Greece on Aegean oil crisis with Turkey (1987)

Suggested Citation: Neophytos G. Loizides, Greek-Turkish Negotiations and Crises 1983-2003 Dataset , Queen's University Belfast (available online at http://www.qub.ac.uk/research-centres/CentrefortheStudyofEthnicConflict/TeachingResearch/Datasets/Greek-TurkishNegotiationsandCrises1983-2003/#d.en.173636)

Case Summary:

This case study looks into Greek reactions to the Aegean oil crisis with Turkey in March 1987. A crisis over the demarcation of oil-search and oil-drilling rights in offshore waters between the Greek islands of the north-eastern Aegean and the Turkish coastline has been simmering since at least November 1973. Additionally, in a border clash in December 1986, two Turkish and one Greek guard are killed. The March 1987 crisis is caused by a dispute over oil-drilling rights in the North Aegean, off the island of Thassos, where a Greek-based international consortium is planning to start drilling. The Turkish government claims that these operations contravene the Berne Agreement of 1976 between the two countries.[i] The two countries agree in 1976, in a secret meeting in Bern, Switzerland, on a formula to deal with disputes arising over the Aegean, but later on Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou renounces this agreement.[ii] Turkey's National Security Council, headed by President Kenan Evren and dominated by soldiers, orders the oil exploration vessel Sismik-1 to sail through the Dardanelles under naval escort. In Greece, Papandreou vows to stop Sismik-1 by force. PM Özal who is still on his way home from a heart operation in Texas, cancels Sismik-1operations and diffuses the crisis after securing an assurance from the Greek government that it will also refrain from drilling in disputed areas.[iii] In a full text search for keywords “Greece” and “Turkey and “crisis,” Lexis/ Nexis produces 45 results for the period 3/1/1987- 4/1/1987 (under category European News Sources).

Case Study Features:

Effectiveness of Offensive Policies : 1

Despite its relatively smaller size, Greece has a number of political and military advantages. Firstly, it receives the indirect backing of neighboring Bulgaria. Secondly, it successfully mobilizes its air and naval forces. Thirdly, it orders the closure of the US base at Nea Makri – thus forcing NATO and the US to intervene on its side (eventually US and NATO officials press the Turkish Government not to continue with the Sismik-1 challenge, and to back down). Finally, with forward deployment of its newly-acquired interceptors, and by moving first, the Greek air force can win a limited victory in the Aegean (this according to a retired USAF expert familiar with both sides in the conflict).[iv]

Offensive vs. Defensive Signals Indistinguishable: 1

This is a classic case of indistiguishability of offensive from defensive action, recognized here by third parties. According to the New York Times, there is little readiness on either side to read the other's signals. The Greek government wants to take control of a Canadian consortium to prevent it from causing an international incident by drilling oil in disputed waters, 11 miles east of the Greek island of Thassos. Turkish officials, however, interpret the Greek move as evidence of Athens's intention to drill. So when Turkey issues licenses to its own state oil company to explore in disputed waters, Ankara depicts its action as a response to the Greek ones, while the Greeks read it as aggression.[v]

Domestic Challenge: 1

When national elections take place in 1985, the government of Andreas Papandreou faces a number of domestic challenges. It institutes an unpopular package of economic stabilization at the end of 1985 following high levels of inflation, and successfully defends the package against the worst series of strikes in its 5.5 years in power; these strikes are organized by both leftist and right-wing trade unions (January and February 1987). Then, the Chernobyl nuclear accident contaminates Greece's entire 1986 production of wheat, while in the fall of 1986, an earthquake in the southern port city of Kalamata leaves thousands of inhabitants homeless.[vi] In addition to economic problems and strikes[vii] Papandreou faces a trial of strength with Greece's Orthodox Church over plans to seize church land.[viii]

Enduring Rivalries: 1

There is an element of “enduring rivalries” between Greece and Turkey resulting from the events of 1974, the unilateral declaration of TRNC in 1983 and the failure of Cyprus negotiations to produce a settlement.

Confrontational Policies: 1

The Papandreou policies towards Turkey are confrontational at the level of both rhetoric and policy. This is particularly true because of the Greek insistence not to negotiate on the Berne agreement (a reversal of a previous agreement) and its decision to destroy Turkish vessels (threat of war).[ix] The case confirms the diversionary theory and the security dilemma.


[i] Robert Mauthner,More Obliging To Friends Now”, Financial Times, April 6, 1987, p. 19.

[ii] Jim Anderson, “How war was avoided between Greece and Turkey,” UPI Spot News Weekender April 5, 1987

[iii] “Greece and Turkey: A Nasty Squall in the Aegean”, The Economist, April 4, 1987, p. 50.

[iv] “The Aegean dispute and the Middle East”, MidEast Markets, April 13, 1987.

[v] Alan Cowell, “Greek Leader’s Gambit”, The New York Times, March 30, 1987, p.2.

[vi] Andriana Ierodiaconou, “Greece, Pragmatism Pays Off”,  Financial Times, April 6, 1987, p. 17.

[vii] Kerin Hope, “Nationwide Strike Brings Greece to Standstill,” Associated Press, January 15, 1987.

[viii] , “Greece and Turkey: A Nasty Squall in the Aegean”, The Economist April 4, 1987, p. 50.

[ix] The New York Times reports that Greek PM Andreas Papandreou stirs nationalist feelings against Turkey and the U.S. in order to bolster his internal political position and calls for responsible Greeks to restrain their volatile Prime Minister, or better, in their own interest, find a statesman to replace him. Flora Lewis, “To the Brink in Athens”, The New York Times, March 30, 1987, p.19