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The projection of Turkish power in the Eastern Mediterranean

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The recent military conflict between Greece and Turkey over potential gas fields located in disputed waters is linked to a complex historical and political conflict between the two nations, so geographically close, but also culturally and politically distant. The superpowers have problems and alliances linked to the two countries, thus globalizing the conflict. Furthermore, all the countries concerned need the cooperation of Greece and Turkey in various fields such as the refugee crisis.

It is symptomatic of the changing nature of geopolitics, geoeconomics and the aftermath of Covid-19. The frictions reflect Turkey’s strategic rebalancing. The conflict in the eastern Mediterranean is mainly the result of a dispute between Turkey and Greece. Two aspects in particular of this balance of power form an explosive mixture in the Eastern Mediterranean, firstly the conflict stems from the fact that there are no agreed maritime borders between Turkey and Greece. The two countries contest their mutual claims on maritime territories and thus contest their respective rights to search for underwater energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.

Secondly, Turkish policy in the Middle East has helped lure other powers into maritime conflict.

The rift between Turkey and its eastern Mediterranean neighbors mainly affects Cyprus. While the Republic of Cyprus is internationally recognized as a sovereign state, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus has only been recognized by Ankara since its establishment in 1974. And above all, it sees the southern part of the island as secessionist. Turkey has longstanding objections to exploration licenses Cyprus offers to international energy companies, including ENI and Total. These licenses are mainly concentrated in the south and southwest of the island. These zones are included in the exclusive economic zone claimed by Cyprus but which, according to Ankara, violates its continental shelf as well as the territorial waters belonging to.

International law currently offers few possibilities for resolving maritime complaints. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that coastal nations are entitled to a 200 mile exclusive economic zone where they can claim the rights to fishing, mining and drilling. But shorter distances in the eastern Mediterranean force states to settle on a negotiated dividing line. Turkey’s position adds further complexity to these issues: Turkey is in fact not a signatory to the UN convention and defends a different interpretation of maritime rights, arguing that the waters adjacent to the Greek Cypriot administration remain an integral part of the continental shelf of Turkey.

The agreement of 27 November 2019 signed between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj defined a maritime border between the two signatories. The agreement was the most important signal of Turkey’s ambitions. The text delineates a 35-kilometer line that will form a maritime border from the southwestern coast of Turkey to the north of Libya, and crosses the areas claimed by Greece and Cyprus. It tilts the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean in favor of Turkey. This disrupts the planned route of the 1,900-kilometer Eastern Mediterranean gas pipeline that would carry gas from Israel through Cyprus and Greece to southern Europe. Greece called on the United Nations Security Council and NATO to condemn Turkey’s maritime agreement and for this expelled the Libyan ambassador to Greece. Apparently, as a countermeasure to Turkey’s tactics, Israel, Cyprus and Greece have teamed up to carry out the Eastern Mediterranean pipeline.

It must be said that Ankara has the ambition to be an energy hub for Europe. The Turkish state wishes both to guarantee the Turkish Cypriots a share of future gas revenues and to free Turkey from its dependence on Russian gas supplies. Erdogan had sent his own drilling vessels into disputed waters north-east and west of Cyprus, as well as south of Kastellórizo.

Turkey fears it will be cut off from most of the Aegean Sea and therefore from major sea routes if Greece unilaterally expands its territorial waters and creates new areas of maritime jurisdiction. Erdogan responded by adopting a more assertive line with more aggressive rhetoric. The Turkish government says that as long as talks on maritime disputes are pending and Greece and the Republic of Cyprus continue to do research or drilling, Ankara will too. For their part i Greek officials say Turkey’s new policy is what has reignited the dispute and strained Ankara’s relations with its neighbors. Greeks are increasingly concerned about the safety of hundreds of islands that are very close to Turkey.

