Can Europe Make It?

Crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean: hybrid warfare, the Balkans and the Near East

Has Turkey weaponized the refugees in a hybrid warfare against a hypocritical Europe and NATO, while Russia is the real winner in Syria? A conversation.

Biljana Vankovska Vassilis K. Fouskas
9 March 2020
Migrants In Istanbul board buses for Greek border, February 28, 2020.
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Diego Cupolo/PA. All rights reserved.

Biljana Vankovska(BV): Do the Balkan states possess potential for a joint response to the migrant crisis, having in mind their mutual differences over a range of issues?

Vassilis K. Fouskas: Yes, they do and it is high time now to leave aside their differences. The refugee issue is vastly more important. The stakes involved are much higher in terms of human life and regional peace.

I don’t appreciate at all Turkey’s neo-imperial approach to the region and the way in which he manages the refugee issue. I also don’t appreciate the hypocritical attitude of Germany and the EU, who make deals with Turkey and then fail to deliver on them. Turkey is right in claiming that the 2016 agreement has not been honoured: very little money has been delivered and no relaxation of the visa has been offered to its citizens. Turkey, however, is using the refugees – and not only the refugees – there are a number of criminals and jihadists among the refugee numbers – as a bargaining chip to negotiate with NATO and the EU. They seek a pact that would help Turkey to deal with Russia, Assad and Iran in Syria and maintain its zone in Syria, while cleansing the Kurdish element there. This is what is all about: a hybrid warfare.

But we should not forget the human dimension of the issue. Greece and Bulgaria are wrong to seal their land and sea borders against innocent people – although, as I said, they are not all innocent. What should be done, first, is to manage the borders through careful registration (selection/de-selection) of refugees according to international and EU law; second, to construct provisional structures providing humane conditions to refugees/migrants; third, to facilitate their travel north of the Balkans (to Austria, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Scandinavia), where they want to go. The refugees don’t want to stay in the region. They want to settle in prosperous EU countries. This is the basis for cooperation that all the Balkan states can easily agree on. Germany and the rest of the EU must assume full responsibility for their acts of omission and commission over all these years, including the appalling austerity imposed on Greece and the Balkans, which destroyed their capacity to deal with these sorts of emergencies. That’s why the Balkan states must cooperate.

Can you imagine Greece’s fourth army in Thrace facing 1,000,000 refugees who want to cross the border? Are you going to shoot at them? No. But this means war between Greece and Turkey, as Greece will close the Aegean and Turkey will retaliate and so on.

BV: Do you see any danger of the Balkans turning into a ‘parking lot’ (ghetto) for millions of migrants remaining on western Europe’s doorstep?

VKF: Oh yes. This is German and, to a certain extent, NATO policy. This is one of the reasons why NATO and Germany supported the Dayton agreement, sold as an “Agreement for Peace” in the Balkans to end the war of Bosnian-Serb aggression.

The real reason is the containment of refugee waves in the Balkans and the ethnic ghettoisation of the region, as Tolis Malakos argued in a splendid article he wrote for the Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies back in 1999-2000 on the occasion of NATO’s war over Kosovo.

Creating ethno-religious enclaves in the Balkans and sponsoring them in all sorts of ways, you embed them in the region, deter their movement towards the core of Europe and transform them into consumers via borrowing from your banks. That’s the European model for the Balkans. And it’s both neo-colonial and racist, but camouflaged with a humanitarian narrative.

Of course, this is not the only reason why Bosnia was created out of nothing. It was also due to America’s drive to control Germany’s influence. At the same time, Bosnia represented NATO’s soft underbelly as NATO was expanding eastwards against Russia – impossible to leave the area under the control of Serbia, seen as Russia’s client state, or under Croatia, seen as Germany’s client state.

The case of Kosovo was very similar: it had nothing to do with the human rights of the Albanians there. It just happens at certain times in history the geopolitical plans of imperial powers coincide with other factors on the ground, such as domestic nationalistic agendas and so on. The same goes for the name contestation over Macedonia.

At certain times in history the geopolitical plans of imperial powers coincide with other factors on the ground.

BV: For quite some time Lesvos has been home to over 19,000 migrants and refugees. What are the biggest challenges for the local population and can you see a solution both for the people held hostage and the locals?

VKF: It’s interesting you’re asking me about Lesvos. First of all, Lesvos is too far away from Syria – it’s an island in the north Aegean. A better option for the Turkish-Syrian traffickers would have been to send the Syrian refugees to the Dodecanese complex of islands and Rhodes. This is not happening. Why not? I tend to believe this is because there is a lot of international capital in the massive hotel and travel industry there that deters any such move.

Let’s now monitor the situation on the island. Lesvos, as we speak, has nearly 22,000 refugees – legally they may be called “migrants” or “asylum seekers”, but that should not concern us here as all agreements and the Dublin process are dead. The local population is around 70,000. The refugees live in appalling conditions. The camp in the village of Moria has some 2,000 beds capacity, yet almost all refugees are packed there. There is massive tension with the locals.

When they first arrived, the locals – from refugee families themselves from Asia Minor – embraced them warmly: they offered them shelter, food, company, everything they could offer in conditions of harsh austerity. But the refugee waves continued after a short lull following the agreement between Germany and Turkey in March 2016. The locals became intolerant and tensions grew.

Now the locals, given the tension between Greece and Turkey over the Aegean and Cyprus, have begun seeing the refugees as Erdogan’s Trojan horse for creating Islamic enclaves in the islands in order to use them against Greece’s political-ethnic cohesion.

