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Foreign Minister N. Kotzias' interview with Alexis Papahelas, on SKAI TV's "Istories" (Tuesday, 21 February 2017)
JOURNALIST: Mr. Minister, thank you for being kind enough to join us for this conversation/interview, and we are taping this on Friday morning, and just a few hours ago there was what I think, at least, was a major incident at Farmakonisi. Let's start with that. What is your take on it? Whether it is an escalation and whether it gives you cause for concern.
N. KOTZIAS: Look. Turkey is always being monitored very closely by the Services and by me, personally, and I think by you, too, as journalists -- and you, as a prominent journalist -- as well as by us, as politicians at the Foreign Ministry. We have many reasons to think about what Turkey is doing. As you know, for a year and a half now I have characterized Turkey as a restless power. A power, that, like 19th-century, post-Bismarck Germany, which became restless and didn't maintain equilibrium in its region. It appears that there are some people in Turkey who think that Greece could be a Syria or an Iraq. I want to take the opportunity of this interview -- as you know, I rarely give interviews -- to say that they should think twice about playing such games. That is, the game that took place at Farmakonisi isn't a game. It is a serious violation of international law, and I think they should know that we will not always show the same tolerance and our response will not be just the one we gave. It will be much tougher.
JOURNALIST: Earlier we had the so-called tour of Imia by the Chief of the Turkish national defence general staff.
N. KOTZIAS: Not of Imia. In the Imia area. He didn't dare do it. This is good.
JOURNALIST: But they were in our territorial waters.
N. KOTZIAS: He wanted to go ashore on Imia, but he didn't. In that sense.
JOURNALIST: You believe he wanted to go ashore ...
N. KOTZIAS: They always like a stroll on the Greek territory. The aromas of Greek soil are always alluring.
JOURNALIST: What would the response have been if they had gone ashore?
N. KOTZIAS: They wouldn't have been able to, because we have taken the necessary measures. As I say, Turkey is a restless power, and this implies that we are protecting Greek territory with much greater care than was the case in the past. And Turkey is making a mistake. It thinks that, because we are going through an economic crisis, we are weak with regard to safeguarding the country's security. They're making a big mistake. It is because we have economic problems that we are taking greater care than in the past of our country's security and sovereignty.
JOURNALIST: Do you think there is some manual, based on which they are proceeding? They do something at Farmakonisi, then they will do something else?
N. KOTZIAS: I don't think Turkey always has a formulated strategy in place for every move it makes. But I do think that it has a basic underlying thinking regarding how it will transform the Aegean into a grey area and then how it will lay claims to that grey area. These are the two steps it wants to take. But often, the incidents we see in the Aegean or the violations on the part of Turkey are carried out on the initiative of local officials. It is no coincidence that the high-ranking coast guard officers arrested after the failed coup attempt last summer had, in their majority, induced incidents in the Aegean in the previous months. Now Turkey has it in mind to trigger incidents at Panagitsa, close to Oinousses, that is. It realised a few days ago that it couldn't do it there, and then it tried to respond somewhere else.
JOURNALIST: Do you share the theory saying that, because we held the exercise at Panagitsa, they responded by doing this at Farmakonisi, and that this will escalate?
N. KOTZIAS: I don't think there needs to be an escalation. Nor can the exercise of our sovereign rights be equated with the other side's violation of international law.
JOURNALIST: I recall that at some point there was a lot of tension on the part of the Turks regarding statements made by the defence minister, who did in fact make some tough statements, that "the Turkish army is useless". What is your opinion on these statements?
N. KOTZIAS: I think the positive thing we had last week, before I went on my most recent trips, was that the Greek side and the Greek Defence Minister did not respond to these personal attacks by Turkey. Because the key players in Turkey have to realise that personal attacks and the attempt to belittle a minister of the government of the other side can't be taken seriously by anyone, but will only be read, even by their own public opinion, as knee jerk reactions. In international relations we don't talk in the way the Turks talk about the Greek minister of defence. And the minister of national defence did well not to respond to them. I want to put this down under the very positive developments last week.
JOURNALIST: I will ask so that we can be clear on this. Are you in full agreement and consultation with the minister of defence ...
N. KOTZIAS: Whenever necessary, we are definitely in full alignment with the minister of defence.
JOURNALIST: There is the highly publicised story of "the 8", which has obviously sparked a part of the tension. First of all, why did we let the helicopter in? Wasn't there any way to keep it out? We all knew during those days that there was a lot of activity and that there was this scenario ...
N. KOTZIAS: I think that if the competent Authorities in the area of Northern Greece that the helicopter passed through had known what was in the helicopter and what would happen, they wouldn't have let it through. But I imagine they were taken by surprise by the fact that a helicopter landed on Greek territory and carried the eight officers, who consider themselves persecuted by the Turkish state, and this was also the ruling of the Greek courts, while the Turkish state says they were involved in the coup. To be clear, we have two principles: Politically, we condemn any type of coup, and we would be the last country -- and especially the Greek Left -- that could accept or tolerate a military coup. On the other hand, who is or isn't a putschist -- and whether he has or will have a fair trial in Turkey or not and has fled to Greece -- is decided by the Greek courts. The political condemnation of the coup does not entail that every Turkish citizen accused by Ankara of being a putschist is necessarily found to be so by the Greek courts. The executive and judiciary are two separate powers, and I hope, at some point, that this is better understood by the other side.
JOURNALIST: You have seen the evidence obviously, the file they've sent us (to Greece).
