Humanitarian aid at the Thessaloniki City hall - M.Drosopoulos

Humanitarian aid at the Thessaloniki City hall - M.Drosopoulos

Relations between Greece and Turkey have deteriorated steadily in recent years, leading to fears of a clash between the two countries. The earthquake that devastated Turkey on February 6, however, has opened up new spaces for solidarity and dialogue

13/03/2023 -  Mary Drosopoulos Thessaloniki

The young woman stands for a moment to catch her breath. Reddened cheeks, tousled hair, busy hands dusted with white chalk-powder. It looks like she has been working for hours. She is holding a bulky carton with a label in both Greek and Turkish, reading “children’s shoes”, written by one of her fellow volunteers.

Asking for confidentiality would be expected by any person interviewed over any controversial, legal, or sensitive issue; however, this request is coming now from a young student who is providing voluntary services to help alleviate the trauma of those affected by the devastating earthquakes in Turkey, as part of an immense solidarity campaign, initiated by the Greek government, Greek civil society, and local trade unions.

As if sensing the surprise, the woman is fast to provide an explanation, although for discretion she has not been asked for one.

“It was only last week when Turkey was Greece’s worst enemy; we were almost on the verge of war. I have been coming here everyday to help, because I really feel I should. But I come alone, I don’t post about it, I don’t make it public”, says the young woman. “You see, I am studying to become a diplomat and I hope one day I will. We are friends now with Turkey, but this might change again soon. It always does. What is seen as an act of solidarity now might have a different reading tomorrow. My dream is to become an ambassador; would it be good or bad for my career to be considered a Turcophile?”.

The anonymous aspiring diplomat suddenly realises that she is still holding that box, that now looks too heavy for her petite figure.

“Let me get that”, says a young male soldier, swiftly grabbing the carton from her hands and carrying it on his shoulders to the other side of the Foyer, where dozens of boxes of similar content are piling up. The City Hall of Thessaloniki has turned into a warehouse where hundreds of boxes containing clothes, food, and medical supplies are being stored. Every five or ten minutes another car stops outside the side entrance and ordinary people unload plastic bags, suitcases, or cardboard boxes containing humanitarian aid. The volunteers receive the donations and categorise the contents per item.

Artist Aristeia Elbasidou is one of the most frequent City Hall volunteers. She found herself joining the collective efforts out of an inner need to help.

“We have so much shared culture with the Turks. It is propaganda that poisons our relations. Both Greek and Turkish politicians are to blame. I believe that our bilateral relations will remain good at a political level for the few months that the aid offered remains in the public eye”, mantains Elbasidou. “As soon as this is forgotten, politicians might take us back to how we were before. However, I honestly believe that the Turkish people will never forget our solidarity”.

The City Hall is only one out of the many spots all over the city where material is being collected, but certainly the busiest one, with working hours from 07.00 to 19.00. The call for volunteers was shared on the social media, but also spread from mouth to mouth.

Most volunteers are young people in their early twenties, but there are also senior citizens, some of whom pensioners. Some have arrived in groups, representing state institutions, independent NGOs, or companies, while others have showed up spontaneously. The workload is such that every individual joining immediately becomes part of the wider team.

Other cities of Northern Greece have also shown eagerness to help. Lawyer Vivian Lada is responsible for the Development Programmes of the "AGROVOIO" city network, in the Region of Western Macedonia and Co-Founder of the “Humans First” civil society organisation, based in Siatista, Kozani.

Having a good command of Turkish language and experience in several exchange programmes supported by the EU Commission, Lada also sees propaganda as the main factor behind the turbulent bilateral relations between Greece and Turkey. In her interview to OBCT she explains how, despite not being an ideal way of finding solutions to foreign policy impasses, earthquake diplomacy might be a springboard for a review and reordering of things.

“As children of the Mediterranean, we share the same climate and environmental concerns, and, unfortunately, we also share the fear of earthquakes... it was therefore natural that in such a time of absolute destruction and mourning, Greek society should respond in this humane and completely normal way, showing its undivided support for people who are suffering”, says Lada. “In addition to diplomatic actions, there is a need to act as a civil society; we should implement initiatives that will on the one hand relieve those affected and on the other hand create real ties between peoples, based on pure feelings, humane, free from the prejudices of the past and the propaganda of the present”.

