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Interview of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Kotzias, on ANT1 TV's prime time newscast, with journalist Nikos Hatzinikolaou (8 January 2018)
JOURNALIST: We will now be talking to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Kotzias.
Good evening, Mr. Minister.
N. KOTZIAS: Good evening, Mr. Hatzinikolaou, and good evening to everyone watching us.
JOURNALIST: I’ll start our conversation with the Skopje issue, which is currently the hot topic, asking whether – in case of the two countries failing once again, after 24 or 25 years, to reach an agreement –Skopje will join NATO anyway, under its provisional name according to the Interim Accord, in other words, under the name fYROM? Or, in such a case, will Greece again exercise its veto, as the Karamanlis government did in Bucharest? I’m getting right to the heart of the matter, as you see.
N. KOTZIAS: Mr. Hatzinikolaou, our northern neighbours, Skopje, the leadership of this friendly country, are aware that they cannot join international organizations such as those you mentioned, without a solution on the name issue.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Minister, does your response mean that, in such a case, we will repeat what we did in Bucharest? In other words, will we again veto Skopje’s bid for membership in NATO?
N. KOTZIAS: Skopje will not be admitted to NATO if it doesn’t reach an agreement on the name issue.
JOURNALIST: That is a clear statement. I won’t pursue that any further, as I respect the fact that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the government are responsible for handling the matter, and they have to reveal their stance in the right way and at the right time.
Right now in fYROM, in Skopje, there is talk of holding a referendum on the issue. In other words, they’re saying that the political forces made a commitment, in the election campaign, that any agreement reached with Greece would be put to a popular vote.
Do you think they will go through with this, and do you think an agreement reached between Athens and Skopje would survive a referendum in our neighbouring country? And how do you respond to those who suggest we do the same thing in Greece – hold a referendum on the issue?
N. KOTZIAS: This commitment is mentioned in the platform statements of the two Slavomacedonian parties. It isn’t in the platform positions of the Albanian parties. Mr. Osmani, who we are pleased to be expecting tomorrow – the Deputy Prime Minister of the government, hailing from the largest Albanian party – has stated that it isn’t very clever for one to use the referendum, but I can’t express an opinion, because that is a domestic policy issue. If an agreement is reached and then rejected in a referendum, I think the cost for fYROM itself will be higher than anyone can imagine today.
Regarding a referendum in Greece, there is no reason – there is a responsible government, there is a majority in the Hellenic Parliament, and the agreement will come before Parliament, as provided for. I remind those who are currently talking about a referendum that the Interim Accord of 1995, which provided the compound name that includes the term “Macedonia”, that is, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – and I think it was a mistake to put “former Yugoslav” before “Republic”, qualifying the form of government instead of putting another word before the term “Macedonia” – that this word was accepted by the majority of people without referendums and without even going through Parliament.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Minister, I heard you mention a parliamentary majority. So I want to ask whether, first of all, the governing majority – and I’ll move on to the opposition later – is unified in its stance on the name issue. And I ask because, at some point, your partner in the government and Minister of Defence, Panos Kammenos, expressed a stance on the non-use of the term “Macedonia” or a derivative of “Macedonia” in the name that will result from the negotiations.
N. KOTZIAS: I think a mistake is being made, and the wrong question will get the wrong answer. The real question, and not the one being asked by New Democracy, is: Do we want to resolve this problem? Do we want our country to stop being a prisoner of history – because, as I often say, history must not be a prison, but a school – and be the leading factor that provides stability and security to the whole region, reopening social and economic relations with the region to the greatest possible extent and giving the region the potential for greater membership in international organizations? That is the question.
Everything else is petty politicking. We are a government that – providing the other side acts rationally – will dare to resolve the problem of the name, which is a waste of energy in Greece and in the Balkans as a whole. We dare to resolve the issue, and we have no problem taking on historical responsibilities. The problem is, the current main opposition party created the problem – it was already here, we didn’t create it – and proved incapable of resolving it when it was in office. So I’m not interested in its big or small talk. Besides, it is also proving to be incapable, as the opposition, of having a unified outlook and thinking, and we aren't asking it for suggestions on how to solve the problem or anything else. It should just let the country and its responsible government resolve the issue.