N. KOTZIAS: They send it to us (the MFA).
JOURNALIST: They send it to you, exactly, yes.
N. KOTZIAS: They always start with the Foreign Ministry.
JOURNALIST: Have you -- regardless of the Judiciary -- been convinced that these people were in fact involved in the coup?
N. KOTZIAS: I won't judge something that was judged by the Greek courts. If the courts ruled that these people can and must remain in Greece, they can and must remain in Greece.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Erdogan said at some point that he had been assured by the Greek prime minister that they would be returned to Turkey. Is this the case?
N. KOTZIAS: I think that Greece in general has no desire to cover for putschists, but, first, as the political leadership, we are not the ones who decide. The courts decide. And, second -- and I think this is very, very serious -- Turkey itself should realise that it has to implement the rule of law, to protect people who are in the process of being tried or are in the hands of the system of justice. It has to guarantee that their human rights and their physical and mental integrity will be protected, and then pursue any other request. That is, when he says he will "reintroduce the death penalty," when there are dozens of undenied reports that people are being mistreated at the hands of the police or other authorities, then I think the problem is with the Turks themselves. I said from the outset that we condemn the coup and want Turkey to become more democratic and more European. And it is also our hope and wish that Turkey adopt an outlook on justice in line with Rule of Law as applied in Europe.
JOURNALIST: But there wasn't any unofficial assurance from our side that somehow the matter would be taken care of?
N. KOTZIAS: What we always maintain is that we have no reason to grant asylum to putschists who are proven to be putschists and whose treatment, in line with European standards, is assured. That is, if Pattakos and Papadopoulos had failed in April 1967 and fled to Italy, a democratic Greece -- its judiciary -- would have had the right to judge them. But if there were a danger of their being tortured and executed -- things, that is, that they carried out the coup in order to be able to do -- I think that Italy and the Italian judiciary would have had another outlook.
JOURNALIST: The Turks continue to insist on this, because I understand they insist on the reversal of the ruling. In demarches they have presented.
N. KOTZIAS: The Turks, as is the right of each side that accuses the other, are using and capitalising on all legal means in order to perpetuate the crisis involving these 8 people. And I think that the Greek judiciary will take into account any new evidence provided by the Turkish side and rule accordingly.
JOURNALIST: What will become of these people in the end?
N. KOTZIAS: I hope they live as they have the right to live, and I hope their families do not suffer negative consequences.
JOURNALIST: Do you think this story with "the 8" has affected Erdogan personally, and that all this tension is related to "the 8"?
N. KOTZIAS: I don't think all of this tension has to do with "the 8," that it might personally -- if he really does believe they were involved in the coup -- bother him that some putschists are abroad rather than in his hands. I think there might be some truth in this. But Turkey's restlessness existed long before last summer's attempted coup and the case of "the 8". Turkey's restlessness has to do with the fact that it has major internal problems, intense contradictions. If Erdogan, who wants to become a president with increased powers and rights, that is, to keep his position -- something that doesn't happen in the case of the U.S. president -- as head of the majority party, to shape and implement government policy and to have rights over Parliament, while we know that, naturally, a presidential, or even semi-presidential system has a clear separation between the executive power of the president and the legislative power of Parliament… Here there is a complication and the failure of the Turkish army in Syria, which has many casualties and is not getting results -- and at the pace the Turkish military headquarters had hoped--, these two things are putting Mr. Erdogan on edge, because it appears they are also negatively impacting the prospects of the referendum, when, in fact, coffins are arriving in Turkey. It is no longer like it was 20 or 30 years ago, when Turkish society was indifferent to whether -- not indifferent, but, in any case, not shocked by whether or not there were coffins. Turkey has changed. The western part of Turkey, I would say, has been Europeanised to a very great extent, and its outlook on war and peace is not exactly what it was in the past.
I think that what also bears importance is the fact that Turkey lost half the pilots in its air force, whether they fled abroad or are in prisons or, in any case, have been discharged from the service. This has resulted in a large portion of Turkey's pilots either being very young, without a lot of experience, or people brought out of retirement, who have been cut off, from the point of view of the procedures, from the types of flights being carried out over the Aegean. And these people are also showing unpredictable reactions on a personal level. And this is why we have to be very calm, with great clarity. Of course, the violation of international law will receive the appropriate response each time.
JOURNALIST: They told me that on the day of that tour, the visit to the Imia islets, there were so many planes that there was a danger of a physical confrontation.
N. KOTZIAS: There is always a danger of physical confrontation when dogfights take place, where one of the pilots has locked onto his target and can shoot it down with the push of a button. And the Greek air force's capability in this regard has increased a great deal, due to either the Turkish pilots' inexperience or their having been cut off from this, as I described. And this makes them edgy and unpredictable. They also have restless authorities in the Aegean, as I described, including before the coup attempt, and they have an edgy political leadership. All of these things are dangerous. And this is why -- as you will have seen -- I talk very little and do a lot. Today we are in consultation with all of the big powers on our planet. We have briefed all of the international organizations, and of course we have made the necessary representations to Turkey regarding the violations of our territorial waters and their conduct. The international environment and international law favour our interests; they are tools we will not stop using. But I want to say it again here, in my interview with you, Mr. Papahelas: They are not the only tools we have. We are neither a battered Syria nor a disorganized Iraq.
JOURNALIST: It's simply that we are facing an issue here, that of constant dispute. Whether with the patrol boat that approaches Panagia or with what happened this morning. It creates a fait accompli -- let me put it that way -- that this is a "grey area".
