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Twenty Years of Gratitude: Life Since Athos

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In late 2020, the UK-based charity Friends of Mount Athos celebrated its 30th anniversary with a magnificently produced hardcover coffee-table book published by Brepolis, and featuring the memoirs and photographs of numerous members.

My contribution to this group effort was an essay entitled “Twenty Years of Gratitude: Life Since Athos.”

Click here and scroll down to read “Twenty Years of Gratitude: Life Since Athos” in its original book layout in PDF.

The essay recounts the oddly intertwined series of events that led me from Oxford to a chance encounter with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and his entourage in Istanbul, and from there to several fortuitous experiences at the monasteries of Mount Athos- a rewarding experience that gave me a new appreciation for the living traditions and dedicated spirituality of the monks and the Orthofox faithful.

Encounters on the Holy Mountain contains articles by numerous famous authors among its 300-plus pages, and makes the perfect gift for anyone passionate about Greece, Mount Athos, or Orthodoxy in general. You can get more information about the book, and buy it directly from the publisher, by vising this link to the Brepolis website.

Photo: Chris Deliso, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Will Turkey’s Naval Power Doctrine Evolve towards an East Africa Operational Zone?

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By Chris Deliso

December 14, 2020

2020 was a busy year for assessment of Turkish maritime strategy. In February, I predicted (in Jane’s Intelligence Review) that Rear Admiral Cihat Yayci would likely become ‘’collateral damage” of Turkish internal power rivalries. Nevertheless, when the proclaimed architect of Turkey’s naval strategy was retired in May, many were surprised. After all, Turkey’s seeming successes in the maritime deal with Tripoli and intervention in Libya should have been reason for reward rather than retirement.

Image source Turkish MFA webpage ‘Relations between Turkey and the Comoros’

But that is another story, one that illustrates a certain dependable trajectory in Turkish security analysis. In the big picture, what is much more significant is the doctrine with which officers like Yayci are most associated- the Mavi Vatan or ‘Blue Homeland’ maritime drills in the Black Sea, Eastern Aegean and Eastern Mediterraneanbthat occurred since last year. The future direction that Turkey takes with the doctrine that envisioned the drills could have significant repercussions for multi-regional security events, some of which have possibly not been contemplated until now.

THE BLUE HOMELAND DOCTRINE- AKP INNOVATIONS AND GREEK MISUNDERSTANDINGS

The actual doctrine is not completely new, as it rests ultimately on Turkey’s singular historic interpretation of maritime law (Turkey is not a signatory of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea). The neo-Ottoman tendencies of President Erdoğan’s AKP governments have for obvious reasons endorsed a policy that envisions Turkish maritime territory extending well into the Greek islands and throughout the Mediterranean.

To project power in a meaningful way, Turkey has steadily increased its naval capacities and conducted large-scale naval exercises across its sea zones last year. The long-awaited TCG Anadolu light aircraft carrier (based on the Spanish Juan Carlos class of vessel) is due to be completed soon in the Istanbul shipyard. Turkish analysts have pointed out that having an aircraft carrier will allow them to conduct aerial missions in distant theaters of war, where refueling issues would otherwise present this activity.

In September 2020, The Daily Sabah cited Defense Industries Presidency (SSB) Chairman Ismail Demir as saying a whole range of new vessels, including submarines, are going to be commissioned in the next few years to achieve Turkish goals of maritime dominance in the region. In August, the Turkish president had said the country will need a total of three aircraft carriers to become “a deterrent at sea.”

Finally, Turkey throughout 2020 consistently called on Greece to remove forces from Aegean islands it considers “illegally” militarized, citing prior treaties. However, Greece has not called for Turkey to demilitarize its coastal cities, has no plan to invade Turkey, and is well aware (from Turkey’s 1974 Cyprus invasion) of the threat of Turkish amphibious assaults. The period from 1967-74 witnessed a similar Turkish naval buildup to what we are seeing now.

For these reasons, it was strange to hear Greek Foreign Minister Dendias dismiss the Blue Homeland exercises, and the underlying doctrine behind it, as more fanciful than real. “When I first heard of this, I thought it must be the opinion of some junior officer,” Dendias commented when the question was raised at an LSE Hellenic Observatory webinar of 5 November. (I am paraphrasing him, but the quote is in there somewhere, towards the end of the recording).

Notably, Dendias also stated that he had recently come from Germany, where he had been personally lobbying high officials to stop German companies from selling equipment used by Turkey’s submarine fleet.

History reveals that Greek officials have chronically underestimated Turkish naval capacities and resolve, sometimes out of arrogance and sometimes out of ignorance. Highly recommended reading in this regard is a new academic book on how the Turkish military planned and executed the 1974 Cyprus invasion- apparently catching the Greeks and Greek Cypriots completely by surprise. The book in question is Edward J. Erickson and Mesut Uyar, Phase Line Attila The Amphibious Campaign for Cyprus, 1974. (I will review this book in due course).

TURKEY’S RIVALRY WITH FRANCE OVER AFRICA AND POSSIBLE EXPANSION OF THE BLUE HOMELAND DOCTRINE

The year 2020 has also showed continuous conflict between Turkey and France over dominance in Africa- essentially, a neo-colonial endeavor on both sides. However, Erdoğan has slickly portrayed the French as the real ‘colonizers’ while Turkey represents ‘brotherhood’ with fellow Muslims there. Earlier in the year, Macron publicly demanded West African leaders do more to fight anti-French sentiment in their countries. This has risen due to the French military engagement in the Sahel, and the increase in jihadist activity in the region.

Turkey has its own military, diplomatic, economic and developmental goals in Africa, ranging from a strategic base in Somalia to participation in NATO Gulf of Guinea anti-piracy naval exercises, with the Libya adventure thrown in between. This has a long and established pattern of opportunism (see my 2011 interview here) by which Turkey has gotten steadily more involved with developing economies across all sectors- including military sales of Turkish-produced gear to several countries, and cooperation with Western European military subsidiaries (such as a German-owned South African venture).

In this context, the main analytical question for future will be how the partial activation of the Blue Homeland doctrine (through the Libya intervention, maritime border deal, naval exercises, energy exploration and other practices) will develop in the next 5-10 years. While all of these exploits have been treated rather dramatically in the media and by Greece, they are still within the realm of policy, of what Turkey considers its real ‘near-abroad.’ At the same time, however, Erdoğan has often emphasized his desire that Turkey become a leading superpower.

Therefore, a new question arises: how could Turkey expanded its Blue Homeland policy towards achieving this goal? Does it even have the appetite, or the means to do so, and what would be the main challenges and potential benefits?

CONTESTED TERRITORIES IN EAST AFRICA AND A POSSIBLE ENTRY IN THE COMOROS ISLANDS ISSUE

A private newsletter out of the UK that occasionally provides good intel recently reported on clashes in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Citing a British official, the report stated that this populous Christian country strategically located in East Africa could become “the next Yugoslavia,” with a more widespread conflict and possible Egyptian military involvement that would target the new Ethiopia dam on the all-important River Nile. The UN is now putting pressure on Ethiopian authorities after one of its field delegations was shot at recently f after failing to stop at two military checkpoints. Ethiopian leaders were also angered recently when US President Trump speculated that Egypt might in fact blow up the dam in the end, because of the clear water-sharing problems the mega-project will create.

I do not know enough about Ethiopian politics to comment further, except to say that the existence of such complex inter-state conflicts are [potentially great opportunities for Turkish involvement. Also, in that general region (through Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia) there are clusters of military bases run by the world’s leading superpowers, with the overall objective of guarding the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea up to Suez being a common interest.

