists in both counties, who must not come out in support of their “own” bourgeoisie and its so-called territorial “integrity”.
The Communists of both countries must explain to the working class that workers would have nothing to gain from such a war, and that only a handful of capitalists and monopolies would be enriched by the exploitation of the hydrocarbons. It is enough to look at the situation in a few of the major oil-producing countries (such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria, etc.) to understand that from the exploitation of their oil and gas only a small number of oligarchs have benefitted, while the poor continue to live in miserable conditions.
To all this we have to add the fact that the impact on the environment in a closed sea such as the Mediterranean would be disastrous. Oil extraction from under the seabed each year leads to hundreds of “accidents” all over the world, that contaminate the seas with crude oil.
Communists must struggle with all their might to expose the reactionary nature of the conflict between the Greek and Turkish bourgeoisie, to create links with the Turkish labour movement and the labour movement in the Middle East on the basis of specific and urgent demands, to fight together against war and imperialism. In the final analysis, the only real guarantee of preventing war is in the victory of the socialist revolution in both countries.
Unfortunately, the leaders of the labour movement, in one way or another, identify with the Greek bourgeoisie and its slogan of “national unity” and “defence of the homeland”. The leadership of SYRIZA has fully identified with the Greek bourgeoisie, adopting the position of adviser to the ruling class in how it can pursue its interests, having already, when it was in government, upgraded Greece's role within NATO and strengthened its alliance with Israel and Egypt.
The position of MERA25 (the Greek section of “Diem25”) on Greek-Turkish relations were briefly presented in an interview, given by its general secretary Varoufakis last summer, during Nikos Hatzinikolaou’s TV show, in which he stated that “MERA25 is against the extraction and co-exploitation of the hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean... The future of mankind requires the immediate termination of its oil dependence, while the co-exploitation would increase geopolitical tensions in the region to the detriment of our national interests”.
Undoubtedly, finding an alternative to fossil fuels is a necessary and an imperative need to reverse their devastating effect on the environment. We already have the technological know-how to completely shift away from fossil fuels within a few years. The reason this is not happening is because the big multinationals and oil companies still want to squeeze trillions of dollars in profits from these resources. The only way to end humanity's dependence on fossil fuels is to nationalize the oil industries and the basic sectors of the economy, to make massive investments in renewable energy in the context of a rational plan based on social needs. That means socialism.
Also, the geopolitical tensions in the region are not going to vanish with the abandonment of hydrocarbons. This is only one factor in sharpening the confrontation between the bourgeois states and imperialists in the region. Competition over markets, trade routes, raw materials, etc., is not going to go away. And as the crisis of capitalism deepens, this competition will intensify.
However, on the crucial question of what the attitude of MERA25 would be in the event of a breach of the country's “national integrity”, the secretary of the party expressed support for the war. Specifically, to the question asked by a journalist during the show “And if Turkish ships come to our seas and drill under our seabed, what does MERA25 suggest that we should do?”, the General Secretary of MERA25 answered: “If they came to our seas and drilled our seabed, we would consider it a ‘casus belli’, i.e. he would be for war.
The KKE (Communist Party of Greece) leadership, on the other hand, took an important initiative by publishing a joint statement with the Turkish Communist Party. This is a step in the right direction of proletarian internationalism. However, its words risk being a “dead letter”, when at the same time, the KKE leadership adopts the rhetoric of the Greek bourgeoisie over the defence of the borders, national integrity and the bourgeois homeland.
In one of his speeches in Syntagma square, in 2018, the party's general secretary said: “The Communists, as always in our heroic 100-year history, will lead the fight for the defence of our territorial integrity, our sovereign rights, to crush a foreign intruder if he dares to attack Greece”.
However, immediately afterwards, he added: “At the same time, we emphasize it as of now, that we will not express any confidence in the bourgeois government that will conduct the war. No tolerance in the ruling class that participates in the war to promote its own financial interests, over the blood of our people”.
These phrases risk being in contradiction with each other. Because the war for the defence of our “sovereign rights” (what rights do workers have in capitalist Greece?) means that the labour movement would be called on not only to join a reactionary war at the front, but at the same time to abstain from any form of class struggle, strikes and any kind of initiative that could sabotage the “national” struggle. And, of course, the logical extension of this position means that the proletariat must abandon class struggle even during the preparatory period for war, which is just as important for its outcome, as the military operations themselves.
The bourgeoisie, as it has always done historically, will use the slogan “defence of the homeland” to paralyze and hold back the labour movement, its organizations and its parties. The leaders of the labour movement, accepting this slogan, do nothing but tie the workers' movement to the needs of the bourgeoisie, as the social democratic leaders did during the First World War and the Second World War.
It is elementary for Marxists that the two decisive obstacles to the development of the productive forces and the progress of humanity today are, on the one hand, the private ownership of the means of production and on the other the nation states. For this reason, the slogan of defending the borders and bourgeois homeland is a reactionary one.
When Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto – at a time when the nation state was still relatively progressive – they declared: “Workers have no homeland”. Karl Liebknecht condensed the Communist position in times of war by saying that “the main enemy of every people is in their own country”! Lenin wrote this about the slogan of defending the homeland: “The bourgeoisie and its followers in the labour movement, the Grutlians (ed: Swiss reformists), usually raise the question: either we first recognize our debt of the defence of our country or we leave our country defenceless. Such a position is fundamentally wrong. In fact, the question is this: either we will be killed for the interests of the imperialist bourgeoisie or we will systematically prepare the majority of the exploited and ourselves so that we can take the banks, expropriate the bourgeoisie, and put an end to poverty and to wars”. (Lenin: “On the Position on the Question of Defence of the Homeland”, “Collected Works”, vol.30, ed. “Sugxroni Epohi”, p.223.)
What should the position of Communists be in case a war breaks out? Clausewitz explained that war is the continuation of politics by other means. The bourgeoisie go to war to continue their pursuit of profits, markets and raw materials. The Communists go to war to continue the struggle for socialist revolution.
If the workers’ movement fails to prevent such a war, then the duty of Communists is to follow their class brothers to the front, not to “defend their homeland”, but to carry out revolutionary propaganda within the army, to build communist nuclei and try to win the soldiers and lower-ranking officers to the cause of labour and socialism.
- The working people of the Eastern Mediterranean have no interests that divide them from each other!
- No to capitalist-imperialist competition, nationalist hatred and warmongering in the Eastern Mediterranean!
- End the armaments programmes, and put the money into health, education, and social benefits.
- Kick out American and Western European imperialism from the region!
- Greece and Turkey must exit the political, financial and military organisations of NATO and the EU!
- For a revolutionary struggle to overthrow the nationalist ruling classes in both Greece and Turkey! For a socialist federation of the two countries as part of the United Socialist States of Europe, the Middle East and the whole world!
- Co-ordinated struggle of the working class for socialism in Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean is the only way to lasting peace and stable prosperity!