It doesn’t take long for things to change. The role of NGOs, especially FRONTEX, was not helpful at all. Their aim – hidden behind a humanitarian narrative typical of neo-colonialism since the end of the Cold War – was to prevent refugees from leaving the island and reaching continental Greece and thereon to Europe. That’s the reality.

I have outlined the solution by answering your first question. My solution straddles both humanitarian and security concerns, both the refugees and the locals. There is only one serious obstacle to implementing such a just solution fostering peace: the dependent nature of Balkan polities on NATO and the EU. Imperialism has always been good at “divide and rule”. The strategy I propose will be successful only if all Balkan states cooperate. Bulgaria, for the time being, is in bed with Erdogan.

Imperialism has always been good at “divide and rule”. The strategy I propose will be successful only if all Balkan states cooperate.

BV: What type of assistance and help does Greece hope for? And what is the risk of this crisis spilling over towards Macedonia?

VKF: For the time being, money only. This also is not certain. But if money ever arrived in Greek coffers, we won’t be in a position to know the strings attached to them. State elites do not disclose these types of deals.

Many things also depend on how Greek diplomacy would be able to capitalise on the conflicts taking place within other elites in NATO and EU countries, and especially conflicts within the Turkish elite. It is wrong to believe that the Turkish state is a coherent organism without contradictions. For instance, there is a powerful anti-NATO and pro-Russian/Eurasianist faction within the Turkish apparatus pushing for a security alliance with Moscow. Many people are unaware of this.

So – I hope you understand – I cannot answer with precision the first part of your question as many things depend on unpredictable moves from the various agencies involved. As regards the position of North Macedonia, I have a straightforward answer. The refugees do not want to stay in Greece, Macedonia or anywhere in the Balkans. Only core EU countries, especially Germany and Austria, want that. But the situation will be critical for North Macedonia and all Balkan states if there is no agreement between Turkey and Russia over Syria, and Greece and Bulgaria continue to block off the selection/de-selection of migrants/refugees by refusing to manage an orderly passage of them from their territories and in agreement with all the neighbouring countries as I propose.

BV: What would be the effect of this migrant crisis on the Greek-Turkish relations and on the relations of the EU member states, and the EU as a whole?

In my view, it all depends on whether Russia and Turkey find any middle ground for cooperation over the Syrian issue. Even if they strike a deal, this will sort matters out only in the short-term. Russia will continue backing Assad’s regime; the Kurdish issue will remain unresolved; and remnants of Al Qaeda will be operating in Syria and elsewhere.

There are reports that the Turkish militia fighting in Libya are not Turkish soldiers but various splinter groups from Al Qaeda that Turkey has armed. We should not forget that Turkey has experienced massive growth over the last two decades and is considered, together with Brazil, South Africa and other peripheral countries, as a new developing, middle-income country. Turkey’s economy is currently experiencing an overcapacity and export of capital is paramount. Turkish business and banks are not only active in Central Asia, Middle East and the Balkans, but also in Africa. Turkey has drafted its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) agreement with Libya at the expense of Greek interests. This is not because Turkey is bad and the others good, but because the country is over-heated and seeks expansion and jurisdiction beyond its borders.

War is and remains, primarily, an imperialist affair, whether regional or global and it is in this sense that Turkey’s action should be opposed and thwarted. Now, if conflict breaks out between Greece and Turkey, then one eventuality is that it remains localised, lasting only a few days, yet without solving any of the aforementioned issues, including that of refugees.

It may also involve more and more states in the region and more globally, in which case we are talking about a total disaster that I don’t want even to think about. Needless to say, the EU would cease to exist in the form and shape it has today. So back to 1914, the unthinkable future!

BV: Can one make a comparison between today’s developments and the 2015/16 migrant crisis, both from a humanitarian and a security perspective. Also, you mentioned the use of refugees by Turkey as a weapon to strike deals. Can you say more?

VKF: Yes, I can and I also believe a comparison can be made. The first refugee crisis came amidst a serious crisis in the Eurozone, which was somewhat sealed with the capitulation of Syriza, following the referendum of July 2015. At the time, as everybody was busy with economics, neither Greece nor the Europeans could conceive of the refugee problem as a serious humanitarian and security issue of tremendous importance for the future of Europe and the Balkans.

But Erdogan’s Turkey knew, because Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian crisis dates back to the beginnings of the crisis in 2010-11. I must say that various western agencies played a very malicious and totally inept role in Turkey, trying to disrupt Erdogan’s project to smash the Kemalist apparatus, a power struggle that Erdogan won, strengthening his authoritarian grip over the state and society.

Everybody should understand that the West is not innocent in what the Erdogan regime has become in Turkey. Erdogan and his ruling group were always conscious of the fact that the refugees could be weaponised in a hybrid warfare against Europe in order to serve Turkey’s power-politics ends in the region.

Erdogan also sends refugees to Cyprus, the northern part of which has been occupied by Turkey since August 1974, following two consecutive invasions of the island. The (Greek) Cypriot government in the southern part has recently closed the crossings that separate the Turkish sector from the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, the pretext being the Corona virus. So overall, one can easily diagnose a continuity on the part of Turkey as regards the weaponization of the refugee issue, whereas the Europeans began only recently to come to terms with this.

The agreement between Germany and Turkey in 2016, which was against international law and human rights, failed simply because no agreement can capture and block the political will and determination of a belligerent state to use unarmed population movements on the ground to serve its own power-political ends.

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Join us for a free live discussion on Thursday 22 October, 5pm UK time/12pm EDT.

Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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