Turkey has established its military base in Somalia and would like to claim that it can do what Western powers cannot- to stabilize this perennial hotspot of jihadism. But, if conditions are favorable and strategic interests warrant, Turkey could do something much more interesting in its low-intensity war with France: establishment of a naval base in the island nation of Comoros, just off the East African coast, and a former French colony of which one island (Mayotte) is still French territory due to popular referendum.

Comoros would be an appealing proposition for several aspects. Like Turkey, it is a Muslim country and part of the relevant international organizations. It is also chronically unstable and corrupt, having suffered numerous military coups since independence in 1974. There is very little information available about Turkish relations with Comoros, though this Turkish foreign ministry webpage has some basic facts of cooperation.

According to this official website, “Turkey has become one of the leading trading partners of the Comoros. The trade volume between the two countries in 2018 was 18.3 million USD and in 2019 the trade volume increased to 21.1 million USD.”

When it comes to development aid, Turkey “is providing development and technical assistance to the Comoros through TİKA, which has established a program coordination office in Moroni in April 2017.”

Further, the  Turkish Government runs the ‘Türkiye Scholarships Program for locals, which “is allocating undergraduate and graduate scholarships to students from the Comoros. Until now, 127 students from Comoros were granted scholarships.”

Finally and perhaps most importantly, the ministry notes, Turkey runs an “International Training Program for Junior Diplomats, organized each year by the Diplomacy Academy of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” All of these measures indicate that, like other Muslim African countries especially, Turkey has a clear influence plan underway.

A Turkish naval base in Comoros would give Turkey its own equivalent to the US-run military island of Diego Garcia to the northeast. This position would also be of inestimable value should security conditions on the mainland deteriorate in countries like Tanzania, where Turkey already has a strong presence. Finally, it would increase Turkey’s proximity to the minerals-rich island of Madagascar, the current site of a global economic resource war. In fact, at present Turkey’s main diplomatic presence to Comoros is in Madagascar- while the Comoros representation to Turkey is in Cairo.

Establishing a presence in Comoros would also be useful for Turkish propaganda offensives against their French rivals in the neo-colonial contest. In the most recent referendum, Mayotte chose to remain under the direct rule of Paris because it enjoys a superior standard of living than the independent Comoros islands. Were Turkey to invest in modernizing the country and making its leaders more accountable to the population, perhaps a future referendum will go the other way. IN that case Turkey could deprive France of a strategically vital military zone.

The major challenge for Turkey in this regard is that the Comoros government already has a defense agreement with France, which runs a naval base there. Comoros also has increasing ties with China, which has a similar view of islands as strategic military assets. A rival Muslim benefactor o the Comoros, the UAE, has also reported interests in base expansion there. Finally, India has reported interest in establishing a naval presence in Madagascar or Comoros, after several high-level visits in the last few years. All of this interest will simply drive up the price of admission, and Turkey may simply decide it is too distant or that there are other options to achieve its strategic objectives.

CONCLUSION

In whatever case, by continuing to develop its contacts and influence at the African Union level, Turkey will also continue to woo these countries in its direction. The only question remains whether it will at the same time seek to expand its maritime capacities beyond what has traditionally been known as its sphere of influence- even to itself.

Unlike the sea area around Cyprus and Greece, where Turkish policy-makers will continue to cite a primary defensive role to their naval escalation (making it primarily a national security issue), any large-scale extension of activity into the Indian Ocean would probably have to be justified by future expectations of economic relationships. Nevertheless, the fact that Turkey already possesses a Somalia base will likely make expansion southward an appealing thought. In so doing, Turkey would develop a maritime presence from the middle of the Black Sea and Mediterranean, as well as the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.

Additional Reading on this topic:

Jane’s, Janes Fighting Ships Yearbook 2020 – 2021

Metin Gurcan, Opening the Black Box: The Turkish Military Before and After July 2016 (Wolverhampton Military Studies)

Soner Cagapatay, Erdogan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East

Douglas Porch, The French Foreign Legion: A Complete History of the Legendary Fighting Force

 

BACK TO MAIN PAGE- Key Analytical Questions: the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea Regions, 2020-2030

How Will Migration and Covid-19 Impact Eastern Mediterranean Ferry Linkages?

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By Chris Deliso

December 11, 2020

The European migration crisis peaked in 2015, but never really went away. Since then, it has become a particularly pernicious problem with political, security and economic aspects.

New complexities in the debate were created by the world’s Covid-19 experience of lockdowns and civil unrest, raising the issue of citizens’ rights and freedom of movement. The conflation of this right with the philosophy of open-borders advocates is just one of the many complexities that will animate the debate in future.

PRECONSIDERATIONS: GEOGRAPHY AND COSTS FOR RUNNING GREECE- AN OPPORTUNITY FOR HOSTILE ACTORS

A fundamental but often overlooked aspect of the migration crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean concerns the logistical challenges Greece chronically faces in administering its territory. The same allure that is symbolized by owning thousands of islands can also be a headache, when it comes to keeping the often resource- and service-strapped residents of these islands in a fully functional situation.

While this has always been an issue, it became particularly acute following the 2008 financial crisis. In 2019 – even before the pandemic that destroyed the vital tourism industry and further hampered economic survivability – the government was considering ways to improve access to remote islands. In April 2020, a report estimated that ferry companies would need a 30 millon-euro monthly stipenfd to survive the blow Covid-related lockdowns meant that “ferry operators were forced to stop nearly 70 percent of all services as demand for transport dropped by 50 percent compared to the same period last year and revenue losses of up to 90 percent.” Other sources have said that even before the pandemic, the Greek government subsidies for the ferry industry reached 100 million euros annually.

Turkey has in its unique understanding of maritime law, and for historic reasons, always looked at the Eastern Aegean islands as falling under its control in an ideal future scenario. Turkey’s asymmetric warfare by use of illegal migrants at the Evros land border and Eastern Aegean islands is partly designed to damage the desirability of these areas as tourism markets, and partly to add to the service costs Athens already faces in its eastern hinterlands.

This is not a short-term game, though it may seem to be (for example, a one-off influx meant to get a reaction from Brussels and improve Ankara’s negotiating hand with the EU). While there is indeed some element of truth to this argument, it overlooks the ground-level and more long-term considerations at work of the asymmetrical campaign. It is actually a war of attrition designed to psychologically impact both local residents and the migrants themselves towards mutual distrust and dissatisfaction with the central government in Athens- as has been seen time and again with fires in migrant camps and violent events around them.

The underlying (and generally unstated) Turkish argument is that these islands are naturally better suited to administration from the nearby Anatolian mainland, rather than distant Athens. This is not an argument that will win over Greek hearts and minds, but the great risk is that by making an illegal migrant presence semi-permanent is that it becomes institutionalized.

This is already becoming the case, and it is dangerous because it draws in the political and financial interests of bigger players like the EU, UN and the Vatican, all with their own financial interests in sustaining the migration industry. The more institutionalized the migration industry becomes, the less incentive there will be for islanders to go back to their traditional tourism and agrictultural livelihoods in the long run. The migration war in the Eastern Mediterranean is thus an oddly complementary one for allegedly competing interests like those of Turkey and the EU/globalist system.

