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Interview of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Kotzias, on Real FM, with journalist Vasilis Skouris (02 January 2018)
JOURNALIST: Minister, good day, many happy returns, happy New Year!
N. KOTZIAS: Mr. Skouris, many happy returns to you, and to the women and men in the audience.
JOURNALIST: You put the women first.
N. KOTZIAS: It’s a matter of courtesy and esteem.
JOURNALIST: Right! Minister, for many people 2018 is the year when critical issues will open up in our foreign policy. You don’t like the ideology of sitting on one’s hands with regard to national issues, but many people insist that it may be worse to actually address some pending issues. Perhaps the international state of affairs isn’t in our favour?
N. KOTZIAS: For three decades I have been hearing that inertia is the best foreign policy. The result is that our country’s influence has waned in the region, while the influence of other countries – including Turkey and member states of the European Union – has increased. It is in practise that we see whether a policy choice is right or wrong. Our foreign policy has two components in 2018. One is the further promotion of our positive agenda. We will take a major step, I hope, in Rhodes this June, at the 3rd Conference for Security and Stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. We launched this about three years ago -two and a half- with the participation of eleven Arab and European states. Twenty-three countries will be participating this year, the two international Arab organizations, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the Arab League, and for the first time we will have three observers – Indonesia, Colombia and Vietnam – who are watching our foreign policy and the experience we are gaining very closely. We already have five trilateral cooperation schemes with countries to our south-east, and we will be adding a sixth, Greece and Cyprus with Armenia, which is a step forward in the intensification of our relations with Armenia. I would like to say that, all in all, we have created fifteen new international organizations that function in an exemplary manner and are based on our positive agenda. In other words, how we can move forward together with other states in our region – or globally, as on the issue of forum of civilizations – in order to upgrade the issue we are handling and our country’s role. I also want to say that we handed on the Presidency of the Global Forum for Ancient Civilizations that still play a key role today – in my opinion, an exceptionally good initiative we took – and we will hold the next International Conference in Bolivia, with the aim of implementing what we have agreed on so far.
JOURNALIST: Can you remind us what countries are participating in this initiative, because it is very interesting.
N. KOTZIAS: China, India – we discussed this in depth a few weeks ago, when I was in New Delhi – Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Bolivia and Peru. What’s more, seven states have asked to observe or, if they can, join. Namely Chile, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Armenia. In general, our international initiatives have not only met with a very positive response, but are also attracting new member states, and we have seen greater interest than ever from states who want to be observers – and as the current Presidency we have granted these requests. This is our positive agenda. Elements of the positive agenda are our overcoming the unresolved problems of the past. The biggest of these problems are the Cyprus issue, what I would call historical holdovers with Albania, and the name issue with our neighbouring country fYROM.
JOURNALIST: Let’s take them one at a time, and let’s look at the fYROM issue, the name issue, which has been the subject of domestic controversy of late.
N. KOTZIAS: On the Skopje issue –which hasn’t begun yet, essentially– there will be negotiations between the two representatives of the two states, with Mr. Nimetz, the UN representative, in attendance. I would say this: our government is determined to contribute towards the resolution of this problem, because, as I have underscored repeatedly, history must be our great school and heritage, and in no way should it be our prison. We aren’t asking for third parties on the domestic political scene to resolve it for us. That is nonsense, because the party that created this problem, who for twenty-five years, together with their partner in government, were unable to resolve it, and who don’t appear to be able to provide even a basic response as the opposition, certainly can’t resolve it. They were tested as the government and as the opposition. These aren’t the right people for the job.
JOURNALIST: I was going to ask you about that. But first, do we have the right conditions, do we have the right moves on the part of our neighbouring country, to open a substantial dialogue and address the substance of the issue?
N. KOTZIAS: I need to tell you two things: as best it can, our neighbouring country has to de-escalate, to do away with the irredentism, just as our country showed and insists that we want this state to exist and we have no intention of undermining it. In other words, restoration of trust in the context of this course towards greater confidence. The confidence-building measures played a major role. When I introduced them two and a half years ago, many sides viewed my proposal with suspicion, including friends of ours in Skopje and in some international organizations. Yet, they proved to be very beneficial to our peoples, and we are preparing a major step in confidence-building measures: the opening of border-crossing points between Greece and our northern neighbour at Lake Prespa, which must and will be exploited for the economic growth of the region. The European Union has promised significant funding that will contribute to the creation of the necessary infrastructure for the development and upgrading of the region.
JOURNALIST: Are we going to the negotiations with a red line? Is there a red line?
