BERLIN – Germany's foreign minister on Tuesday criticized Turkey for “unilateral steps" in the eastern Mediterranean that are undercutting efforts to de-escalate tensions with Greece and Cyprus over sea boundaries and drilling rights.
Heiko Maas said that it's now up to Turkey to create the conditions “without further provocations” that will allow negotiations to move forward.
Maas said any attempt by a Turkish survey ship to begin prospecting for hydrocarbons in disputed waters, including an area just off the secluded Greek island of Kastellorizo, would strike a “serious blow" to efforts at easing tensions and improving ties between the European Union and Turkey.
Germany's top diplomat also decried Turkey's move to open the beachfront of Famagusta's fenced-off suburb of Varosha in divided Cyprus' breakaway Turkish Cypriot north as a “completely unnecessary and provocative step."
Varosha remained off-limits and in Turkish military control after its Greek Cypriot residents fled before advancing troops in 1974 when Turkey invaded and sliced the island along ethnic lines after a coup by supporters of union with Greece.
Cyprus is an EU member, but only its southern Greek Cypriot part — seat of the internationally recognized government — enjoys full benefits.
“That’s why we fully understand the deep sense of frustration felt by Cyprus regarding these unilateral steps by Turkey, the European Union and Germany stand in solidary with Cyprus and Greece," Maas said through an interpreter after talks with Cypriot counterpart Nikos Christodoulides.
Germany holds the rotating EU presidency and Maas warned against hasty reactions motivated by anger, saying that the bloc must act in its members' best interests and that disputes should only be resolved through direct dialogue.
He said European leaders have given time until December for diplomacy to take hold, “ but for that to happen there must be a climate of trust and credibility, something that isn’t there now."
Ankara's redeployment of the Oruc Reis survey vessel for new energy exploration around Kastellorizo has reignited tensions over sea boundaries between Greek islands, Cyprus and Turkey’s southern coast.
Those tensions had flared up over the summer, prompting a military build-up, bellicose rhetoric and fears of a confrontation between the two NATO members and historic regional rivals.
Ankara says it redeployed the ship because Greece chose to hold military drills in the Aegean Sea on a Turkish national holiday.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said Tuesday that Athens wouldn't engage in exploratory talks with Ankara for as long as the survey vessel remained active in the region.
“Let’s hope that we can get to a point where we actually sit down and talk like reasonable people ... other than engaging in unnecessary gunboat diplomacy,” he said during a meeting with Maas later Tuesday in Athens. “We have every interest in engaging with Turkey in a constructive dialogue.”
The Oruc Reis left the port of Antalya on Monday for a mission expected to end Oct. 22. According to Greek media it is escorted by warships.
Another Turkish survey ship is currently operating in waters where Cyprus claims exclusive economic rights.
The U.S. State Department issued a statement deploring Turkey’s move, saying it “unilaterally raises tensions in the region and deliberately complicates the resumption of crucial exploratory talks between our NATO Allies Greece and Turkey.”
Speaking at a joint news conference with her Turkish counterpart in Ankara, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde criticized the vessel's redeployment as a risk “leading to new tensions instead of contributing to de-escalation.”
Turkey rebuffed international criticism of its research ship's redeployment, insisting that the Oruc Reis is operating in Turkish waters.
Omer Celik, spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party, accused Greece of stirring up tensions and of trying to avoid negotiations by engaging in actions like military drills during Turkey's national day celebrations.
Associated Press writers Nicholas Paphitis in Athens, and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.