THE COVID-19 EFFECT AND SOUTHWARD EXTENSION OF GREEK INFLUENCE TO CYPRUS: A NEW EU-APPROVED FERRY ROUTE

However, all is not lost for the Greek side, which looks to its EU membership as a way of keeping not only diplomatic allies, but also economic clout that it could not otherwise muster. And this even includes subsidies for its ferry services.

Indeed, in one turn of events that was actually expedited by the Covid-19 crisis, the EU gave its approval for subsidizing a long-haul passenger ferry between Greece and Cyprus. The European Commission Directorate for Competitiveness ruled in July 2020 that “the maritime passenger route between Cyprus and Greece is considered a general economic interest service under the current EU rules and can thus be supported with state/government funds.”

 Ironically, this same route “was discontinued in 2000 after a sharp drop in the price of airline tickets, which made the line obsolete.”

Nevertheless, with the Covid-19 economic destruction of the travel industry, and widespread popular distrust around the world regarding vaccines against the so-called pandemic, it will take some years to see air travel return to its former levels. And, if all air carriers follow the draconian lead of some and mandate vaccines for travel, it is certain that many people will simply choose not to fly. This tendency will benefit the ferry industry in general and, while it may not be enough to make a Greece-Cyprus ferry economically profitable, it will help to ease into the estimated 6 million-euro state subsidy agreed in July.

At the same time, the Greek-Cyprus ferry line can be seen as one of many moves and countermoves carried out by these allies on the one hand, and by Turkey on the other. Heading closer to the 2024 50th anniversary of Turkey’s invasion of the island, both sides will try to solidify their presence. The creation of an EU-sanctioned civilian ferry heading specifically through waters that Turkey claimed (in its deal with Tripoli) for its own obviously increases the likelihood of provocations from the Turkish navy.

CONCLUSION

Both the migration crisis and Covid-19 present unique challenges for the maritime infrastructure system of the Eastern Mediterranean, and have at different times exposed weaknesses in logistics and economic models. As states seek to exploit their maximal geopolitical advamtages, we can expect to see further events that seem random but actually make sense in the larger and integrated context.

Additional Reading on this topic:

 Funda Yercan and Michael Roe, Shipping in Turkey: A Marketing Analysis of the Passenger Ferry Sector

Roudi Baroudi and Debra Cagan, Maritime Disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean: The Way Forward

World Bank, COVID-19 Crisis Through a Migration Lens

Christopher Deliso, Migration, Terrorism and the Future of a Divided Europe: a Continent Transformed 

Brendan O’Malley and Ian Craig, The Cyprus Conspiracy: America, Espionage and the Turkish Invasion

James Ker-Lindsay, The Cyprus Problem What Everyone Needs to Kn

Lonely Planet, Guide to Greece 2020

 

BACK TO MAIN PAGE- Key Analytical Questions: the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea Regions, 2020-2030

What Will Happen If Energy Disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea More Political than Economic in Nature ?

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By Chris Deliso

November 19, 2020

Although regional states have for decades been locked in competition over the region’s largely offshore untapped energy resources, a good question remains regarding the extent to which resource competition is more of an economic or political issue.

Map by Euractuv

My own exhaustive research, interviews with industry experts and comments from officials has informed the consideration that as of 2020, disputes over fossil fuels deposits are being primarily generated to support territorial claims, and build up support from interested international parties (such as governments and energy corporations) to support these rival claims.

This is occurring at a time when Turkey is asserting its Mavi Vatan or ‘Blue Homeland’ maritime doctrine, while Greece seeks to expand its sea borders from 6 to 12 nautical miles, and while Cyprus attempts to assert the inviolability of its proclaimed maritime EEZ against Turkish hostile drillship activity.

At the same time, in summer 2020 Turkey also began seismic research in contested areas of Greek water claimed by Ankara under an otherwise unrecognized maritime border agreement it inked with the Tripoli-based GNA regime in Libya. In response, Greece achieved maritime border deals with Italy and Egypt, and agreed to go to Hague arbitration to resolve a maritime border dispute with Albania. Greece has historically criticized Turkey’s non-recognition of international maritime law and Ankara’s disinterest in international arbitration.

In this context, the 17 October 2020 announcement that Turkey had discovered hydrocarbons in the Black Sea, near the borders of Romanian and Bulgarian waters added an intriguing new element to the energy competition. President Erdoğan presented the find as complementary to the ongoing disputed explorations in Cypriot and Greek waters, and added that it could enhance the state’s capacity to develop its own energy sector and infrastructure. As with the other finds to be discussed, whether or not anything ever materializes (in terms of formal pipeline construction) is less important than the political implication that Turkey believes it has Black Sea energy potential, and can use this to offset its potential relationships, gains and losses in Aegean and Mediterranean fields.

ENERGY EXPLORATION EVENTS AS TRIGGERS FOR CONFLICT AND POLICIES ON MARITIME BORDERS

Even though commentators often conflate the concept of Neo-Ottomanism with the ideas and rule of President Erdoğan in Turkey, the pre-2003 Kemalist system was predicated on a similar vision. The difference was simply in the type of action or perceived provocation that would be required to incur a reaction from the military-led authorities in Ankara.

Energy was one such case. In 1973, following the announced discovery of oil off of Thasos – an island well to the west of Turkey – the Turkish government enacted a policy of ‘gray zones’ in the Eastern Mediterranean, which intended to thwart Greek maritime energy exploration on its own territory as a matter of course. This occurred at a time of pivotal tension between two governments that had arisen following respective military coups; unsurprisingly, the ultimate result of the energy dispute came in a peripheral manner with the Turkish invasion of Cyprus the following July.

The sentiment that energy resource competition is intrinsically linked to conflict remains today. Turkey views itself as unfairly restricted within the ‘Gulf of Antalya’ by Greek maritime claims, while Greek officials in 2020 questioned why Turkish energy research vessels were named after ‘conquerors and pirates’ rather than scientists or explorers. There is definitely an element of optics at work, in that all utilization of such vessels is inevitably featured in domestic and international media and conveys implicit meaning about the former Ottoman zone of control.

ISRAEL’S KEY POSITION, ROLE AND ALLIANCE STRUCTURES

The geographic location of major oil and gas deposits such as the Leviathan field in the maritime triangle between Israel, Cyprus and Egypt became critical in reshaping geopolitical alliances after work intensified in the energy industry around 2010 (as we reported at the time).

The possibility that Israel could for the first time possibly become a major energy player, and even the source of a new pipeline route to Southeastern Europe that could at the same time decrease Russian control over energy exports to the Continent, remade historic alliances.

This was exacerbated by the AKP government’s increasingly pro-Islamist stance and high-profile incidents such as the May 2010 Mavi Marmaris incident that brought Turkish-Israeli relations to an all-time-low. Thus, whereas in the prior Kemalist military-secular system Turkey had often been a preferred ally for Israel over Greek governments that were themselves often friendly to Israeli’ Arab enemies, the new reality provided an opportunity for rapprochement between Greece and Israel.

This reached its culmination in late 2019 and into 2020, when a US and EU-backed EastMed pipeline plan from Israel to Europe via Cyprus and Greece (including Egyptian cooperation) was signed.

At the same time, Turkey heading into 2020 was taking steps to improve its own diplomatic relations with Israel, and pushing the concept of an Israel-Turkey alternate pipeline. While the reality of volatile territories in between the two makes this somewhat tentative, the Turks have argued that it would be far cheaper than the alternate sea route. Of course, it would also give them all of the geostrategic leverage over their Greek and Cypriot rivals.