N. KOTZIAS: There is no fait accompli whatsoever.
JOURNALIST: Yes, if we don't push them back out of Greek territorial waters.
N. KOTZIAS: We push them out and dispute them and submit the facts to the appropriate international organizations.
JOURNALIST: But when all of these things are added up, doesn't it create a fait accompli? That's what I want to understand.
N. KOTZIAS: No, no way. What I want to tell you is, the problem in Turkey today is that this practice isn't being carried out solely by the official government. It is also the inspiration of the secular opposition. That is, it isn't just Erdogan who allows or encourages these challenges to occur. The first instigator of such claims in Turkish Parliament -- and by whom the Erdogan side is being 'carried away', if you will -- are the Kemalists, who, in response to the nationalism being exhibited by Erdogan, have expanded the number of islands and islets they are disputing, depending on the day, from 18 to 160-130. And of course it is very characteristic, as I keep telling international players at international meetings, that among the islands being disputed -- because you have to demonstrate the absurdity with an example-- is Gavdos. Gavdos, as you are well aware, is the southernmost Greek island in one of the westernmost points associated with the Aegean.
Consequently, as soon as you open the map and show any foreign friend, or even a neutral foreigner, and you tell him, "this is what Turkey is disputing. It isn't disputing, let's say, this islet," he can see that this is about old-fashioned neo-Ottoman practices that have no legal, moral or political basis.
JOURNALIST: Just so I can understand, there is obviously some "red line". Is it a "red line" for Turkish commandos, soldiers not to set foot on an islet?
N. KOTZIAS: The "red line" is what we have told them it is.
JOURNALIST: Which is?
N. KOTZIAS: Red.
JOURNALIST: And do you believe this is clear to them?
N. KOTZIAS: There is always the matter of what the poet said: that what the mouth says is not necessarily heard by the ear. I hope their ears are clean.
JOURNALIST: Have they stepped on the red line a little bit with what they've done so far?
N. KOTZIAS: They came close this morning.
JOURNALIST: Right. How does the international player see this tension? Is there some initiative under way behind the scenes, Americans, Russians, NATO, someone else?
N. KOTZIAS: No, no. First of all, I don't think the Americans are in the position, or as willing as they were in the 1990s, to get mixed up in these processes. The Russians certainly don't like what the Turks are doing in the Aegean, but they have their cooperation in Syria. Erdogan believes that this cooperation can be generalised and become long term. I think he doesn't know Russian foreign policy and diplomacy very well. The European Union is aware of developments, and it is the EU that cautions Turkey in various ways. I remind you that it was the European Union that did not accept Erdogan's speech on the Treaty of Lausanne, that one can violate international agreements. And this is because the European Union, from one standpoint, is a unifying system that is based on justice; the means, as a theoretician of European Union systems would say -- are the law and justice. And as a result it has a duty, and also wants to remind Turkey that it cannot violate the Treaty of Lausanne and it cannot violate European territorial waters. And in fact I will reveal to you that we have been talking with NATO, as well, in recent days. And as you will remember, Turkey wants NATO -- which has come because of the refugee crisis -- to withdraw from the Aegean. And we had told them that one of the reasons Turkey wants this is not because it is anti-NATO, but because it doesn't want there to be an international observer seeing what it wants to do. And it is no coincidence that the latest incident, with which we started our conversation, took place in regions 3 and 4, where Turkey has ruled out there being cooperation on deterring refugee flows.
JOURNALIST: Do you believe the NATO presence helps in some way? In the sense that there is a footprint, obviously ...
N. KOTZIAS: I think NATO's presence bothers Turkey, especially on the days or during the periods when it wants to violate international law.
JOURNALIST: Do you think there is a danger of the tension spreading to the south, between Rhodes and Kastelorizo, which is a very thorny issue in our relations? Because as far as we have seen, they still haven't done it.
N. KOTZIAS: Greece always has to be militarily, morally, politically, diplomatically prepared for any sort of incident. But at the same time, the preparation is a reason for its not following a policy of deterrence for such incidents to occur.
Consequently, if we see regions or issues in which some incidents might arise, our job, and particularly that of diplomacy, is to stop us from getting that far. And I would say that, basically, we have not got that far, on many occasions, thanks to diplomatic interventions. We have all of the channels of communication open.
We have no aggressive inclination against Turkey. We are the country that defends Turkey's European path, because the democratisation and Europeanisation of Turkey would be a major gain for us. We keep the channels and the dialogue open, and we make it clear that we will not back down or accept any claims on us.
JOURNALIST: Can you can explain for the average person -- because I think that one problem we have is that none of the citizens understands the whole web of Greek-Turkish relations and the possible culmination of ...
N. KOTZIAS: Not just everyday citizens, but often experts, as well, I would say.
N. KOTZIAS: And every time something comes up, the experts themselves have to rethink things too.
JOURNALIST: I just want us to explain why Panagia is important, why Farmakonisi is important as ... "grey areas", and is it something they have put out, like a pawn, to take it back, or have they put it on the table and it exists on the table now, for negotiation at some point?