Whether it is Turkey or Greece, the two countries are using the migration issue to exert pressure. The situation on the Greek-Turkish borders in fact remains tense and very unstable; the current status quo in the region has all the hallmarks of a hybrid battle. Turkish officials and security forces push migrants to the neighboring country, often even helping them with illegitimate means. Meanwhile, the press and social media are fully used to shape public opinion in favor of interested parties. Propaganda in this context plays a vital role in this conflict. In addition, Ankara also uses its strategic position with the Bosphorus Strait and threatens to close the US Incirlik base to serve its interests.

Turkey has pursued an aggressive and expansive policy in its region for the past decade. This Turkish government approach is steeped in neo-Ottomanism and pan-Islamism. We find in this approach the ramifications of a much older school of Ottoman imperialist thought. The wave of bellicose maneuvers by the Turkish government can be attributed to the 2016 coup attempt, which gave the Erdogan government carte blanche to implement its long-sought power projection policy.

The government’s strategy to create a sense of successful foreign policy in the country, and thereby destroy most of the opposition parties, involves a discourse that emphasizes national interest. This vague but extremely useful term has had a paralyzing effect on the various opposition factions in the country, as they are unable to formulate a counter-narrative without risking being accused of lack of patrioticism. Very often the analysis of modern Turkey’s foreign policy as neo-Ottoman politics ends with the assertion that Erdogan and his party are nostalgic for the restoration of Ankara’s influence in the ancient regions of the Ottoman Empire.

If we take the example of Libya, one of Turkey’s goals in Libya is to completely control the country’s market and establish economic dependence on Turkey. It should be added that Turkey has signed two memoranda with LNG, one on military support and the other on demarcation at sea. Under the maritime border demarcation agreement, LNG has supported Turkey’s demands on part of the waters of Greece and Cyprus. Furthermore, Ankara intends to exploit any gas reserves on the Libyan coast. Indeed, in exchange for military support, Ankara imposed a treaty on Tripoli to take control of a significant portion of the country’s oil and gas wealth and forced LNG chief Fayez Sarraj to support its territorial claims in neighboring countries. This is a classic example of Turkish imperialist politics.

As a result, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey has engaged in the past two years in a remarkable series of geopolitical foreign interventions from Syria to Libya via Cyprus and more recently alongside Azerbaijan. Some have called it Erdogan’s “New Ottoman Empire” strategy. Yet a collapsing lira and a collapsing national economy threaten to unexpectedly put an end to its great geopolitical ambitions. To date, in 2020, the lira has fallen 34% against the US dollar and 70% over the past five years. While some believe it would increase Turkey’s exports of goods, what it does is expose the entire Turkish banking system and economy to a colossal debt explosion. It can also be noted that at this point Erdogan’s interventions met with unserious sanctions or opposition from the EU. One obvious reason is the high exposure of EU banks to Turkish lending. Spanish, French, British and German banks have invested more than $ 100 billion in Turkey. Spain is the most exposed with 62 billion, followed by France with 29 billion. This means that the EU is walking on eggshells, unwilling to pour more money into Turkey but hesitant to precipitate a collapse on economic sanctions.

The eastern Mediterranean has become a hot spot for the natural gas industry. The discoveries have generated growing interest among several international oil companies and countries. It all started with Noble Energy (based in Texas) which announced the discovery of the Tamar field off the coast of Israel in 2009, with an estimated capacity of 280 billion cubic meters. In the space of two years, Noble Energy announced two further discoveries: the Leviathan field, also off the coast of Israel, in 2010 and the Aphrodite field, in Cypriot waters, in 2011. This has reinforced regional ambitions to make the Eastern Mediterranean a gas exporting region. . These ambitions were also based on two assessments made by the US Geological Survey (USGS) in 2010, which estimated the presence of nearly 9.8 trillion cubic meters of undiscovered technically recoverable gas and over 3.4 billion barrels of petroleum resources in the area. However, the real turning point (for regional energy ambitions) came in 2015 when the Italian Eni announced the discovery of the gigantic Zohr gas field off the coast of Egypt. With its 850 billion cubic meters of estimated average gross resources, the Egyptian offshore field is the largest ever discovered in the Mediterranean Sea. It should be added that these fields have another feature: geographical proximity. Thus was born a regional alliance with a pipeline project that excludes Turkey from the energy dynamic. The presence of natural gas has become an axis of cooperation and rivalry in the region. It can be said that gas is the main motivation behind Erdogan’s maneuvers. Indeed, Turkey’s unique geopolitical situation stems from the fact that it is poor in hydrocarbon reserves while its neighborhood has abundant resources. It is therefore imperative for Ankara to maintain stable energy ties with neighboring energy-rich countries or regions. In line with Turkey’s growing domestic demand, efforts to focus on energy security have become an integral part of the country’s foreign policy over the past two decades. The search for hydrocarbons, in particular natural gas, has become a fundamental geopolitical and geo-economic objective for the country.