Earthquake diplomacy and old enemies

On the very same day of the disaster, February 6, Greece showed a swift response by sending 25 trained rescuers of EMAK – a specialist disaster relief unit that is part of the Hellenic Fire Service, two rescue dogs, and a purpose-built C-130 transport aircraft that departed from the military airport of Elefsina.

In the “battlefield”, many Greek rescuers would rephrase President Erdogan’s infamous statement and repeat what would become the slogan of the Hellenic mission: “You used to threaten us that you’d come one night unexpectedly, but instead, we came one day unexpectedly, and it was to help you”.

In the days that followed the disaster, the local media would broadcast marathons of heroic stories from Hatay, Antakya, and nearby regions, formerly unknown to most Greeks. According to official data, until February 10, 2023, Greece had already sent 90 tons of humanitarian aid through its Civil Protection mechanisms and more followed in the next days. The Hellenic Red Cross (HRC) sent 2 humanitarian missions to Turkey, on February 21 and 24 respectively, consisting totally of 60 tons approximately, but also trucks, rescue vehicles, trained staff, and volunteers. As per the HRC official press release , the humanitarian aid was collected “by the love and solidarity of Greek people throughout the country”.

Greece-Turkey earthquake diplomacy: from 1999 to 2023

This is not the first time in modern history that Greek-Turkish relations are “rescued” by solidarity exhibited during a disaster. In the ‘90s, diplomatic relations had reached rock bottom. The Imia/Kardak crisis of January 1996 had even brought the two countries on the brink of armed conflict. This changed, however, on August 17, 1999, when the deadly earthquake in the Marmara region of Turkey sparked an immense wave of solidarity from Greece. Only a month later, it would be the Turkish people who would express their solidarity to Athenians following the powerful earthquake of September 7, 1999.

By a strange stroke of fate, just as had happened back then, the Turkish tragedy was recently followed by a deadly incident on Greek ground. The railway accident in Tempi that took place on February 28 has been the largest of its kind in Greek history so far, leading to 57 victims (data shared on March 6, 2023) and waves of public rage. Turks have been among their first to express their solidarity.

Many analysts from both sides have compared today’s situation with the 1999 rapprochement. Certainly there are common traits, but the surrounding situation is different. Back then, earthquake had reinforced diplomatic efforts in place, amid a political climate that favoured dialogue. In other words, the relations between the two countries had already been showing signs of improvement when a natural disaster brought the two closer together.

In a 200 6 article , professor Dimitris Keridis analyses how, prior to the incident, changes in at the Greek foreign ministry had prepared the ground for a betterment of relations. The appointment of a new Foreign Minister favouring rapprochement had been critical: George Papandreou had succeeded Theodoros Pangalos, who had been forced to resign; consequently, Athens had engaged in a new cycle of discussions with Ankara.

According to Keridis, one of the topics where the two countries had found common ground was their stance to the Kosovo crisis in spring 1999; both Greece and Turkey were “firmly committed to the inviolability of borders and protection of rights of ethnic minorities”.

What followed the 1999 humanitarian disasters was a period of gradual betterment of relations, where both countries focused on cooperation rather than rivalry. Greece’s support to Turkey’s European perspective should also be viewed as a fruit of a successful earthquake diplomacy.

Tensions between the two countries escalated again in 2020, due to the seismic surveys conducted by the Turkish vessel Oruc Reis in areas of the Greek continental shelf close to Castellorizo, Rhodes, and Karpathos islands. Despite signs of de-escalation, that year was the beginning of a period of ongoing turbulence over a number of issues, from long-running conflicting interests in the Aegean to different stances to Russia’s war against Ukraine and from energy-related disputes involving Cyprus and Libya to a series of disagreements over the management of the refugee crisis.

History has shown that, for earthquake diplomacy to be sustainable, it should be built this time on long-lasting foundations of cooperation, requiring commitment from both sides. Greece and Turkey should consider engaging in a serious process of reconciliation; one that would involve in-depth, solution-oriented dialogue.

Without political commitment and a future-oriented vision, the existing bottom-up initiatives that are (re)flourishing will remain, once again, just a beautiful page in history.

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