Since experts in the energy field believe the depth of resources, cost of extraction compared to expected market rates, and trends in terms of alternate energy options may make the whole project unfeasible, it is thus clear from the research (and reading between the lines of different diplomatic statements) that the ultimate ‘prize’ of an energy alliance with Israel is all of the other benefits that come with it. Turkey has not changed its Islamist course, but remains pragmatic enough to recognize Israel as a regional superpower, and knows that improving its relations with both Washington and Moscow can be achieved in certain respects through closer ties of any kind. Energy is one such relationship, and whether or not the stated projects ever materialize is less relevant than is the idea of being visible in the game and not conceding defeat to the other side. That is the approach both Greek and Turkish leaders are taking.

CONCLUSIONS

In additions to offshore hydrocarbons fields, the regional rivalry over energy is likely to become increasingly territorial as EU and UN-mandated renewable energy sources will both compete with and complement the established sources. And it will also require more access to territorial (including maritime territory) for things like wind farms and hydropower.

Thus, in all respects regional states (and the alliance structures they create and expand) will likely tend to manifest energy projects (especially in the political and media spotlight), even when they are not likely or credible, if they can in some way remain as sort of placeholders for national and territorial interests.

 Therefore, analysts would do well to consider the general hypothetical question of what elements will become most significant, should energy disputes in the region in fact be more politically than economic driven.

Additional Reading on this topic:

Constantinos Yiallourides, Maritime Disputes and International Law: Disputed Waters and Seabed Resources in Asia and Europe

Menahem Blondheim and Andreas Stergiou, Conflict & Prosperity: Geopolitics and Energy in the Eastern Mediterranean

Leigh Hancher and Antonis Metaxas, Transformation of EU and Eastern Mediterranean Energy Networks: Legal, Regulatory and Geopolitical Challenges

Michalis Mathioulakis, Aspects of the Energy Union: Application and Effects of European Energy Policies in SE Europe and Eastern Mediterranean

Ayşegül Sever and Orna Almog, eds., Contemporary Israeli–Turkish Relations in Comparative Perspective

 

BACK TO MAIN PAGE- Key Analytical Questions: the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea Regions, 2020-2030

What Role Will Strategic Anniversaries Play in Regional Events?

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By Chris Deliso

November 18, 2020

Turkish President Erdoğan visited the divided city of Famagusta, Cyprus on 15 November, controversially calling for a ‘two-state solution’ to the Cyprus conflict. He gave the visit enhanced significance by pointing out that it was the 37th anniversary of the creation of the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (a status which no country save Turkey has ever acknowledged).

While few would have marked the date on their calendar as a potential indicator of new diplomatic escalations in the Eastern Mediterranean, in hindsight it was perfectly predictable- as was the official condemnation statement from Greece’s foreign ministry, which called the Turkish leader’s visit an ‘unprecedented provocation’ in violation of UN resolutions. Greece and Greek Cypriots oppose Turkey’s plans to build up the Turkish-controlled former Greek-inhabited empty area of Famagusta, known as Varosha.

THE GAUNTLET IS IN SIGHT

Emotionally and historically loaded anniversaries such as the above are only going to increase in number and intensity in the next decade, as Greece’s 2021 independence bicentennial will be followed immediately the centennial of the Greece-Turkish population exchanges and the 1923 creation of the Turkish state, climaxing with the 50th anniversary of Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 2024. Along with these are many other smaller accompanying anniversaries that will both have political resonance and be used as staging-points for announcements and events.

On 10 October 2020, I explored this question in a LinkedIn article titled ‘Anniversaries and Analysis: the Importance of Sophisticated Modeling for Eastern Mediterranean Events, 2020-30.’ The article gave a longer overview of some of the key events to come, by name and by type, as well as some suggestions for creating a system (ideally, though special software) for collating all relevant anniversaries with cross-categorical applications for future events as well.

This would provide anyone interested in the region with better and more precise advance warning of likely event triggers and dates at which certain events could manifest or be discussed in the media, by politicians, or in the form of public gatherings with political import.

My article also discussed complex overlapping anniversaries and (otherwise unrelated) unfolding events, and how this can be assessed in events mapping for the region.

BENEFITS OF ANALYTICAL EXCHANGE: CROSS-COORDINATION OF EVENTS AND ADVANCE WARNING

Even without an advanced technological platform in existence, simple awareness of the major ongoing and recurring anniversaries, coupled with an understanding of dates and periods to watch for other reasons (i.e., elections, military exercises, treaty deadlines, etc.) will give analysts a good degree of insight into what the more and less likely outcomes are for the target period in the region.

This is aided by the known tendency of regional political and religious leaders to associate certain national, ethnic and historic value and relationships to their cherished anniversaries- and of course, their orientation towards the anniversaries of the adversary. We can assess with a certain degree of likelihood how such regional actors will act and how they will orient the celebration of historic anniversaries to local and national objectives. In most cases, we will find that this approach contrasts quite significantly with that of Western European leaders (not to mention groups from elsewhere around the world).

An example of howunplanned contemporaneous events impact scheduled anniversaries is the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, which has seriously undermined amd altered the trajectory of Greek bicentennial events, with the Greek 2021 committee having to change its entire approach to event support in advance due to public movement restrictions stemming from the crisis.

CONCLUSIONS

Taking some time to organize and document a large sample size of regional anniversaries will be of increasing value to any individual or organization tasked with analyzing regional events in the decade to come.

While anniversaries in the Eastern Mediterranean have always had a potent impact on political, religious and social affairs, what is striking about the upcoming period is the total stack-up of events in all countries in the area. Particularly with Turkey under the AKP government perceiving itself as being on a historic mission of restoring the former imperial greatness of the Ottomans, it is going to be a very complex and likely dangerous time in the region. An awareness of the key anniversaries will provide analysts with a timetable and schedule of events- allowing an opportunity to prepare for the reverberation of these events before they occur.

BACK TO MAIN PAGE- Key Analytical Questions: the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea Regions, 2020-2030

How Will Natural Disasters and Environmental Issues Affect National Policies and Outcomes?

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By Chris Deliso

November 14, 2020

Greece and Turkey sit atop fault lines that have historically triggered earthquakes. These have had significant implications for public safety, the economy, political stability and diplomatic relations. In a region where so much remains rigidly fixed according to ‘red lines’ of policy and predictable political behavior, the unpredictable power of natural disasters – earthquakes as well as other uncontrollable events – adds an intriguing extra dimension to analytical calculations.

Image uploaded to ResearchGate by K. Rockwell and captioned:

“Tectonic map of the eastern Mediterranean region showing the North Anatolia fault zone relative to other faults in Turkey and the Aegean Sea (from Barka, 1992).”

RECENT SEISMIC ACTIVITY PROVIDES DIPLOMATIC EXAMPLE

On 30 October 202020, a 7.0 earthquake struck Greece’s eastern Aegean Sea near the island of Samos, and caused extensive damage along the Anatolian coast, including eight deaths in the Turkish city of Izmir. Early reports from the Turkish government stated 20 people had died and almost 800 were injured due to the earthquake.

 It was a reminder that the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean comprises an active seismic zone- just one of the historic environmental risk factors that can cause unexpected events, causing opportunities and stresses alike for the power

In a podcast presentation on Greek foreign policy with the London School of Economics’ Hellenic Observatory  on 5 November 22020, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias contrasted the Turkish response following the earthquake of the week previous to the “earthquake diplomacy” of summer 1999.