N. KOTZIAS: Look, what Turkey has wanted for a long time -- and you know this better than me -- is to divide the Aegean at the median, at the 25th parallel, as we say. It wants not to recognise ... initially, it tried not to recognise legal rights, international law with regard to the Greek islands. Not to recognise that they have a continental shelf, territorial waters, and so on. In the past two decades, Turkey has gone to a new level of 'quality' -- in inverted commas. It does not consistently claim that the Greek islands don't have territorial waters or continental shelf rights, but it disputes the fact that certain islets, as well as inhabited islands, are Greek. And in fact, for a few years now, we are presented in the Turkish press as having seized these islets. Those in the Erdogan camp say to the Kemalists that "the Greeks seized them during your time in power". The Kemalists say that Erdogan handed over 16 islands to us in 2006. They are arguing over something that does not belong to them; an argument that has nothing to do with the real facts. That is, how and in what way did we seize these islands that the Turks are now claiming? What they want to do is dispute and enlarge the package of a future negotiation or a future justification for actions that are against international law. Thus Turkey is trying to dispute Greek law either through disputing the rights deriving from the Greek islands or, when it can't do that, by disputing the fact that they are Greek, even if they have been inhabited by Greeks for whole millennia. It is a strategy that, in their opinion, might pay off in the long run.
This strategy cannot pay off for the very simple reason that international law is very, very clear on the matter we are discussing, and international players know this. It cannot pay off because we respond to their actions -- because, you know, if someone says to you, "this is not your house," and you don't respond that "it is my house," in the future the International Court will say, "yes, but for 30 years they disputed your ownership and you said nothing." This is why, without being provocative, there is an appropriate legal and political and diplomatic response to their every action.
JOURNALIST: There was a negotiation with Turkey, the exploratory talks. Have these talks reached a point where we are close to a solution? Are they continuing, have they been frozen? Where are we on this?
N. KOTZIAS: There was a relative 'freezing' of the talks, because those who participated from the Turkish side were sent to diplomatic posts abroad, and as a result there is a transitional period. But in the recent meeting between the Secretaries-General of the two Ministries, they agreed that we have to maintain this channel of communication. In general, I am in favour of our continuing the conversation ...
JOURNALIST: Has this conversation got anywhere, are we close to the outline of a solution?
N. KOTZIAS: It could have got somewhere, but the Turks back off. That is, at some point they seem to understand that international law has to be implemented, perhaps they understand that it isn't good to keep everything pending, then they think again, they return to their claims. When we say that a country is restless, it is also very contradictory. That is, one will find ten reasons why they want a compromise, a solution, etc. And then another ten reasons that can explain their aggressiveness or restlessness.
JOURNALIST: One question that exists, of course, is that at some point, if there is tension again, no one can imagine a war that will last days or anything like that. Obviously, the international community will put pressure on Turkey and Greece, either to negotiate bilaterally or to go to the international court.
N. KOTZIAS: It would have been good if the Helsinki agreements had stayed in place. You know, I have an opinion on this. The Helsinki Accords obliged Turkey to accept that, for any issue it had, we would go to the International Court in The Hague. The Helsinki Agreement, we facilitated their withdrawing from their relevant commitments, because other political forces believed that it is bad for there to be such agreements in relation to the International Court in The Hague. The only path I see to resolving our differences is diplomacy and Law, and, by extension, if they need to be used, all of the legal frameworks that exist in the international community. This in no way means that at this time -- because someone asked me this -- we are going to the courts or anything else. Our strength -- as a mindset and size of force -- is international law. This doesn't mean that we don't also rely on other types of power.
JOURNALIST: So you believe, as a matter of course, that we will go to the court at some point.
N. KOTZIAS: Not as a matter of course, but I do believe that if I were to choose between a court and war, I would choose the court. If I were to choose between the court and a bilateral, substantial, real agreement and process of agreement, I would choose the latter. And for the time being we are on the latter. With the difficulties involved due to the situation in Turkey.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Erdogan appears to be all-powerful. Is he the person with whom such an agreement might be reached?
N. KOTZIAS: What I have noted regarding Mr. Erdogan is that there has not been a heated incident throughout the duration of his presidency and time as prime minister. This doesn't mean such an incident cannot be provoked by forces in his environment. I think that Mr. Erdogan -- if things calm down a little in Turkey and he gets what he wants; if he doesn't get it, he might leave -- but if he stays and has got what he wants, he may be able to deal with Greek-Turkish relations in a more clear-sighted manner. I argue that the Turks have to take the measure of their region. Their relationship with Russia isn't long term. We saw a few months ago that the conduct between the two states was completely different. With the Armenians they essentially do not even have diplomatic relations, due to the Genocide issue. In Iraq and Syria they are, in a way, in a state of war. The only country with which they have normal relations -- and so they should -- and that supports their Europeanisation, is Greece. If they're a little smart and look beyond their own nose without being restless, I think their stance will improve. If they continue to believe, to sense the region based on their restlessness, great hunger brings gluttony.
JOURNALIST: One issue that does exist is that, if I were Erdogan and saw the international environment, I would say that, if I did something, provoked a quarrel -- let's put it that way -- with Greece, the Europeans wouldn't do anything because they are afraid of the refugee issue. The Americans are in a state of chaos right now, and they need me for ISIS, and I'm on good terms with the Russians, they won't turn against me. Isn't there an issue there?
N. KOTZIAS: It's not that easy, because ISIS has the Kurdish issue next to it, and Erdogan hasn't gotten what he wants on the Kurdish issue. Now, regarding Greece - European Union - Turkey. Turkey has a very major negotiation ahead of it with the European Union; a negotiation that also depends on us and on Cyprus. It's the customs union. The customs union is a matter of 60 to 80 billion euros -- a great deal of money for a Turkey with a slumping economy. And much else. But there are tools with which we can work to attract Turkey towards a European path and, at the same time, put pressure on Turkey to abandon its current conduct. I think that the customs union is an extremely interesting exercise for Greek diplomacy. Customs union between Turkey and the European Union.