N. KOTZIAS: There are no negotiations without a red line. But these red lines aren’t made public, of course. I want to underscore that I am surprised at the statements made by a number of parties and leading figures who are demanding – before the negotiations have even begun – that I publicly state what the red lines are, where the negotiations are heading, what the objectives are, etc. I don’t think it is rational, notwithstanding a party-politics outlook, to want the Greek negotiating team to reveal its negotiating tactics and strategy before the negotiations have even begun. We don't make mistakes like that, Mr. Skouris, because I and our government exercise foreign policy based on the needs of the country, securing the best possible future for the country; a future of peace and stability in the region. A solution with compromises, certainly, but not, as I often say, rotten compromises. Creative and positive compromises. And we are certainly not looking at foreign policy from a standpoint of the country’s domestic politics or the interests some opposition parties have.
JOURNALIST: Will a meeting of political party leaders be needed when the decision has been taken?
N. KOTZIAS: We’ll see. And in any case this is something that is up to the President of the Republic, in consultation with the country’s Prime Minister.
JOURNALIST: Could there be an issue of stated intention for the government on this issue? Because the opposition ...
N. KOTZIAS: There is no such issue. I’ll explain it to you. Listen to this incredible argument: the government should step down because a portion of the parliamentary majority disagrees, has another opinion. First, the government has its way of discussing and resolving the issues. There will certainly be a cabinet meeting in the coming days so we can discuss the matter, and I will present the aspects of the negotiations. But in no way are we crippled in the way that New Democracy was under the then prime minister, Konstantinos Mitsotakis, who was forced to abandon his political line on the ‘macedonian’ issue because, first, Antonis Samaras left with a group of MPs and, second, Evert, Kanellopoulos and Dimas prevented him from having the majority necessary for making decisions. The party that created this problem, that essentially –in reality and formally– split over this issue, is now saying that the government should step down because there is another opinion within the governing majority. I don’t remember Konstantinos Mitsotakis stepping down during the two major and failed efforts that were made to solve the problem. And it really makes one wonder to hear these things coming from his son, who may not have an adequate knowledge of Greek history, but who should at least know the history of his family and of Konstantinos Mitsotakis.
JOURNALIST: Do you think there is any possibility of the government’s having a unified, single position? Of there not being disagreement with ANEL, I mean? Disagreement between the partners in the government?
N. KOTZIAS: I am certain that there will be a majority in Parliament and I realise that some people are bothered because I said the majority will be a majority of MPs, and not a majority of parties. Pardon me. Decisions aren’t taken in Parliament by a majority of parties. We don’t have a party-controlled democracy, where there are seven parties and at least four have to agree. A majority of MPs decides in a democracy. And I think this majority exists. And may I tell you something else? What if this majority didn’t exist? The decision wouldn’t come, and what would we do? The problem remained unresolved for twenty-five years. We would add another two.
JOURNALIST: You’re saying that if the proposal were rejected ...
N. KOTZIAS: We will never show such irresponsibility. The matter will come before Parliament, the proposal will be extremely good and will be supported by the majority of MPs who think patriotically and responsibly on national issues.
JOURNALIST: You’re saying that the government won’t step down if this majority doesn’t materialise.
N. KOTZIAS: There will be a majority. There is no question of the government’s resigning or not. I find this demand ridiculous, because New Democracy should have learned from its history, having splintered over this issue. It is the party that created the issue and it can’t wag its finger at us, the ones resolving it. The same thing happened with the economy. They created the catastrophic economic situation in the country. It’s the same with the national issues. Not only did they fail to resolve them, but they created additional problems during their time in government. Those who created the problems and were incapable of solving them shouldn’t call to account the people who are solving them.
JOURNALIST: Let’s go to the Cyprus issue now, Minister. Under what conditions do you think the negotiations should start again, and do you really think they will start again?
N. KOTZIAS: I remind you that in 2016 I underscored the need for preparatory talks so that we could be fully prepared for a conference on the Cyprus problem. I underscored this to Mr. Eide many times, and he didn’t listen because he saw things differently. I underscored it to all sides. Today I am very happy to see that the UN, the United Kingdom and Turkey, and of course the Cypriot government, with whom we share a common course, want talks to be held on the key subject that has not been discussed in adequate depth and that concerns the guarantees and the withdrawal of the occupation force from Cyprus. And I regard it as a major success of Greek diplomacy – and this fact was accepted by everyone on Parliament – that Greek diplomacy changed the agenda of the Cyprus problem and put the real problem on the table. This real problem –guarantees and the occupation force– has to be discussed by those who violated the guarantees and who have the occupation army – the Turks, in other words – with the other Guarantor Powers and with us in particular. Most certainly, to ensure a chance of success – we don't hold conferences for the sake of holding them, we want the resolution of the Cyprus problem – we need a well-prepared Conference.