For those who can still recall, that was when major earthquakes hit both countries, leading to unprecedented bilateral cooperation and for Greece to drop its opposi5ion to Turkish EU membership negotiations. In the current case, Dendias noted, Turkey responded to an earthquake by merely continuing with its disputed offshore hydrocarbons research activity in Greek waters.

The reference to “earthquake diplomacy” was interesting because the natural disasters of 1999, and the humanitarian spirit that emerged in the neighboring countries, created a new and unplanned geopolitical situation in Europe. Numerous (mainly northern European) countries had to that point duplicitously told Turkey in private that they supported Turkish EU membership, but simply could not override the Greek veto. However, when Greece stopped objecting due to the unforeseen natural disaster, their bluff was called.

Thus, from 1999, EU countries that were never actually in favor of Turkish membership in the bloc were forced to come up with ever more hoops for the country to jump through, in order to keep the Turks out. This directly aided the rise of Erdogan and his criticisms of the EU – very often, wit some amount of accuracy – that the bloc has behaved unfairly and hypocritically in denying Turkish EU membership. Over time, this has merely hardened positions.

While one could hypothetically have projected such a reaction coming from the emotional reaction of like-minded Mediterranean peoples in the case of the 1999 earthquakes, no one to my knowledge modeled such a scenario before that time. And so, when media and politicians discuss and debate EU-Turkey relations today, the seminal role of the great unanticipated event – yet one that should have been historically predictable – remains forgotten, in the case of the 1999 earthquakes as setting the context for subsequent geopolitical events.

COMMODIFICATION OF ENVIRONMENTAL EVENTS IN THE UN FRAMEWORK

Beyond earthquakes, maritime disasters such as storms and floods have also historically afflicted the region, playing a strong role particularly in the life of the islands and coastal areas. Such phenomena are particularly strong in winter, though now more common throughout the year as even freak tornados and sea-storms have ravaged the Greek coast in recent years.

While such events have always been common factors of life, the more recent inclusion of a new contextual element – the mantra of ‘climate change,’ as codified in the 2015 Paris Climate Accords – will prove increasingly tempting for both local officials and international bureaucrats and bankers looking to expand their portfolios in response to (and in line with) events of nature.

A short video by reporter John Stossel reveals the incoherence and inconsistencies of the Treaty, which was nevertheless lionized by the media and politicians supporting the UN worldview as a great success.

For a more in-depth study of the topic, see a May 2017 publication by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, “The Legal and Economic Case Against the Paris Climate Treaty: Canceling U.S. Participation Protects Competitiveness and the Constitution,” by Christopher C. Horner and Marlo Lewis. Of course, President Trump kept his campaign promise, and on 4 November 2020 the US officially left the Paris Accords, leading the UN to publish a statement that it “regretted” the decision.

For its part, Greece tends to be (regardless of political party in power) a dependable member of the globalist camp, often calling on the primacy of international law- especially when it comes to it s territorial disputes with Turkey. The latter has always been more nationalist and independent-minded, but has especially been so since the AKP came to power in 2003.

In 2017, following the US withdrawal from the scheme, then-Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of the leftist Syriza party announced at a Paris climate meeting that Greece would continue its pledges to the treaty.

“We are reconfirming our commitment today and we jointly sent a very important message which we hope everyone will heed,” Kathimerini reported Tsipras as saying. Since then, his successors in the more conservative Nea Dimoktratia government have been less vocal about the treaty, but they have not sought to pull out of it either. Greece’s EU membership means its foreign policy must align with that of Brussels, and its perennial role as a debt-slave nation means it could not conduct an independent policy even if it wanted.

Therefore, it is most likely that Greece will continue to use weather conditions as a financial instrument to benefit from, within whatever mechanisms the UN and bankers allow.

The case of non-EU member Turkey is somewhat different. The country enjoys much more independence in policy formation, and has thus far successfully resisted pressure to join the scam. But to a large extent, this seems to be not out of principle but rather over the terms.

An August 2020 article from Climate Home News explained Turkey’s decision not to ratify the Paris Accords- making it the only G20 country not to do so, and only one of seven in the UN not to do so. The articles got unwittingly close to the heart of the scam behind the Accord in discussing Ankara’s rationale for objections.

“Turkey has a peculiar beef with the Paris Agreement, stemming from its decision to sign up to the convention as a developed country,” the report read. “Turkey has since argued that it is a developing country and has won special circumstances, allowing it to opt out of supplying finance. But it still cannot access climate cash, a condition President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said must change if Turkey is to ratify the agreement.”

In other words, the whole thing is a shell game for financiers, and the Turks are wise to it.

Without saying it in as many words, this article reveals that the Turkish leader understood the scam of the Paris Accords, and about how the entire premise of it was on the mass reallocation of wealth under the pretense of climate change-linked problems.

Turkey is also in the position of several OPEC countries, which refuse to join the Paris deal because of their fossil fuel energy production. Since Turkish foreign policy continues to envision offshore energy extraction as an imperative – even and particularly because this involves a territorial dispute with Greece and Cyprus – Turkey will remain tied to a policy of resistance when it comes to the Paris Accord. Even if nothing ever comes of the offshore extraction due to technical or market reasons, the territorial claims underlying the policy will likely keep retention of the policy an imperative for the Turkish government.

CONCLUSIONS- MORE OF THE UNEXPECTED, AND EXPECTATIONS UNMET

As the risk of earthquakes and other natural disasters remain chronic, analysts must continue to keep in mind their potential for causing short-term disruption to economies, public safety and even political stability. Istanbul itself is overdue for a major earthquake, and large-scale destruction in that city would obviously have massive impact for Turkey and the region.

In other regards such as climate-change obligations, the already destroyed tourism-based economies following 2020 Covid-19 restrictions are going to be slow to recover. Some industry insiders believe it will take until 2025 or 2027 to return to levels of 2019. In 2020, Greece suffered a roughly 85% decrease in tourism.

It is likely that future restrictions on the industry will see environmental and public health measures seamlessly converge, further restricting the profitability of small- and medium-sized enterprises particularly and contributing to poverty. And all of this is not even considering the risk of armed conflict, which will remain high through the Eastern Mediterranean anniversary season of the 2020s.

Additional Reading on this topic:

Naci Görür, Integration of Earth Science Research on the Turkish and Greek 1999 Earthquakes

 E. Boschi, et al., Recent Evolution and Seismicity of the Mediterranean Region: Proceedings of the NATO Advanced Research Workshop, Erice, Italy, September 18-27, 1992

Beth Shaw, Active Tectonics of the Hellenic Subduction Zone

 

BACK TO MAIN PAGE- Key Analytical Questions: the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea Regions, 2020-2030

How Could the Istanbul Canal Project Affect Regional Stability?

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By Chris Deliso

October 28, 2020

Frequently overlooked because its future is unclear, the Istanbul Canal project tops the list of analytical issues because it has relevance for the entire balance of economic, military and political power between Greece and Turkey – and, quite possibly, for the environmental health of the Black Sea and Aegean/Mediterranean Seas.

My first key analytical question concerns a project that may never happen. However, its implications are so significant that it must be considered from several viewpoints.

In April 2013, Hurriyet Daily News reported  that the Turkish government was moving ahead with something that then-Prime Minister Erdoğan whimsically called a “crazy project”: to connect the Black Sea and Marmara Sea by means of a new canal, something that would effectively make the historic core of Istanbul’s European side into an island.

First declared by the Turkish leader during his 2011 re-election campaign, the canal as of 2013 was slated to be a 45-to-50-kilometer waterway that will “link the inner Marmara Sea to the Black Sea, according to plans. The canal will be 25 meters deep and up to 150 meters wide.” The original budget was set for $12 billion, with a completion date of 2023, to match the national independence centennial.