JOURNALIST: But if there is a crisis, do you expect anything more than equal distance from the parties I described? America, Russia, Europe?
N. KOTZIAS: I don't want us to come to a crisis, and as a result I don't want to describe what will happen afterwards. I do think about it, but the main thing is for me to work so that we don't have a crisis.
JOURNALIST: Are the telephones working right now with the other side?
N. KOTZIAS: Yes, we also had talks about the preparations for the meeting of the two governments in Thessaloniki, in reciprocation of the Prime Minister's visit to Izmir.
JOURNALIST: But I mean are there also hotlines when there is tension?
N. KOTZIAS: We have to talk about everything. When there is tension, it just makes it difficult to implement everything.
JOURNALIST: Now I want to ask you about the Thrace issue. From what I understand, there is tension within the minority, between the pro- and anti-Gülen factions. That's one. And the second, there have been some incidents and some say that it may be agitation, some car burnings, and so on. Are you concerned at what is happening in Thrace right now?
N. KOTZIAS: Thrace is Greek territory, a part of the Greek state, and we always have to take care to implement all of the laws. Moreover, just as it is bad for any wall to be painted on -- you saw the incident with Angelos Syrigos, the day before yesterday, at Panteion University -- it is equally bad, with another political dimension, of course, for walls to be painted on up in Komotini and where the Muslim minority resides. I think that what bothers the Turks today is that a large portion of the Roma and Pomaks have gained a national Greek conscience, more than in the past, and a sense of difference from the part of the minority that will self-determine as being of Turkish origin.
The second thing is that there is a witch hunt within this latter part of the minority. They have discovered pro-Gülen people -- I didn't know them -- and in fact, as you know, there is also a case of an educator whom they tried -- illegally -- to remove from a school for Muslim children and children who self-determine as being of Turkish origin. I think that, on the one hand, it isn't good for Turkey's internal controversies to be imported into Greece. On the other hand, it shows that this group, which according to many is tightly knit, and which self-determines as having relations with Turkey, and which is said to be influenced by the consulate in Komotini, etc., isn't exactly as they say it is. It shows that there are distinctions, as in every social fabric, and that it has its internal controversies and aspirations.
What mainly interests me in Thrace is the implementation of a decision taken by the Prime Minister. And he assigned me, as a member of the government rather than as Foreign Minister, to implement it. It is the creation of a think-tank, a political agency, that will look at the issues of Thrace's economic and social development. This is a major problem. Because this community is losing a large portion of its youth -- they are going abroad. The women aren't well treated -- they are housebound in the minority families -- we have major spread of drug abuse. These negative aspects of the social fabric are, for me, more serious that whether or not the Komotini Consulate influences the community. Why do I say this? Because third parties can exert influence in the country only when there are social and economic problems. If we revitalise growth in Thrace, if we bring back an attraction to investments, to the population's staying there, then I think other kinds of phenomena or agitation, as you said, will be limited, if not eliminated. Unfortunately, I have sent a letter twice to the Greek political parties asking them to appoint a representative, with expertise, so that these issues can be discussed and we can resolve them as a national problem that concerns everyone and the future of the country. Not all of the parties have responded. I am waiting and hoping they will do so in the immediate future.
JOURNALIST: We now have a new government in America, you did have some initial contacts with Mr. Flynn, but then of course he left in the meantime, things are moving fast.
N. KOTZIAS: I hope I don’t get blamed for it...Did he perhaps leave because he saw me?
JOURNALIST: I didn't say that. What was your impression as to what they believe about the region?
N. KOTZIAS: When I met with the Americans, and we saw them four times, I'm talking about Trump’s team, during the run-up to the elections, and in January, one month ago, the last time, we did not discuss Greek-Turkish relations or the Cyprus issue, as some people may believe. I am not requesting mediation, I don’t aspire to depend on them, and I didn’t ask for their views. I spoke about the region. And I emphasized, because I always try to focus on Greece’s constructive agenda, the vital role that Greece plays, as well as its diplomacy and its other actions, in favour of stability in the region: that we are, in other words, a factor that promotes security and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. A regional player that, without ideological fixations, undertakes collaborations in order to promote this model of stability and security.
The second thing we discussed with them in detail was their “queries” about where the EU is heading. I got the impression that the EU is a relatively unknown domain for Trump’s team, or one of uncertainty as to what it is exactly that the Europeans want. They have a feeling that the Europeans are getting caught up in nationalism once again; the Americans always have this concern about the Germans, and this was evident in their statements.
As for me, when the discussion took place –twice- at the Foreign Affairs Council and at a dinner, I told them two things pertaining to America: First, instead of wasting time trying to figure out what Trump does or does not want -my view is that Trump and his team do not have a clear picture about the EU- they should go and voice their opinion, in other words, plant into the mind of the American leader the view that they would like the U.S. leadership to have of themselves.
JOURNALIST: Is there somebody in America that deals with Greece at the moment? Because before, we knew that it was Biden, it was various others. At this time, is there an interlocutor who is a real player?
N. KOTZIAS: Look, a large portion of Trump’s team deals with Greece because they are Greek Americans, and Greece is of great interest to them. The Secretary of State has not yet appointed a Deputy Secretary of State or an Assistant Secretary of State for the region of South-eastern Europe, a post held by Victoria Nuland in the past. I think that this has to do with the fact that, as is quite clear, they need time to figure out the exact assignment of duties in Trump’s team. They have not done this yet.