JOURNALIST: Do you think the negotiations will begin by Easter?
N. KOTZIAS: I don’t know, because – when the negotiations begin between the two communities and at the UN, and in the manner and at the time they decide to hold them – we hope to hold concurrent talks on the issues I mentioned.
JOURNALIST: Are you optimistic about our relations with Turkey, Minister, or do you think tensions will escalate in the coming time?
N. KOTZIAS: Mr. Skouris, we aren’t prophets and we don’t make decisions for the Turkish government. What we are doing is ensuring stability and peace in the region, creating and forming the largest alliances possible with those who understand the need for stability and peace in the region, and, through our stance and the capabilities we have, influencing Turkey so that its restlessness isn't exported towards the Aegean.
JOURNALIST: I say this because, of late, we have heard mainly the Turkish opposition, but also leading figures threatening even war, or putting The Hague on the table for the first time.
N. KOTZIAS: It is very interesting that the secular opposition in Turkey is raising issues concerning Greek-Turkish relations in a very ultra-nationalist and extremist manner, and this shows that, unfortunately, despite the problems that exist with the current Turkish leadership, this same leadership is showing greater rationalism than its secular opposition.
JOURNALIST: And I say this because we are seeing, in contrast, European powers closing or trying to close off Turkey’s European perspective; mainly extreme right forces that are now participating in their countries’ governments.
N. KOTZIAS: That’s true, but you will also see that many powers that were at odds with Turkey in the past, in recent months, will attempt to restore relations with Turkey, and what Greek foreign policy took care to ensure was that, when these powers restore their relations with Turkey, we won’t be alone and exposed to an unnecessary hostility.
JOURNALIST: But this is the first time Turkey has tabled the issue of The Hague. I heard top officials in Ankara raise the issue of the International Court in The Hague. Do you believe this is a real prospect?
N. KOTZIAS: Anyone who supports international law is welcome.
JOURNALIST: In 2018 we also have the meeting in Himara between you and your Albanian counterpart. Do you believe there can be a package solution?
N. KOTZIAS: The steps we foresaw and requested have been taken, the Albanian side has complied. I mean three things: That whereas the derelict structure used as the church of St. Athanasios was torn down two years ago, today the Albanian government has taken a decision –strongly symbolic, and this has been decided upon– to fund the construction of a duly imposing church in its place. At long last, it issued implementation laws on the issue of the cemeteries where the souls of our soldiers can find rest, and it has granted citizenship to the Archbishop of Durrës and All Albania, a saintly person in my opinion. I would like to add the following: some people say these things had to be done anyway, these were self-evident moves. Yes, but the self-evident was not done for 25 years. They shouldn’t try to call into doubt the improvement in Greek-Albanian relations and how beneficial this is. And I thanked the Albanian government and the Albanian President for the good will they showed, and I want to say here, publicly, that on the biggest problem we feel the Albanians have, that the state of war has not been abolished officially, Greece will certainly respond and there cannot be even a formalistic intimation or an implication that there is a state of war between the two countries. This is historical nonsense and has to end.
JOURNALIST: And what might 2018 bring for the Balkans as a whole, Minister?
N. KOTZIAS: Look, in the Balkans I hope that we resolve the issues with our northern neighbours, as I described, and that we all support their course towards integration into the European structures, their economic development and better cooperation all round. We have begun two major cooperation initiatives – three, I would say – two as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one on the level of Prime Ministers and Presidents in the Balkans: there is the Greek Prime Minister’s initiative for cooperation between Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece; there is what we call the cross-border cooperation between Albania, fYROM, Bulgaria and Greece; and there is the cooperation between the four Balkan EU member states, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. These cooperation schemes are exceptional, and I had the pleasure of adding another at the end of last year – and there will be a major conference in Greece – between the Balkan EU member states, the Visegrad countries, and the countries that are candidates for EU membership; that is, the Western Balkan countries and Turkey. And we will hold a major conference here in Athens on the future of Europe, because it is my firm conviction that the countries that are candidates for EU membership must have these opportunities to learn about what we are debating and express an opinion that we take into serious consideration regarding the future of Europe, our common home.
JOURNALIST: And one last question, Minister. Do you think there is potential for the delimitation of the EEZs with Egypt, Italy and Albania within the new year, within 2018?
N. KOTZIAS: We'll see.
JOURNALIST: You don’t rule it out?
N. KOTZIAS: We'll see.
JOURNALIST: Thank you very much. Happy New Year!
N. KOTZIAS: Thank you.