The government’s argument (then and thereafter) was that a new canal would lessen the congestion of tanker traffic from the Bosporus, limiting the risk of vessel collisions in the busy waterways surrounding Istanbul. Nevertheless, safety standards in the Bosporus have been modernized in recent decades and collisions are very rare.

As of 2020, construction had not started, but domestic opposition in Turkey (especially in Istanbul, where an opposition candidate had won Erdoğan’s former mayoral post) was rising on cost, environmental and corruption concerns.  In January 2020, it was reported that property along the planned canal route had been purchased by close relatives of the Turkish president and his close allies, the Qatari royal family.

In December 2019, the new Istanbul authorities announcing they were withdrawing municipal support for the Protocol that oversees construction plans. Despite this development, the national government continued with its plans, announcing the first tenders in March 2020.

WHY THIS HAS GEOSTRATEGIC IMPORTANCE

It is highly likely that the idea of a new Istanbul canal emerged from the general trajectory of naval policy innovations that have included offshore energy exploration in contested waters and a declared Exclusive Economic Zone with the factional government in Tripoli. In this analysis, a second canal becomes important as a legal response: it would allow Turkey to go beyond the 1936 Monttreaux Convention, which grants free passage to all vessels using the Bosporus and which limits military vessels within that strait to countries sharing a Black Sea border.

Erdoğan himself alluded to an unspecified ‘political’ aspect of a new canal in discussing the issue in 2020. As critics have noted, it would not make sense for commercial shipping to pay fees to go through a new canal considering the existing presence of the Bosporus, which in any case has not seen a major accident in many years.

Thus, where the political calculations become more serious is in terms of how Turkey could leverage the facilitation of non-Black Sea powers’ navies into that sea by use of a new canal. Whether the great power in question by China, the US or some other, the question remains as to how Turkey could seek to trade political favors by allowing such an engagement. Would it allow a US fleet access to the Black Sea, perhaps, in exchange for allowing it to annex northern Cyprus? Would it allow Chinese vessels into the sea in return for some military or economic cooperation?

The only guarantee is that such a scenario would be highly negative for Greek interests, as the canal represents a potential maritime asset that Greece cannot match.

ECOLOGICAL ISSUES

Local opponents of the canal project have cited fears that construction will destroy forests, contaminate groundwater, and eliminate a lake that is vital for the drinking water of 20 percent of city residents. Making Istanbul an island would also have the result of exposing it to more extreme weather in future. But the biggest fear is actually much more far-reaching. In January 2020, Marc Pierini of Carnegie Europe argued that opening an artificial waterway that would flood both the Black and Marmara Seas with new water could lead to an international environmental disaster capable of permanently changing the hydrological balance of the seas.

If such an event were to happen, it could also have a severe impact on the economies of all regional countries, particularly if maritime species were adversely affected. Nothing similar to what Turkey envisions has been tried in this region since the Suez Canal, and there is no firm guarantee that it can be completed in a way that does not harm the environment. Thus, far from being an issue of simple national will, it is one that affects all nations having a maritime border- from Russia to Spain.

WHAT THE PROJECT SAYS ABOUT THE TURKISH PRESIDENT- LEGACY ISSUES

An interesting and completely overlooked aspect of the Canal Istanbul project is what it says about the man who envisioned it. Since 2003, President Erdoğan has systematically dismantled the entire Kemalist system upon which modern Turkey was founded, opting instead for the romantic-imbued former great Islamic empire of the Ottomans. Yet with the canal project, it seems that he is not content to compete with either the man who conquered the city (Mehmet II) or the one who expanded the empire to its greatest degree (Suleiman the Magnificent).

No, with the canal project’s plan for a historic change to the very physicality of the city, what we are seeing with Erdoğan now is perhaps a personal competition with the very man who built the city in the first place- Emperor Constantine the Great. Indeed, there would be no greater way for the Turkish leader to put his stamp of authority (and by extension, the Turkish nation’s in general) on the storied city than by fundamentally altering its very physical existence for the first time since the 4th century. Whether or not he actually has this intention is immaterial, because it will become part of the nationalist narrative, should he succeed in completing the project.

Additional Reading on this topic:

Hatice Ecemis-Yilmaz, Legal Status of the Canal Istanbul in International Law

Nihan Unlu, The Legal Regime of the Turkish Straits (International Straits of the World

 

BACK TO MAIN PAGE- Key Analytical Questions: the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea Regions, 2020-2030

Greek Travel after the Pandemic, Part 7: Panos Kloutsiniotis, Ladolea Olive Oil

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How has the COVID-19 crisis affected Greek tourism, and what are local tourism providers doing to recover from it? This series of exclusive interviews with specific Greek tourism entities gets to the heart of the key issues, as of mid-summer 2020.

By Chris Deliso

August 14, 2020

Olive oil is one of the most iconic and internationally recognized natural products associated with Greece among the global public. When Greek brothers Panos and Thanos Kloutsiniotis sought to realize their vision for production of the highest quality olive oil under the label Ladolea, they could not have anticipated that a global pandemic would someday challenge their domestic sales, due to the sharp decline in tourist numbers to Greece in 2020.

Thus, while not a tourism entity in and of itself, Ladolea has been affected too by the 2020 crisis- as this interview with Panos Kloutsiniotis reveals. In it, we learn more about the brothers’ philosophy behind Ladolea olive oil, its production, and the challenges that they have overcome during the crisis.

Despite the challenges, however, the Athens-based company continues to succeed due to the inherent quality of its core products, which are synonymous with Greece and the country’s culinary, cultural and historic identity worldwide.

Some Preliminary Details: Food Science and Health Benefits of Ladolea Olive Oils

The attractively-presented Ladolea website contains key information regarding not only the individual varieties of olive oil for sale, but also the scientific findings on the health benefits of the company’s oils.

Indeed, according to the website, Ladolea’s Megaritiki variety Extra Virgin Olive Oil “has been analyzed by Dr. Prokopios Magiatis and Dr. Eleni Meliou at the faculty of Pharmacy in the National Kapodistrian University of Athens and is certified that (it) provides the ‘superior’ 989 mg / Kg (> 250 mg/Kg) of hydroxytyrosol, tyrosol, or their derivatives.”

Olive oil in general is considered a food rich in anti-oxidants. But Ladolea’s Megaritiki is “the most antioxidant olive oil of this variety produced in Greece,” the website continues, and one of the most anti-oxidant-rich olive oils in the world.

Tests have also revealed that Ladolea’s oils contain much higher than average levels of “oleocanthal and oleacin, which present important biological activity,” and which “have been related with anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, cardioprotective and neuroprotective activity.”

As the Coronavirus scare of 2020 has put an unprecedented new focus on human health, these beneficial aspects of olive oil are being noted by more and more people, wherever they may be in the world, who seek to implement the Greek diet to whatever extent possible. As such, while the crisis has been a challenge for Ladolea as much as for most other Greek companies, it does have a silver lining – in shining a light on health- and diet-related life choices – that are already turning out to be good for business, and will only continue to be so in years to come.

Provenance and Production: from Field to Finished Product

From Lesvos to Crete to Attica, Greece has many renowned regions for olive cultivation. The Ladolea company is for now working with farmers who live in one of the most famous areas- Corinthia, in the northern Peloponnese.

“At the moment we are collaborating with a team of 15 farmers in the area of Corinth,” says Panos Kloutsiniotis. “Every year we add more people in our team.”