JOURNALIST: The Greek government, regarding the Souda Bay, first of all, one supposes that this cooperation will continue. But if there is a request for further concession of facilities or potentially other bases, within the framework of the war against ISIS, what will Greece's response be?
N. KOTZIAS: They will have to say what it is they want, how they justify it, and what is being offered in exchange.
JOURNALIST: Is such a discussion taking place? Has it begun, or not yet?
N. KOTZIAS: It hasn’t with the new Administration, from what I know also through the Ministry of National Defence, no.
JOURNALIST: Do you believe that this relationship between Turkey- Erdogan - Trump etc. is something that could evolve into a close relationship? Because such indications do exist at the moment.
N. KOTZIAS: I believe that Erdogan, as he is a tense individual, has taken it down a notch when dealing with America. I remind you that Erdogan has accused Trump of being a racist, due to the statements that Trump has made regarding the danger of Islam, regarding Muslims. Furthermore, it is interesting that Erdogan was one of the few leaders of the Muslim world not to denounce Trump in regard to the visa restrictions for seven countries. So we have an Erdogan who is more careful than in the past. He does of course have a negative history of attacks against Trump, but he hopes that, in the long term, the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey can improve. I have a feeling that we will not see this type of self-restraint on the part of Turkey for much longer. In other words, with the first move that Trump makes that does not meet their expectations, e.g., U.S. relations with the Kurds, we will have a somewhat edgy reaction on Turkey's part.
JOURNALIST: Is there a scenario on the table according to which, during a moment of tension, either with Greece or with Europe, that the flow of refugees will recommence? Or do you believe that this is not something which is an immediate concern?
N. KOTZIAS: I think that Turkey often reminds that it controls the flow of refugees. Europe, too, should make the reminder of Turkey’s economic dependence on the EU. We don’t do this. If you just read even the Greek newspapers, for example. One will often read about Turkey's ability to pressure us, to blackmail us, to let the refugees through. Very seldom will your read about Turkey’s need for the customs union, for example, which we were discussing earlier, and the economic dependence it has on it, especially at a time when its economy is slumping, with many social problems.
JOURNALIST: As you are aware, an entire body of literature has been written about your position on the issue of Cyprus, that you take a different approach from that of the President of the Republic of Cyprus, and that you were further ahead in the “red lines” that you yourself set in terms of the presence of Turkish troops. Is that true?
N. KOTZIAS: I think that some people were surprised, those who had got used to negotiating having as a starting point for the negotiation - and this has occurred twice in the past - that we cannot put the guarantees on the table with the issues of security because they will never accept them, the Turks will not discuss them.
I believe that with the policy we pursued, and it is a joint policy, I introduced it as a thematic two years ago, in March of 2015, and it was adopted and greatly strengthened by Mr. Anastasiades, it was as early as the summer of 2015 that we worked together and succeeded in having this major issue placed on the table for the first time, namely the security of Cyprus, the presence of occupying forces and the system of guarantees.
And the second thing we achieved, together and in concert, is for the foreign, the international player, the EU and even the British, the Americans, the Russians, etc. to realize the importance of this matter in the Cyprus issue, and even for Turkey itself to agree to discuss it.
But be aware, Turkey knows that this is its weakest point in terms of Cyprus. And it is a point - remember what I am about to tell you – regarding which it will either make a substantial, true compromise and concessions, or it will be the point over which the negotiations break down. So because Turkey has not decided - at least up to the point of its referendum - on how it will truly deal with the issues of guarantees and security, whether it will agree to the elimination of the issue of guarantees and security, it is attempting to introduce other issues in order to side-track the conversation. For example, we left Geneva, where Mr. Çavuşoğlu got up and left, as did Mr. Akıncı yesterday. Mr. Çavuşoğlu left and went to Ankara and started accusing me of not being at the negotiations, and I sent him a response: “I am still here in Geneva and we are discussing the Cyprus issue.”
They have a difficulty. So they suddenly introduce a new topic: the four freedoms for Turks. They have never before raised this issue, stated in such a way. Why did they add it? In the hope that either Anastasiades will be forced not to accept it, so that the negotiations break down over this matter, thus not breaking down over the issue that frightens them, and concerning which their argument is very weak - the issue of guarantees and securities - or for it to be accepted, resulting in having the Cypriots and Greece squabble with the European Union, since it is common knowledge that Mrs. Merkel is unable to accept this issue. She may accept amendments to the customs union, but not also on this issue, particularly during the run-up to the German elections.
Now I see that they have got a strategy of letting issues accrue in the internal negotiations of Cyprus in order to cause the negotiations to break down. The Parliament of Cyprus issued a decision for Greek children, Greek Cypriots in Cyprus, to be taught the 1950 Referendum in History - neither positive nor negative - in the history schoolbooks. It is not for me to judge the decisions taken by the Republic of Cyprus. What it is that I am assessing is that a reference to a historical, factual event became an excuse for him to get up and leave the negotiations, for the Turks to start screaming and why - not only to show that they can easily cause the negotiations to fall apart, but also to say “well, the Greek Cypriots still want the Union and, since they still want the Union, the Turkish occupying forces must remain,” as part of a supposed solution to the Cyprus issue.
I find it unfortunate that a portion of the Press in Greece also made it appear as if differences existed between Cyprus and Greece, even though this journey is a common one, and it is the Turks who would like to make it look as if differences exist between the two sides. Of course, we are always in conversation, as well as exchange opinions, and I think this constitutes the strength of our relationship with Cyprus.