The rationale for Turkish natural gas policies can be described by three aspects:

1. Being a country dependent on imports, Turkey’s main objective is to guarantee its access to natural gas supplies to satisfy its internal demand.

2. aims to diversify its current supply structure and counterbalance Russia’s dominant role in its energy portfolio.

3. Turkey aims to strengthen / increase its integration into the regional energy security architecture by promoting its role as an energy transit country and a potential hub for supplying Europe.

At the moment, the Eastern Mediterranean region does not supply gas to Turkey, with the exception of market agreements with Egypt. However, it emerges as a critical point on the Turkish foreign policy agenda, as the region is viewed by Ankara not only through the prism of energy security, but also through the prism of its protracted conflict with Cyprus and in the broader context of competition for regional power in the eastern Mediterranean.

In line with the above, it is possible to identify at least five key factors that explain Turkey’s greater involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean:

1. Turkey looks for potential gas reserves in its waters that could bring economic benefits to the country.

2. Turkey does not want to be excluded from developing a new regional energy agenda and is ready to protect its interests.

3. Turkey intends to be an energy transit country that could strengthen its role as an energy hub and undermine rival projects such as the EastMed pipeline.

4. Turkey intends to involve other countries in the region to support its objectives, as seen in the case of the maritime border agreement with the government of national agreement based in Tripoli in Libya, to promote its position by preventing it from doing so. way for others to gain influence;

5. Turkey intends to demonstrate its capabilities as a military power in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Greek-Turkish crisis is likely to influence the shift in the balance of power in the Eastern Mediterranean region. It is possible that over time the United States will relocate its military base from Incirlik to one of the military installations in Greece. Athens wishes to modernize and strengthen the army and navy to contain Ankara. Greece, Cyprus, France but also regional actors such as Egypt and Israel do not agree with the Libyan-Turkish synergy. Analyzing the differences in this balance of power, it is clear that Erdogan appears to be in a position of strength. But from this analysis it also emerges that Ankara does not have sufficient capacity to realize its imperialist ambitions .

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Europe

France’s Controversial ‘Separatism’ Bill

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In his very first days at the Elysee Palace, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to detail his views on secularism and Islam in a wide-ranging speech. It took more than three years for this to happen, with the much awaited speech actually taking place in October a week after a teacher was violently killed for revealing the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad(PBUH) during a lecture on freedom of expression. Macron said during his speech that “Islam is a religion which is experiencing a crisis today, all over the world”, adding that there was a need to “free Islam in France from foreign influences”. Mr. Macron and his Parliament allies have described the bill as a reaction to the rise of Islamic separatism, which the President defines as a philosophy that seeks to create a parallel state in France where religious laws replace civil law.  Referring to the cartoons at a citizenship ceremony earlier and before the latest attacks, Macron defended the “right to blasphemy” as a fundamental freedom, even as he condemned “Islamic separatism.”