The brothers’ vision for high-quality olive oil, respect for the environment, and best practices in health sometimes made it a challenge to get farmers to change their old ways- but change they have.

“As we are collaborating with people of tradition, in the beginning it was difficult to convince them about any change,” attests Kloutsiniotis. “However year by year and by offering a better price for a better quality product, they are happy to implement these changes.”

The innovations and incentives made by the Ladolea team included, but were not simply reserved to less pesticides and better prices. There was a whole vision for the supply-chain of the olives and oil in its production stages that needed to be implemented to guarantee quality control.

“We tried to change many things so that we could produce a high quality olive oil,” adds Kloutsiniotis. Along with the use of “less intense pesticides,” measures have included “transportation in less than 24 hours to the mill in crates, not in closed plastic bags.”

Furthermore, he adds, “we changed many things in the milling process, such as the amount of water used, the time of each process and most importantly, the temperature of the whole procedure- it is being kept under 27 degrees Celsius, so that we have a cold extracted extra virgin olive oil which keeps most of the aromas and nutrition value intact.”

Looking Out for the Trees

As readers learned in the fifth part of this series, even before the COVID-19 crisis, climate issues in west Crete in 2019 caused huge losses for the olive oil industry there. Fortunately, the same ill effects have not been suffered by Ladolea’s farmers. But Panos Kloutsiniotis underscores that the company is taking a vigilant approach.

“In the region of Corinthia, such a loss has not occurred,” he confirms. “However since we are speaking of a natural product, we are always under the control of nature and we are never sure about the quality until we taste the final product.”

Therefore, he concludes, “the only way is to respect nature’s rhythm and to try to help the trees as much as we can to be ready for every year’s circumstances.”

The Pandemic’s Effect on Sales: an Interesting Change in the Spread as Tourism Diminished in 2020

Ladolea, like all Greek olive oil producers, has seen sales affected this year as both domestic markets tighten their spending and incoming tourist numbers remain well below average.

Ironically, the company’s efforts to produce a premium olive oil that satisfied taste and scientific quality levels made it more susceptible to the tourism downturn, especially as the usually packed trendy tourist areas of Athens saw significantly reduced visitors this year.

In a normal year, “our sales are around 50% exported and 50% sold on the Greek high-end retail tourism market,” the Ladolea co-founder says. However, “this year, due to the COVID situation, we are seeing 40% less in sales, mostly from the Greek tourism market.”

Interestingly, Kloutsiniotis reveals that “we did not expect such a loss” due to the sudden decline in incoming tourism, one that if predicted could have allowed the company to make “a different strategy.” However, he adds, “we are totally aware that things are so insecure and at the moment we are trying to increase our exports and not rely on the Greek tourism market.”

Indeed, the company was not mortally wounded by the crisis. “The biggest problem that occurred was the lower sales and the logistics.” The company’s team is confident that it will continue to succeed in the wake of the pandemic, because of the underlying quality of their core products.

“Our plans are to focus on overcoming the losses of this year,” he says, “and from next year, to enter the exports on the US market.”

Olive Oil and Related Aspects of Greek Culture: a Possibility for Tourism Promotion?

One of Ladolea’s clever concepts for bolstering sales is the inclusion of other items that complement olive oil itself- souvenirs which have both a functional use-value and a culture reference to Greek history.

Chief among these is the ceramic pot connected with the ancient Olympics. Working with local ceramics artisans, the company manufactures and sells a reproduction of the Aryballos– an ancient Corinthian pot dated to 700 B.C. Ancient Olympic athletes were known to slather their bodies in olive oil from pots like this before the games, while ancient Greek aristocrats kept their valuables in them. Now, Ladolea considers its Aryballos pot a perfect (and environmentally-friendly, in being reusable) receptacle for its olive oil.

The proliferation of such heritage-related items can have an indirect benefit for Greek future tourism, Panos Kloutsiniotis believes.

“Our vision is to produce Greek authentic products,” he says, “by combining the tradition and history of our country with innovative and quality production methods.”

Kloutsiniotis underscores that Ladolea’s vision is to maintain the national-product identity of their goods, and that the company derives great satisfaction from seeing its customers make the connection with Greece through their products.

“We are so happy to see our consumers happy with our products,” he says, “especially when they offer them as Greek gifts.”

During the oftentimes dismal down-year of 2020, when the traditional tourism industry has been sunk by travel restrictions and media-generated travel panic internationally, both government and private enterprise have tried unique approaches to keep any kind of connection going between outside customers/tourists and Greece.

While the government’s ‘Greece From Home’ marketing is well known, Ladolea has a less-known but also relevant innovation in mind for keeping international interest alive.

“As for capitalizing on this, we are also thinking of a new internet shop, so that we could have direct sales after advertising,” reveals Panos Kloutsiniotis.

Further, the more traditional tastings will have to continue, as conditions allow. “Gastronomy was always a big thing in our daily life,” he adds, “and it is also a big attraction for the tourists. So apart from the historical attraction of our country it is very important to make targeted gastronomical moves such as tastings and exhibitions of high quality Greek products, so that we can attract this kind of gastronomical tourism as well.” 

Hunting for Ladolea- 4 Places To Find It in Athens Right Now

Finally, and of most importance to any olive-oil devotee happening to be in Greece this year, is the question of where Ladolea products are available currently in the country.

In some cases, it may find you, the company co-founder says. “You may find Ladolea in many stores, restaurants and boutique hotels in Greece.”

More specifically, he says, the prized olive oil can be found at certain central Athens specialty foods shops. “If I mention some of them: Nora’s Deli (Kolonaki area); Fotinis’s Deli (Plaka area); Yoleni’s (Kolonaki area), and the 4 Seasons (Syntagma Square).

Return to page Greek Travel after the Pandemic: Seizing Opportunities in Challenging Times

 

 

 

 

 

Greek Travel after the Pandemic, Part 6: Yiorgos Stergiou, Owner, Kafeteria Lefkos Pyrgos, Samothraki

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How has the COVID-19 crisis affected Greek tourism, and what are local tourism providers doing to recover from it? This series of exclusive interviews with specific Greek tourism entities gets to the heart of the key issues, as of mid-summer 2020.

By Chris Deliso

August 11, 2020

What would you do if you were the owner of an almost 70-year-old iconic island café, and had to choose whether to open for the summer season during government lockdowns, with no assurances that the tourists would ever actually come?

This was the question that Samothraki native Yiorgos Stergiou, owner of the beloved Lefkos Pyrgos café/sweets shop faced earlier this year. The following interview tells the inspirational tale of how Stergiou was rewarded for making the brave decision to reopen for business as usual in 2020, while introducing readers to one of the very best sweets shops anywhere in Greece.

A Celebrated Café

Named after the famous White Tower in Thessaloniki far to the west, Lefkos Pyrgos was opened by Stergiou’s father and brothers in 1951, shortly after the end of WWII, as “a typical Greek kafeneion” recalls Stergiou. “The café boasts an ideal location in the mountainside village of Hora, Samothraki’s capital, and offers fantastic views of the sea from its patio.

In 1995, Yiorgos Stergiou took over the family business and refined its concept from that of an average island coffee-shop to one specializing in unique, hand-crafted drinks, cakes, ice cream and other delicacies. It was a concept more befitting a touristic hotspot like Santorini than a sleepy backwater like Samothraki, isolated in Greece’s far northeast, accessible only from Alexandroupoli on daily ferries.