JOURNALIST: Quite simply, what I understand is that if there was a difference it was that you held the absolute position for not a single Turkish soldier to remain from the very first day, whereas President Anastasiades was ready to accept their leaving after a period of …
N. KOTZIAS: No, no. That is wrong.
JOURNALIST: The first part isn't the case.
N. KOTZIAS: How could all the Turkish soldiers leave from the very first day? They are doing a meta-interpretation of what I say..
Let me tell you how the discussion began. I've gone on the first U.S. visit. I had seen Kerry then, Nuland, I saw Rice, the National Security Advisor. I had met with their think tanks and then I went to meet the Secretary-General of the UN. As I was leaving after the discussion with the Secretary-General of the UN, a Turkish journalist asked me, very aggressively. He says to me, “why are we Turks in a hurry to resolve the Cyprus issue and you are not in a hurry?” And I answered him “So if you’re in such a hurry, take your troops and leave.” It was the first expression of a stance that I was personally working on, in conjunction with the prime minister as well as the Services here at the Ministry, of course.
The second thing we said is that these troops need to leave and not stay, it isn't the disagreement of the Turks or other foreign players that support them over how long it would take for them to leave, because we had told everybody that it is well known that in order for an occupying force to leave, a procedure is required, as well as a timetable. But what bothered them was that a deadline exists; in other words, a date exists after which they must all be withdrawn. With the Annan Plan, if you remember, the Turks also discussed leaving part of their forces behind to serve as a base. A base means sovereign rights, EEZ, airspace etc.
The third thing is that I made a very specific proposal, and all of them have it. It was never announced. In terms of the flow of withdrawal. In other words, how can they leave? And what status will this withdrawing force have? As far as the status, I had to talk about it after a year and a half. We said that the flow should be for as many of them to leave as possible during the first week, and for a normal flow of departure thereafter, at a speed that would depend on the technical capabilities for their leaving and the technical capabilities for their being taken across.
Because I remind you that the Soviet Union, which agreed for the occupying force to leave -a liberating force for us on the Left, though legally it was an occupying force- to leave East Germany, the agreement was four years for it to leave. And moreover, instead of their leaving in December of ‘94, they finally left in September of ‘94, three months sooner than agreed. There an agreement was made - and I am very proud of our Ministry - because for the first time we studied all the international agreements, international conventions, the political practices, pertaining to issues of guarantees, security, and troop stationing.
The example closest to us in terms of withdrawal of troops was the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from East Germany. There, an Agreement was made. This Agreement had a name. In the English text, which was not the original because the document was drafted in German and Russian, it said “Stationing Agreement.” In the original text, the German version, I read it in English and then I read the German one in order to assess the situation, it says “Temporary Stationing Agreement” and some of the experts we work with translated it from the Russian as “Temporary Stationing Agreement” in other words what it says is: this Army is leaving but, until it has left, a portion of it will continue to be here, which no longer constitutes a guarantor Army, does not constitute a resident Army, but is an Army which is in the process of departing and which is stationed temporarily. In other words there were 100,000, 50,000 have remained, 20. The Soviet Union did all of this.
We have a difference in the legal system. The Germans at that time had obliged the Soviets to apply German law to the Army, to Soviet troops. The Cypriots are not demanding this. But the Turkish force must leave.
And I say in the proposal that there are three basic principles: One, the troops leave based on a deadline, which must be within a prompt and reasonable period of time. Second, during the course of its leaving, what remains behind each time – which will be smaller in number – is there only temporarily, and this temporary nature has to do with the departure process itself and not with temporary rights over Cyprus. And third, no restructuring. In other words, not to have the army leave and then for one part of it to come out of this flow and for a base to be built in order for it to be restructured. No restructuring. Because then we will be going in the direction of the Turkish plan, of withdrawing the bulk of the force and building a base.
Neither the Cypriot government nor we accept the base, and we have agreed on the departure process, that is, at a meeting in Brussels. It’s just that some people are quick to lose their composure, they don’t have patience. And I must also tell you the following, if you permit me, two issues.
First, they say that Cyprus’ view, which is also my own - but so as not to strike at the government of Cyprus, they strike at me – that the Turkish army has to leave, falls within the realm of nationalism. Is it nationalism to request that the occupying forces leave? I don't know, for the German Nazis to leave Greece, was that nationalism? For the Italian fascists to leave, is that nationalism? For the Russians, the Soviets then, from Germany, is that nationalism? It’s wrong. I will say it again, and publicly this time: Yes, you must be patriotic without nationalism, being a patriot means considering your country to be great. Nationalism means complaining about, cursing, berating another’s country and not accepting another’s patriotic rights.
So yes to patriotism, no to a nationalism that berates other nations, other races and so on, but no to adopting another’s nationalism. In other words, when Greece and Cyprus say that the Turks must leave, and the Turks say “we want to stay”, to consider the demand for the foreign troops to leave Cyprus to be nationalism and not to consider the Turks' wanting to stay - to have troops in a third, independent sovereign nation, an EU member state - to be nationalism, is a big mistake in my opinion.
From this perspective, they said these things for a third party's benefit. The Greek government never involves itself in the Cyprus issue, as far as its domestic aspect is concerned, we stated this the day before yesterday, the leaders of the AKEL and DISY parties etc. said it as well, we have never stated an opinion.