“To be French is to defend the right to make people laugh, to criticize, to mock, to caricature,” the president said. The proposed law allows religious associations and mosques to report more than €10,000 ($12,000) in international support and to sign a promise to uphold the French republican ideals in order to obtain state subsidies. The bill will also make it possible for the government to close down mosques, organizations and colleges that have been described as criticizing republican values.The controversial bill is blamed for targeting the Muslim people and enforcing limits on nearly every part of their lives. It allows government to oversee the funds of associations and non-governmental organizations belonging to Muslims. It also limits the schooling options of the Muslim community by prohibiting families from providing home education to children. The law also forbids people from selecting physicians on the grounds of gender for religious or other purposes and mandates a compulsory ‘secularism education’ on all elected officials. Physicians will either be charged or jailed under the law if they conduct a virginity test on girls. Critics argue the so-called “separatism law” is racist and threatens the 5.7 million-strong Muslim population in France, the highest in Europe. Its critics include the 100 imams, 50 teachers of Islamic sciences and 50 members of associations in France who signed an open letter against the “unacceptable” charter on 10 February.

A criminal act for online hate speech will make it easier to easily apprehend a person who shares sensitive information about public sector workers on social media with a view to hurting them and will be disciplined by up to three years in jail and a fine of EUR 45.000. The banning or deleting of pages spreading hate speech would now be made smoother and legal action accelerated. The bill expands what is known in France as the ‘neutrality clause,’ which forbids civil servants from displaying religious symbols such as the Muslim veil and holding political opinions, outside public sector workers to all commercial providers in public utilities, such as those working for transport firms.

French Members of Parliament held two weeks of heated debates in the National Assembly. People of Muslim faith interviewed outside the Paris Mosque and around Paris on the outdoor food market before the vote had hardly heard of the rule. “I don’t believe that the Muslims here in France are troublemakers or revolutionaries against France,” said Bahri Ayari, a taxi driver who spoke to AP after prayers inside Paris’ Grand Mosque. “I don’t understand, when one talks about radicalism, what does that mean — radicalism? It’s these people who go to jail, they find themselves with nothing to do, they discuss amongst themselves and they leave prison even more aggressive and then that gets put on the back of Islam. That’s not what a Muslim is,” he added.

Three bodies of the French Council of Muslim Worship (CFCM) have unilaterally denounced the “charter of principles” of Islam, which reaffirms the continuity of religion with France. The three parties said that the Charter was accepted without the full consensus of the other integral components of the CFCM, including the provincial and departmental councils and the imams concerned. “We believe that certain passages and formulations of the submitted text are likely to weaken the bonds of trust between the Muslims of France and the nation. In addition, certain statements undermine the honor of Muslims, with an accusatory and marginalizing character,” the Milli Görüş Islamic Confederation (CMIG) and the Faith and Practice movement said in a joint statement. The bill is blamed for targeting the Muslim community and enforcing limits on nearly any part of their lives. It allows for interference in mosques and organizations responsible for the operation of mosques, as well as for the oversight of the funds of associations and non-governmental organizations belonging to Muslims.

It is a difficult time for the nation, which has also accused its protection bill of containing the press freedom. The law introduced aims at making it unlawful to post photographs of police officers in which it is identifiable by “malicious intent” However, law enforcement has criticized the government after the declaration by Macron of the development of an online forum to flag police brutality.

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Why Is Europe Hostile Towards Russia?

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In his seminal 1871 work Russia and Europe, the famous Russian intellectual and Slavophile Nikolay Danilevsky set forth his theory that “Europe recognizes Russia as something alien to itself, and not only alien, but also hostile,” and that Russia’s fundamental interests should act as a “counterweight to Europe.”

One hundred and fifty years have passed since that work was published. The world has changed. No matter what anti-globalists might say, the rapid development of modern technologies and their use in our everyday lives has forced us to re-evaluate many of our beliefs about relations between states and people. The exchange of information, scientific discoveries and knowledge, and the sharing of our cultural wealth bring countries closer together and open up opportunities for development that did not exist before. Artificial intelligence does not know any boundaries and does not differentiate users by gender or nationality. Along with these new opportunities, the world is also faced with new problems that are increasingly supranational in nature and which require our combined efforts to overcome. The coronavirus pandemic is the latest example of this.