Nevertheless, the concept caught on, and Lefkos Pyrgos would become Samothraki’s most celebrated eatery for those exploring the lush island, one full of jungle, waterfalls, ancient sites and beaches.

I first discovered Lefkos Pyrgos in 2007, and wrote about it in the Lonely Planet Greece guide that came out the following year. The Guardian, Fox, and other international media have also covered Lefkos Pyrgos, which was most recently awarded by Trip Advisor with its Traveler’s Choice distinction for 2020. (See the over 170 reviews of Lefkos Pyrgos on TripAdvisotr’s website here).

Through his willingness to give the old café “a modern twist” after 1995, Stergiou says, “it ended up giving a modern twist to the village itself.”

Today, he adds, “we are nationally known for our famous ‘Pissa kai poupoula,’ a divine chocolate specialty topped with homemade vanilla ice cream, candied almonds and chocolate ganache.”

Lefkos Pyrgos is also known around Greece “for our homemade ice cream, our fresh lemonade, and our rum collection, just to mention a few of our highlights,” the confectioner contends.

Daily Life on Samothraki during the Crisis- the Advantage of Isolation

Like everywhere else in Greece, daily life on the island was affected during the COVID19 crisis, especially during the lockdown period in spring when only local residents were allowed to enter. However, as Stergiou recalls, the small and tight-knit nature of the island’s 2,800 residents helped it manage the crisis with relative ease. Interestingly, locals also tended to follow regulations imposed, despite being relatively isolated geographically.

“Despite the small number of inhabitants, the locals have largely respected the lockdown,” Stergiou recalls. “Living in small villages makes things easier- the local people are used to living in rather isolated, small spaces.”

At the same time, he also notes that “nature is never far away” on the largely forested island, one that is “so wild, so luxurious, so magical- like from a fairy tale.”

The Lefkos Pyrgos owner credits the prior lockdown measures as “having prevented the virus from reaching the island. Everybody was safe in the end. So, isolation has some serious advantages on this case.”

The Big Decision: Opening for the 2020 Summer Season

While the island was unaffected by the virus crisis in terms of health, the decision to open Lefkos Pyrgos for the summer 2020 season was fraught with peril, for the simple reason that no one really knew if the tourists would come back, despite the government’s strong efforts to reopen Greece after June 1. The quality and quantity of perishable goods that needed to be imported by the high-end café made it a financial risk, either way. And there were other risks, too.

“It was a very difficult decision,” recalls Stergiou. “I seriously considered the possibility of not opening at all. The strict social distancing measures, the lack of big health facilities on the island and the fear amongst people made me think that the tourists wouldn’t be willing to travel a lot this year.”

On the other hand, he notes that Samothraki “is a relatively isolated island, and the journey to get here is long.” This means that “one has to be motivated to come here, even in normal circumstances, let alone during a pandemic!”

Another risk factor was that a sizeable core of the island’s traditional tourist market – the neighboring Balkan states – was cut off completely by EU-regulated border restrictions due to the pandemic. “The combination of all these factors made the decision about reopening difficult to make,” Stergiou concludes.

All in All, a Pretty Good Season on a Great Island

Nevertheless, Yiorgos Stergiou did indeed choose to reopen Lefkos Pyrgos for its 69th season, and has been pleasantly surprised by the results.

“My predictions were somehow mistaken, fortunately,” he quips, when explaining that the tourists have indeed made the effort come. The reason why Samothraki has received visitors during the pandemic when many more famous Greek islands have not is a very interesting one, too.

“People seem reassured by the fact that Samothraki is a small and rather isolated island,” Stergiou notes. “I do find that the number of tourists is less important but not catastrophically diminished.”

He adds that “there were few visitors until the 20th of July. I couldn’t anticipate a more or less normal season. After that date, things have changed. We have mostly Greeks coming, who admitted that the island wasn’t their first choice but they came anyway- they believed that Samothraki would be safer than traveling to more popular or bigger islands.”

This fortuitous side-effect of the pandemic, which we have encountered previously in this series when it comes to off-the-beaten-track destinations in general, is bound to have longer-term benefits as tourists – Greek and foreign alike – develop new affinities for local Samothraki businesses like Lefkos Pyrgos. As such, the current crisis could have an effect on future tourism trends in Greece and increase the chances of new repeat visitors to Samothraki in future.

Operating Challenges during the Crisis: Logistics and Supplies

The relatively successful 2020 summer season has not come without its challenges for Lefkos Pyrgos, however. Noting that “the situation was already difficult” even before the pandemic, Stergiou explains that logistical difficulties have hampered operations.

“There is only one shipping route connecting us with the mainland, roughly one or two crossings a day,” he explains. “Given the fact that I have chosen to work with very fine quality products, there are things arriving from all parts of Greece and some even from abroad. Organizing the logistic part of the provisioning is a nightmare.”

This has only been exacerbated by new governmental restrictions and checks caused by COVID19 measures. “The sanitary restrictions made things worse, as there are shortages of certain goods,” Stergiou adds.

All of this makes working with perishables in an import-dependent business, catering to an unpredictable number of customers very challenging.

In 2020, “the flow of visitors is not the same, the goods take twice as much time to arrive, and the transportation cost has more than doubled,” the Lefkos Pyrgos owner attests. “I’m trying to cope with that on a day to day basis.”

Expectations for the Rest of the 2020 Season and 2021

Despite these challenges, Yiorgos Stergiou is confident that Greek tourism in the long term will re-emerge. Further, unlike some, he does not believe the country needs to do anything to prove itself as a safe destination to today’s risk-averse international tourists.

“Greece doesn’t need to regain the trust of visitors; we’ve never lost it,” he says.

“We’ve only had 210 deaths from the virus since the beginning of the pandemic. The thing is that all the countries tried to dissuade people from traveling abroad.”

Stergiou does admit that “the fear of a second lockdown exists… Unfortunately, the measures that we’ve heard of, include local or regional lockdowns, restrictions on opening hours or closure of bars and restaurants. That would be a total disaster.”

As far as 2021 is concerned, Stergiou is uncertain, as he believes it depends on what the greater world situation will bring. “We can only hope that in the meantime, scientists will find a vaccine and that life will return to some form of normality.”

Regardless of what the future holds, the summer of 2020 will be remembered, not just for the pandemic and its forced closure of so many seasonal tourism businesses- but for the brave decisions of those who, like Yiorgos Stergiou, took a risk by staying open and keeping tradition alive- thus making this Greek summer a little bit sweeter in the process.

Lefkos Pyrgos is located in the center of Hora, Samothraki’s inland, mountainside capital village.

Return to page Greek Travel after the Pandemic: Seizing Opportunities in Challenging Times

A Matter of Measurements

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While the obsession with the ‘proper pint’ may seem modern, the Ancient Greeks also fixated on measuring their alcohol. Pythagoras, a great Samian mathematician (and, presumably, drinker), created an invention that ensured party hosts and publicans could not be deceived by guests aspiring to inebriation.

His creation was dubbed the Dikiakoupa tou Pythagora (Just Cup of Pythagoras). This mysterious, multi-holed drinking vessel holds its contents perfectly, unless filled past the engraved line, at which point the glass drains completely from the bottom, punishing the glutton!

Today, faithful reproductions, made of colourful glazed ceramic, are sold in Samos gift shops, and are tangible reminders of the Apollon Mean: ‘Everything in moderation’

Text by Chris Deliso, published in Lonely Planet’s guide to Greecec 2010.

Chris Deliso

The Official Website