Action driven by tension with Turkey
The government of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has asserted it has the right under accepted international law to extend its territorial waters from six to 12 nautical miles unilaterally along all of its borders but to avoid provoking Turkey, which has warned strongly against such steps in the past, Greece’s plan of action has been confined to maritime boundaries of the country’s western half, facing Italy and Albania. Athens and Rome quickly reached agreement on Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) demarcation in the Ionian/Adriatic Sea in June and a month later Greece did something similar with Egypt delimiting their Mediterranean EEZs. Under the UN’s Law of the Sea Convention, a country’s EEZ can extend up to 200 nautical miles from its coastline under certain conditions. Strictly speaking, an EEZ is not a country’s territorial waters but controls economic exploitation (energy and fishing) rights.
Issue not without controversy
The Greek-Albanian announcement resulted from Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias’ visit to Tirana October 20 to meet with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama. The issue had also been discussed extensively with Mitsotakis when Rama visited Athens in September as a speaker at a conference organized by The Economist. Following the Dendias Tirana meeting, Rama noted “That issue will not be at our discretion, nor that of the Greek side, but of international justice and in that way, we shall focus on our economic (and) regional cooperation.”
There is little question that the issue will be resolved in a businesslike manner now that both Greece and Albania are NATO allies and while Tirana is a candidate for EU membership, which will require Athens’ approval. The irony in all of this is that Prime Minister Rama, when in opposition in 2009, was the driving force behind the constitutional court challenge that rejected the bilateral deal reached at that time.
An open question remains as to what position Turkey will take in connection with this agreement, as the country has shown a strong interest in using Albanian ports as military bases and both countries remain NATO allies. As an EU member, Athens has a commanding position regarding Tirana’s future EU accession; Ankara could never offer Tirana anything remotely close to the power of Greece’s political support on that issue. Be that as it may, some in Albania have accused Greece of using its EU membership to “blackmail Albania” over the agreement.
Other lingering bilateral problems include rights of the Greek minority in Albania and concerns Albania has about the treatment of thousands of its citizens in Greece, compounded by severe transit restrictions stemming from the COVID-19 crisis.
A small group of Albanians expelled from Greece at the end of World War II for collaborating with Nazi occupiers continues to demand the return of confiscated properties. Dendias’ convoy in Tirana reportedly had to divert around some small groups of demonstrators opposed to the visit as well as those protesting on other bilateral issues.
While in Tirana, Dendias announced that his government would take steps to end the almost forgotten state of war between the two countries that dates from 1940 when Italian forces attempted to invade Greece through Albania and were rebuffed.