It is against the background of these rapid changes, which for obvious reasons cannot unfold without certain consequences, that we can occasionally hear this very same theory that “Europe is hostile towards Russia.” Although the arguments put forward to support this claim today seem far less nuanced than those of Nikolay Danilevsky.

Even so, ignoring this issue is not an option, as doing so would make it extremely difficult to build a serious long-term foreign policy given the prominent role that Europe plays in global affairs.

Before we dive in, I would like to say a few words about the question at hand. Why should Europe love or loathe Russia? Do we have any reason to believe that Russia has any strong feelings, positive or negative, towards another country? These are the kind of words that are used to describe relations between states in the modern, interdependent world. But they are, for the most part, simply unacceptable. Russia’s foreign policy concepts invariably focus on ensuring the country’s security, sovereignty and territorial integrity and creating favourable external conditions for its progressive development.

Russia and Europe have a long history that dates back centuries. And there have been wars and periods of mutually beneficial cooperation along the way. No matter what anyone says, Russia is an inseparable part of Europe, just as Europe cannot be considered “complete” without Russia.

Thus, it is essential to direct intellectual potential not towards destruction, but rather towards the formation of a new kind of relationship, one that reflects modern realities.

At the dawn of the 21st century, it was clear to everyone that, due to objective reasons, Russia would not be able to become a full-fledged member of the military, political and economic associations that existed in Europe at the time, meaning the European Union and NATO. That is why mechanisms were put in place to help the sides build relations and cooperate in various fields. Bilateral relations developed significantly in just a few years as a result. The European Union became Russia’s main foreign economic partner, and channels for mutually beneficial cooperation in many spheres were built.

However, EU-Russia relations have stalled in recent years. In fact, much of the progress that had been made is now being undone. And positive or negative feelings towards one another have nothing to do with it. This is happening because the parties have lost a strategic vision of the future of bilateral relations in a rapidly changing world.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin said that Russia is part of Europe, and that, culturally, Russia and Europe are one civilization. This is the basic premise—one that is not based on emotions—that should underlie Russia’s policy in its relations with Europe.

Russia and the European Union disagree on many things, but the only way to overcome misunderstandings and find opportunities to move forward is through dialogue. In this context, the recent visit of the EU High Representative to Moscow was a much-needed step in the right direction, despite the criticism that this move received from the European side. Nobody was expecting any “breakthroughs” from the visit, as the animosities and misunderstandings between the two sides cut too deep. Yet visits and contacts of this kind should become the norm, for without them we will never see any real progress in bilateral relations.

In addition to the issues that currently fill the agendas of the two sides, attention should be focused on developing a strategic vision of what EU-Russia relations should be in the future, as well as on areas of mutual interest. For example, it is high time that Europe and Russia broached the subject of the compatibility of their respective energy strategies, as well as the possible consequences of the introduction of “green energy” in Europe in terms of economic cooperation with Russia. Otherwise, it will be too late, and instead of a new area of mutually beneficial cooperation, we will have yet another irresolvable problem.

In his work Russia and Europe, Nikolay Danilevsky, while recognizing the good that Peter the Great had done for his country, reproached him for “wanting to make Russia Europe at all costs.” No one would make such accusations today. Russia is, was and always will be an independent actor on the international stage, with its own national interests and priorities. But the only way they can only be realized in full is if the country pursues an active foreign policy. And one of the priorities of that policy is relations with Europe.

From our partner RIAC

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Entry into force of the Tromso Convention: A unique opportunity

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Accessing quality information has never been so challenging, despite or maybe, because of our exposure to tremendous amount of information. The entry into force of the Council of Europe (CoE) Convention on Access to Official Documents (Tromsø Convention) on 1 December 2020, in a context of concerning deficit of transparency in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, appears as an opportunity for governments to reinforce transparency culture and restore citizens trust and legitimacy in their institutions, in democracy.

