The case of Cyprus and the IMO

The Eastern Mediterranean at the crossroads: The case of Cyprus and the IMO


03 | 05 | 2023


Turkish aspiration to head the International Maritime Organization has the support of Greece, which gets Turkey's support of a temporary seat in the UN Security Council

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International Maritime Organization's Headquarters, in London [IMO]

Tensions between Greece and Turkey have been escalating in the last years; nevertheless, the two countries have found a possible way of cooperation: mutual support for their respective bids for a seat in international organizations. Turkey aspires to head the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and Greece is campaigning to become a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. With both candidacies in mind, the two nations try to improve their differences over the past decades. Ankara's attitudes against Cyprus, though, complicate the perspective of a leading role for Turkey at the IMO.

In September 2022, the entire Greek fleet was mobilized in the Aegean Sea to carry out naval exercises with the French Navy. They came as a response to the numerous threats by Ankara about the possible invasion of Greek islands in the Aegean. This episode escalated to a high degree their conflict in the region, with frigates, submarines, missile boats, gunboats, helicopters and fighter aircraft in full formation and ready for deployment. It was yet another episode of military tensions between the Eastern Mediterranean neighbors. Shortly after, at the beginning of 2023, Turkey warned that any Greek naval exercises carried out in the Aegean Sea would trigger Turkish submarine drills in response, indicating that Ankara is not going to tolerate any violation of waters currently disputed between the two Mediterranean neighbors.

Diplomatic relations between the two Eastern Mediterranean nations have been complicated by their rivalry over the sovereignty of many of the islands in the Aegean Sea, as well as by the Cyprus issue and Ankara's reluctance to let any ships bearing the Cypriot flag dock in its national ports. Yet, weeks after their latest incident, it appears that the two countries could have found a new way to cooperate and improve their relations out of their bids for the Secretary Generalship of the International Maritime Organization (Turkey) and a seat as non-permanent member of the UNSC (Greece). With both candidacies in mind, the two have vowed to support each other and try to improve their differences over the past decades.

The two Mediterranean neighbors have recently shown some support for each other on a particular issue: Ankara's bid for the Secretary General position at the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and Athens' bid for a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council for the 2025-2026 term. The former of them bears a massive symbolical importance for Athens, given its active participation in the organization, and that, if successful, will very likely mark the beginning of a new chapter in Greek-Turkish relations that could affect the overall security scenario of the Eastern Mediterranean.

On March 20th, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias met in Brussels, where they both expressed mutual support for each other's cause. Greece will support Suat Hayri Aka, the Turkish candidate for the position, who previously served as under-secretary for Maritime Affairs in the Turkish Ministry of Transport. Cavusoglu wrote in social media: “We continue our solidarity after earthquake & train accident. Agreed to mutually support our candidacies.” Such position is pivotal for global shipping regulation, dealing with development of regulatory frameworks for global shipping and other aspects of maritime safety and security of transport routes. Among the main issues which will be certainly faced by the upcoming SG of the IMO, which will take office in January 2024, are the commercial consequences of the war in Ukraine, the delicate geopolitical situation across the globe, and the conflicting viewpoints on decarbonization of shipping.

The news of such support came days after former Cyprus shipping deputy minister, Vassilios Demetriades, announced he is considering the option of running as a European candidate for the IMO elections that will take place in June at London. Although he must first discuss the option with the newly elected Cypriot Government, he is considered as a popular figure among EU authorities given his involvement in the drafting of European shipping policy; and could enjoy support from them for his election campaign.

For Cyprus, this Turkish IMO candidacy presents an interesting situation. On one side, it is not able to join Athens in its support for Turkey given Ankara has banned ships bearing the Cypriot flag from docking in any national port, and Demetriades own potential candidacy. “You realize that it will not be possible for our side to support such a candidacy,” Cypriot President Nikos Christodoulides stated. On the other side, Cyprus has publicly declared a hypothetical Turkish secretary seneral at the IMO will not bring any problem for Cyprus nor for its positive relation with Greece. “As far as Cyprus goes, we are not bound in any way by Greece's decision and we certainly cannot support Turkey's candidacy,” said Government Spokesperson Konstantinos Letymbiotis.

Yet, leaving aside the Cyprus issue, Athens' support for Ankara's bid is much more significant than Turkey's for the UNSC seat. The IMO is of vital importance for Greek interests, as it is the forum where shipping and maritime regulations are made. These interests are not small, considering Greece remains the largest shipping nation in the world, with 5,514 ships which makes up for the 21% of the global merchant fleet and the 59% of the EU's. In the image below, representing the ownership of the world's shipping fleet between 2011 and 2021, Greece is clearly visible as one of the fastest growing fleets. According to the Union of Greek Shipowners, “The total tonnage of the Greek-owned fleet has increased by 45.8% compared to 2014, while even during the COVID-19 pandemic, i.e. since 2019, the tonnage has increased by 7.4%.”

On the other hand, Turkey's support for the UNSC seat bid pursued by Athens appears to be of rather small importance in comparison. Yet, beyond the political results it may bring for Greece, it is indicative of the growing solidarity between the two nations that has been steadily growing after the earthquakes in Turkey and the train accident in Greece which took the lives of 57 people. After the announcement of Greece's bid for the non-permanent seat, Turkey openly expressed its support for the candidacy and its intention of voting in favor of it when the time comes. Both the diplomatic condolences and the support shown between both countries as a result of their successive tragedies points at a plausible improvement of their relations should things remain on this path. Since the earthquakes took place, both have been taking steps forward to improve through a positive agenda. Furthermore, Greek air space violations by Turkish fighter jets and spying aircraft have also experienced a dramatic decrease since the earthquakes; further demonstrating the commitment by both nations to support each other in their respective bids.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, Athens' commitment continues to strike as both countries have held maritime disputes for decades over some islands in the Aegean; disputes which do also affect the role and work of the IMO itself. Supporting Turkey for a critical position in an organization as impactful as the IMO proves the huge importance Greece attaches to improving their relations with Ankara. For Turkey, it will not be just another bureaucratic position to hold, but a powerful one with real capacity to influence maritime issues and to either improve or damage Greece's interests. Thus, such stance should be seen as a strong indication of Athens' hopes that dispute over the Aegean will be settled in favorable terms for both sides; as well as of how important it is for Greece to improve its relations with Ankara.

Hypothetically, it may seem as problematic for the organization to have Turkey in the main position, with the potential to destabilize the work of the organization due to its bias towards Cyprus. Nevertheless, this idea is almost entirely disregarded considering that the secretary seneral exercises its duties based on the IMO's Convention, and not on own personal views, being therefore unable to deviate from the established rules to please the national interests. Yet, the Cyprus issue could prove to be a burden for the Turkish candidacy, improving the chances of the other candidates aspiring to get the position, including Kenyan Ambassador Nancy Karigithu.

Thus, it is already visible that political stability in the Eastern Mediterranean region over the upcoming years will be determined by the ability of both countries to solve their differences, as well as to find a common agreement on the Cyprus issue. Their mutual support for each other's political ambitions outside of the region, in an effort to maximize benefits for both, is indicative of a possible path, and could be a strong option to achieve such stability, even though Greek support for the Turkish IMO bid is of much greater strategic significance. Its over to Athens and Ankara now.