JOURNALIST: But now I ask you to please respond to my question. As you saw, I let you set out your stance.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Minister, I could interrupt you and remind you that my question was ...
N. KOTZIAS: Your question is wrong. It is New Democracy’s question. What I’m saying is that the question the country is facing is whether we will resolve the name issue, and not New Democracy’s problems.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Minister may I ask my question, call it what you will? So my question is – and what New Democracy or any other party says doesn’t concern me – my personal question for Nikos Kotzias, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, is whether he knows what the governing partner’s position is in the end.
Because I heard him say, “no to the use of the name, of the derivative of the name ‘Macedonia’”, and then, as he was coming out of the Prime Minister’s office, I heard him say that he puts his trust in you. So I want to hear whether you will come to an agreement.
N. KOTZIAS: First of all, I express the policy of the Greek government, and differing opinions have the right to exist in every government. And it is the government’s obligation to find a solution internally and to secure a majority in Parliament in order to implement its policy. It isn’t obliged to say what ‘a’ or ‘b’ will do.
I just want to note that Mr. Kammenos didn’t say that he disagrees with the use of the term “Macedonia”. He said he doesn't agree with the use of the term “Macedonia” in Greek. This is very important, and we will have to see how this plays out in the negotiations themselves.
Again, what the country should be discussing – rather than Mr. Kammenos, because it seems that New Democracy wants to impute to him a leading role in the Popular Right – is whether this issue needs to be resolved. My answer is yes, it needs to be resolved. Is it good for the country? It is. They left it unresolved for 25 years, Mr. Hatzinikolaou, and those who today are wagging their finger at us and telling us what to do were in government.
We have no hesitation about resolving the problem to the benefit of our people and the region.
JOURNALIST: If you had heard my comments on the radio this morning, you would know that I essentially agree with the stance that it is a problem that must be resolved and that there is an opportunity to resolve it now.
N. KOTZIAS: What the government needs to do is ensure its rational and just resolution.
JOURNALIST: But I want to remind you – you know this better than I – for the sake of the discussion, that we are talking about a geographical qualifier before the word “Macedonia”. And I want to ask whether this is the case or whether we are looking at other qualifiers.
For example, earlier I heard you call the political parties in fYROM “Slavomacedonian”, and I remembered, because I, too, am an “ancient Greek” and experienced the issue first hand back in the 1990s, I remembered that the late Konstantinos Mitsotakis talked about the name “Slavomacedonia”. I also hear that the name “Nova Makedonija” is on the table.
So, a simple and clear question: Are we discussing only a geographical qualifier, or others kinds qualifiers as well?
N. KOTZIAS: The government has stated that it is discussing a compound name for all uses. The name “Slavomacedonia” referred to the Slavs, who are one of the components of the state we today call “fYROM”. The Albanians are directly opposed to any name like “Slavomacedonia”, because they believe it excludes them as a component of this state.
There are also a number of proposals that were put forward by either the Foreign Minister of Portugal at the time, in 1992, or by Vance and Owen, who proposed “Nova Makedonija” – some proposing it as two words and others as one.
All these proposals have been set down and we will put forward our choices – and, as the Ministerial Council, we have settled on our choices – in the talks we will have with the officials from our neighbouring country. I don’t think we should go into a discussion right now of one name or another. I repeat, a compound name for all uses.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Minister, I will now ask a question regarding what New Democracy has been saying: Some people in New Democracy are saying that the Skopje issue could bring down the government. In other words, they are saying that if Panos Kammenos and ANEL do not adopt the proposal you settle on, the “declared confidence of the Parliament” to the government will be lost. I'd like your comment on that.
N. KOTZIAS: First of all, the Hellenic Constitution says nothing like that. As you know, a “declared confidence of the Parliament” is determined in various ways, and not by whether someone agrees on one specific issue or another.
Second, you can be sure there will be a parliamentary majority to approve a good and creative agreement we will bring to the Parliament, and I hope the other side reacts as well.