Increasing recognition of the right of access to official documents

The Nordic European States pioneered the development of the right of access to official documents, with the world’s first law on access to information adopted by Sweden in 1766. It then spread progressively to many other West European countries, before reaching its peak in the 1990s with the creation of legal tools in the new democracies of Eastern and Central Europe. Today, various legal instruments (constitutions, national laws and jurisprudence) across Europe recognize the right of access to official documents. At the international level as well, this right has been increasingly recognized[1].

The CoE Convention on Access to Official Documents, signed on 18 June 2009 in Tromsø, Norway, is the first binding international legal instrument to recognize a general right of access to official documents held by public authorities. More than ten years later, on 1 December 2020, the Convention entered into force, following the ratification by Ukraine, tenth State to ratify it[2].

The Convention considers that all official documents are in principle public and provides a minimum legal framework for the prompt and fair processing of requests for access to official documents. Only the protection of other rights and legitimate interests can justify the rejection of requests. When requests are denied, it obliges the States to provide “access to a review procedure before a court or another independent and impartial body established by law” (Article 8).

This development could give a fresh impetus to European efforts towards greater transparency and reinforce democracy in general. It is particularly much welcome in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis and the “infodemic” accompanying the pandemic.  However, observers stress that much remains to be done to make this ambitious initiative a reality and to bring together all European countries to ratify it.

Making access to official documents a reality

In her comment on the Convention, CoE Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović stresses the importance of access to official documents for “transparency, good governance and participatory democracy and a key means of facilitating the exercise of other human rights and fundamental freedoms” and calls on CoE member states and non-member states to ratify the Tromsø Convention as soon as possible. On the same note, Access Info Europe group called on 17 November all member states of the CoE to sign and ratify, with a special call on France, German, Italy and Great Britain, in order to ensure that Europe’s largest countries are taking part in this European effort towards greater transparency of public authorities.

Today, virtually all countries of the Council of Europe have freedom of information laws and some “good models” exist[3]. But the level of transparency varies between the countries and even across the institutions of each country. In some legal provision, the lack of clarity jeopardizes the enforcement.

In such context of profusion of legal provision, the Tromsø Convention could help build a stronger, harmonized and more comprehensive legal framework, create a common understanding of access to official documents and guarantee that all European citizens enjoy the same right to information and hold their authorities accountable.

In addition to ratification, promoting and disseminating the legal instruments must be a priority, as states Article 9 of the Convention: “Parties shall inform the public about its right of access to official documents”. Signatory states must promote this legal instrument and avoid that such a crucial initiative goes unnoticed. It would be paradoxical if such an ambitious initiative on transparency is not truly made public.

Transparency often denied when it is most needed

Access to information is even more vital in times of crisis. In the current Covid-19 pandemic, access to reliable information is not only a matter of public health but also of public trust in health management systems and authorities. Fighting misinformation should be part of the crisis management plans, to fight the “infodemic” parallel to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, it is precisely in times of crisis that freedom of information is often denied, on the grounds of national security arguments. The secrecy around the EU vaccines contracts is a blatant illustration of such ambivalent attitude to transparency when it is most needed. On Friday 29 January, five months after the signature and after renewed requests from various European politicians and civil society groups, the European commission finally published the vaccine contract signed on 27 August 2020 with Astrazeneca.

Although the publication of such an important document could have been a great move for the Commission to regain legitimacy, the actual outcome, a redacted document with price and accountability terms kept secret, raises more questions than it answers, contributing to more mistrust. Why is the Commission holding such crucial public health information, denying citizens right to know on issues that directly affect them?


[1] Examples: United Nations Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters;Regulation (EC) No 1049/2001 of the European Parliament and the Council regarding public access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents.

[2] after Sweden, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Finland, Norway, Moldova, Croatia, Montenegro, Hungary and Lithuania.  Eight additional countries have already signed the Convention: Armenia, Belgium, Georgia, Iceland, North Macedonia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovenia.

[3] In her call on CoE members states to ratify the Convention, DunjaMijatović names for example Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia which have an independent oversight body responsible for monitoring and enforcing the right to information.

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