For your information, as a scholar and as an expert on the Cyprus issue, I do have opinions about a great number of issues pertaining to the domestic aspect. I have not told anybody my opinion because I know that as soon as I say it, it will come out somewhere. We only discussed the issue that falls under our area of responsibility. Guarantees and security. Because we are bound by international law, we have become - with three International Agreements, the Treaty of Guarantees, and the Treaty on Security and Cooperation, the London and Zurich Agreements- we have been included in those Agreements and we must say what we will do with them.
JOURNALIST: Nevertheless, at the moment, it seems that the process has stagnated. And those who are in the know feel that nothing is going to happen. Does this hold any risks?
N. KOTZIAS: Look, let me tell you this. First, at the present time, the Turks, as I have noted over these past weeks, are trying to find a pretext to prevent the negotiations from continuing. And it is the same behaviour that they displayed in Geneva. In other words, Çavuşoğlu got up and left, and even made a surprising statement: “I’ve got more serious things to do.”
Though the Geneva meeting had been scheduled for Thursday–Friday, -Eide’s documents exist, those of the Secretary-General of the UN- when we would have a political consultation, suddenly, on Thursday evening, they said, as opposed to the Cypriots and to us, some said, “No, let’s have a technical discussion tomorrow.” And I responded to them that in order for a technical discussion to take place, we must have political talks about what it is we want. And since we have scheduled what we want to do ... So Çavuşoğlu left, as he had planned to leave, because he cannot negotiate, or because he could not negotiate at that time, he did not have the authorisation ...
JOURNALIST: Is it not true that Mr. Tsipras did not want to go with Mr. Erdogan, and it is for this reason that the meeting did not take place at a higher level?
N. KOTZIAS: No, no. To go to a higher level ... Wait, let me finish with the first point. So Mr. Çavuşoğlu left and went to Turkey and said “Greece is weak and is unable to negotiate.” That's nonsense. And a part of the Press adopted this -- that’s the bad part. Now, as far as when Mr. Tsipras will be holding discussions with the Prime Minister or the President of Turkey on the issue of Cyprus. Once we have prepared the documents and the solutions. When we have a 90% chance for a solution to be reached. Because if the head of our nation’s political system meets with the head of the Turkish political system, whatever form this may take in Turkey, and they fail to agree, the negotiations will have no future. And indeed, in Cyprus, quite rightly so, they give me credit for binding the UN from the very beginning that this will be an open negotiation in terms of its conclusion, so that when it breaks down over a certain point, it is not considered to be over. In other words, two bad things would happen: the negotiations will be considered as finished, and the leaders of the country will have failed. This is why I am keeping the negotiations open. Now ... the Turks are afraid. If they are not prepared to take back the system of guarantees, they don’t want negotiations to fail over that matter, because then they are exposed. In other words, what is it that they are asking for? To have the right, legally, to do the same things they did back in ‘74. In other words, to intervene in Cyprus whenever they see it fit. And for Greece and Cyprus, as well as the EU, to agree to this. And they realize that they can't make this work. So they attempt, by causing friction, either to take other issues and to arrive at what they consider to be a better compromise or, if they don’t achieve this, to make the negotiations break down over other issues in which they are not so obviously at fault in the eyes of the International Community.
JOURNALIST: Do you see danger in the process' stagnating?
N. KOTZIAS: It is bad when the process stagnates, and we have to keep it alive. This is why I agreed to a second international conference, “Geneva II,” which both sides proposed in Cyprus, in other words the President of the Republic of Cyprus and Mr. Akinci, the representative of the Turkish Cypriot community, even though I do believe that, until the Referendum takes place, it will be difficult for Turkey to reach a conclusion as to whether it wishes to reach a compromise or not.
JOURNALIST: Are you concerned about annexation scenarios such as Crimea or something similar, or do you consider that to be science fiction?
N. KOTZIAS: Here at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, anything we hear, the slightest word, wherever it may come from, we investigate it. In regard to annexation. First of all, let me tell you that it greatly impressed me that when the Turkish Cypriots say they will annex the Northern occupied portion of Cyprus, none of them makes the same comments as those that were made in relation to the resolution of the Cypriot Parliament on the 1950 Enosis Referendum. In other words, the Turks are trying to create an atmosphere where a reference to a historical fact in books is more dangerous than the declarations they make, e.g., the pseudo-prime minister of occupied Cyprus proclaiming that they are going to go ahead and secede from Turkey. We must emphasize this, that it is they who are scaremongering. Second, I do not believe that the majority of the Turkish Cypriots are willing to be incorporated into Turkey as second class citizens (“poor relatives”) and to disappear and be forgotten about. Third, I do not think that Turkey is interested in the annexation of Northern Cyprus. It is more interested in either solving the problem or finding a way to geostrategically control the entire island. Something else: why annex it? And the last thing. The historical, diplomatic, legal position of Turkey will become very weak - in my personal opinion - should the discussions not go well. I hope, and we are working hard for the talks to go well, that Turkey will not proceed with annexation, at least not in the near future, this is not in its interest and will create more legal issues for them. Scaremongering about annexation is aimed at making it acceptable to exert pressure on the Cypriot side in order for it to subside, as various forces want to see it do.
JOURNALIST: And to conclude, since I am certain that this interview will also be watched on the other side of the Aegean.
N. KOTZIAS: I always speak being fully aware that they are listening to me.
JOURNALIST: What message do you send to Ankara?
N. KOTZIAS: We are the best neighbour they could ever find. I hope they become the same thing for us.
JOURNALIST: Thank you very much.
N. KOTZIAS: Thank you. Have a good evening.