And third, I want to say that New Democracy’s opposition begins and ends with one demand: For the government to step down and bow to New Democracy’s suggestion that the Syriza government is a brief historical interlude. They expected us to last only two months, and we are coming up on three years since our first electoral victory.
In my opinion, this shows a deficiency – and I’m sorry to say this – a deficiency within the opposition, which, unable to come together and find a position on the Skopje issue, is trying to raise the issue of elections again. In other words, we have a debate over economic policies and they want elections. We have a debate over what the social state will be like, and they say, “you are transitory, you’ll soon be out of government.” We have a debate about national issues, they say, “you will step down.”
I just want to say one simple thing: These forces of the main opposition party created the problem. They were incapable of solving it. Today they don’t want to discuss the substance of the issue, just the formalities/procedural issues, and as a result they won’t do as a future government of this country, because they won’t solve any problems.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Minister, some people are saying and writing – I read a number of such articles, and I have to say I was concerned when I read them – that the process of finding a solution on the Skopje issue might make room for a new party to appear to the right of New Democracy. A nationalist party – let me put it that way – a “northern league” on the old Italian model.
I want to ask what you think of these recent scenarios.
N. KOTZIAS: From the analyses we have carried out to date, we don’t see such a party being created. But I do see that this fear expresses an internal conflict in New Democracy between the forces that, in their way, wanted at times to contribute to the resolution of this problem – and I welcome those forces – and the forces whose positions are closer to those of the extreme right and fear that, if the Skopje issue is opened up, there may be an internal conflict that acts as an avalanche and creates rifts within New Democracy.
That is why I understand and characterized as I did the questions as to whether Kammenos agrees or disagrees – because these are really questions aimed more at rallying forces within New Democracy and suppressing the question. Let me say, personally, that I really do understand this conflict.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Minister, you are a frank person. It is clear that certain parties are gambling politically on the Skopje issue.
N. KOTZIAS: They lack leadership.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Kammenos, for example, is clearly gambling politically on the Skopje issue, as Mr. Leventis has also been doing in recent days.
N. KOTZIAS: We were talking about New Democracy, and I don’t think Mr. Kammenos or Mr. Leventis are in New Democracy.
JOURNALIST: As you mentioned him.
N. KOTZIAS: I say again that New Democracy has an internal problem. I sympathise, but I shouldn’t be responding to questions that derive from their internal problem.
With regard to the political parties manoeuvring around this issue, I want to make two observations, if I may.
One is that it is perfectly logical for there to be different views on the Skopje issue. It is an issue that has troubled the country. It is an issue of great importance. It is an issue of identity, of historical heritage. In other words, every viewpoint that argues for a different name isn’t necessarily extreme rightist.
But this viewpoint makes the following error: It regards us as attending the Baptism today – the child was just born and we are going to baptise it. Unfortunately, the “child” is twenty-five years old, it has already been baptised. It is now a young...
JOURNALIST: It has been recognized as “Macedonia” by 130 countries.
N. KOTZIAS: That’s exactly right. It is now a young lady and wants to look at whether it will take her own name and her husband’s name as well; in other words, a compound name. The compound name was already given in 1995, not by us as the government, not by me personally, but by Greece: the “former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. This was the compromise we made.
As a result, every day I receive – this is interesting – 100 to 200 emails and SMSs that say, “Niko, Mr. Kotzias, my dear man or my not-so-dear man, don’t give the name “Macedonia”. If it were 1992, one could really discuss this. In the year 2018, with the realities as they are, we aren’t baptising something that hasn’t yet been named. We have a country with a very specific name – a name with very specific international recognition – and we want to give it a compound name that clearly distinguishes it from Greek Macedonia.
JOURNALIST: You put it very clearly. Thank you very much, Mr. Minister.
N. KOTZIAS: Thank you, Mr. Hatzinikolaou. If we were in ancient Athens, you would certainly be a great teacher of rhetoric.
JOURNALIST: Your humour is always excellent. Thank you.
N. KOTZIAS: I believe it – that’s why I say it.
JOURNALIST: Thank you very much, Mr. Minister.