On December 26, 1995, the Turkish cargo vessel “Figen Akat” ran aground on the easternmost point of the two islets of Imia, just seven kilometers off the coast of Bodrum, Turkey. When a Greek tugboat approached to help, the Turkish captain insisted that the tug was in his country’s territorial waters. After the disabled vessel made it back to its harbor, the Greek skipper put forward a salvage claim, which would signal the beginning of one of the most heated east Mediterranean crises in recent history. On December 27, 1995, the Turkish government declared the islets Turkish territory, something which Athens denied citing international law. In January 1996, two Greeks sailed off the nearby island of Kalymnos and raised the Greek flag on Imia. The Turks reciprocated. Neither country was backing down and military was now getting deployed on both sides across the Turkish-Greek borders. By the time a helicopter carrying three Greek soldiers crashed, the issue had become a NATO and European emergency.
At the time, there were rumors that we were at the brink of war. In remote places, like the island of Lesbos, things were particularly alarming. (Lesbos is the third largest island in Greece and its north coast between Skala Sikamineas and Molyvos has the shortest distance of 12 km to Turkey). People were panic-buying food and soon supermarket shelves were empty; others were fleeing the island (my older sister was studying in Thessaloniki at the time, and she called in tears asking us to go there). The island was going into frequent blackouts, apparently in order not to be visible to the opposite Turkish side and as the army was taking key positions across the island.
Growing up in an island like Lesbos there is one thing you learn and that is how to live with a bad neighbor. You know the kind of neighbor that makes too much noise, does not like to work with you on almost anything, he tries to trick you and, most importantly, does not respect you. That’s Turkey for people in Lesbos and, before you all rush to accuse me of being biased, let me just say: of course, I am biased. I am Greek and we are taught early on to be biased. But, this is not about the country or the Turkish people or even about history. It is about a continuous political aggression and the constant challenge of having to defend your own identity. It is frankly exhausting.
Greece’s relationship with Turkey goes through waves. Over the years, the two countries have majorly learned to tolerate one another and, overall, be courteous. In times of natural disasters humanity also prevails. When the big earthquake struck Turkey in 1999, Greece sent immediately helicopters and firefighters to help. (I remember distinctly that earthquake; it was August and, it was so strong that we also felt it in Lesbos). But, the truth is that when it comes to politics, Greece and Turkey cannot see eye to eye and most likely they never will.
During Greece’s financial crisis, a lot of its foreign policy was put in the backseat. In reflection, I am sure everyone would agree it was a mistake because it allowed Turkey to elevate itself as a more reliable partner in the region while making Greece look weak. The timing of the refugee crisis and Turkey’s role created a web of dependencies on Turkey and gave President Erdogan political leverage and an excuse to often act like a sultan (in fact, he has maintained much of this behavior to this day). At the time, the European Union, NATO and, even the US, were paying more attention to Turkey than to Greece.
In the last couple of years, however, Greece has become stronger. The new government has made foreign policy a priority and has managed to place the country at the center of geopolitical relevance. Greece has managed to strike strategic geopolitical deals with Egypt, Libya and Israel, it has reached out to the Middle East and has successfully convinced its international partners that it can ensure the stability in the east Mediterranean. In 2020, for instance, Greece signed a deal with Cyprus to build the deepest and longest undersea pipeline that would carry gas from new offshore deposits in the southeastern Mediterranean (Israel and Egypt) to the continental Europe. The EU and NATO can no longer afford to have a messy east Mediterranean.
The stability in the East Mediterranean is a grave geopolitical issue. Greece is claiming back its rights. (I am not saying that – international law does. More on that below). Turkey, on the other hand, is suffering from one of the worst economic landslides in its history with reports that, in 2021 alone, the Turkish lira lost its value by 44%. The Turkish people are experiencing unprecedented inflation rates and foreign investment has stopped. At some point, the situation with the Turkish lira was so bad that companies, like Apple, stopped selling their products. (Apple has since restored its sales unit in Turkey). As people were getting angrier, Erdogan did what any sultan does – he looked for an enemy with the hope that it could unite the country against the enemy instead of him. In Turkey’s case, you just had to look down the road and there was your enemy.
Part of President Erdogan’s strategy has been to contest the sovereignty of Greece in certain islands in the Aegean Sea. His message sounds unsurprisingly revisionist: unless Greece demilitarizes certain islands, then this creates a question of sovereignty (this goes all the way back to Turkey’s wrong interpretation of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and the 1947 Treaty of Paris). The response from the Greek government was strong.
Again, none of this is new. But, it is still exhausting and annoying.
You must be wondering where I am going with all this. I am trying to establish context of why the recent registration of the trademark “TurkAegean” has hit a nerve in Greece and, me personally
A quick background on the trademark.
Turkey’s 2022 tourism campaign focuses on its west coast, boasting places like Izmir, Ephesus and Ayvalik, all with rich history and deep historical references for Greece. According to the campaign, the “Aegean Region of Türkiye offers you beautiful landscapes, dazzling coastlines, immaculate beaches, pine woods and olive groves; perfect for nature lovers, photographers, history buffs and adrenaline junkies. Many popular holiday villages and fishing harbors are scattered up and down the coast”. While the United States rejected the application on the procedural grounds, 84 other countries, including the European Union, have allowed the registration of “TurkAegean” to proceed.
By the time the registration became public, the Greek government was caught off guard; it committed to taking action, before having to apologize. . In Brussels, Greek representatives and pubic servants have also been vocal. Eva Kaili, Vice President of the European Parliament, questioned the legality of the trademark under EU and international law “as it is deliberately misleading, presenting the Aegean Sea, islands and coasts as Turkish”. Similarly, European Commission, Vice President, Margaritis Schinas, sent a letter to internal markets Commissioner Thierry Breton, requesting a review of the decision to approve Turkey’s application.
The fact, however, is that under current trademark law and practice, it will be difficult to challenge the registration. One could advertise “TurkAegean” services relating to Izmir or Ephesus for instance and there is nothing prohibiting this. The only question that concerns trademark law here is whether the mark has become distinctive of that party's goods in commerce. Unlike Aegean, the term “TurkAegean” is not a geographical term, needless to say descriptive. In a similar vein, Greece could, for instance, apply to register “Cretalibyan” and, most probably, it would get it. But, it does not because it doesn’t want to and there is also this little thing called being a good neighbor.
Here's the catch, however; the registration of “TurkAegean”, in fact, boxes Turkey out of insisting that the term is generic for a sea. Because of its trademark registration, Turkey can never claim that the term is a geographical indication for the Aegean Sea; there can never be a “TurkAegean” sea. The trademark prevents that. Essentially, any geopolitical claims Ankara may have hoped to achieve by doing this will not succeed. Moreover, this trademark may inadvertently become an asset for Greece as it makes its own claims for establishing the breadth of its territorial sea to 12 nm. Unlike Turkey, Greece is a signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which establishes the rule. (The rule is also established through international customary law). Lately, Greece has been reclaiming its 12nm and, if Turkey intended to use the argument of “TurkAegean”, it would not stand.
It is important for Greece more aggressive in the future. For one thing, it should become more proactive in protecting the names that are tied with its history and language, particularly when they end up misrepresenting Greece.
As I am sipping my coffee, I type in my browser the name “aegeansea.com”. After a long wait I get an error message. I conduct a WHOIS search and I see that the name is registered (thankfully does not appear to be a Turkish authority), the Registrar is an entity in China (that makes me a bit nervous) and it expires in October 2023 (this makes me hopeful). I can only hope now the Greek government notices.
Yes, it is personal!