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Briefing of diplomatic reporters by Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Kotzias (Athens, 15.12.2017)

Friday, 15 December 2017

N. KOTZIAS: This was a busy week. As you know, on Monday we took part at the EU Foreign Affairs Council. On Tuesday and Wednesday, we had the Armenian Minister of Foreign Affairs, with whom we have had some important agreements. On Wednesday evening and Thursday, we had the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Colombia, who met this morning with entrepreneurs and the Union of Greek Shipowners.

Today we met with Mr. Hahn. I’ll brief you on that shortly. This Monday, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan is coming, because Afghanistan is opening a new embassy in Athens, as is Antigua and Barbuda. My Colombian colleague told me that Colombia will also be opening an embassy here. All of this –daily visits from various foreign ministers, the opening of new embassies in Greece, our upcoming visit to Italy this Tuesday for a bilateral meeting– are positive developments and, I am pleased to say, that all of the international initiatives we have taken have drawn numerous requests for participation.

Thus, for example, in the Rhodes Conference for Security and Stability –beyond the participant members, 7 European and 12 Arab countries– we have added, following their acceptance of our invitation, our northern neighbour, fYROM, which will be the 8th European country, and Palestine. Moreover, we have accepted observer status requests from Indonesia, Vietnam and Colombia, for this process we are developing for a new peace and stability agreement in the region. In other words, these are new phenomena in Greek foreign policy: for large states to agree to come only as observers.

Yesterday we had a debate in Parliament on the Erdogan visit. You will have seen it. I think our stance on that was very, very clear. Ask about it if you want to.

Regarding Mr. Hahn, I wanted to say that we had an extremely interesting and creative discussion. As you know, his portfolio is Enlargement, and right now we are very interested in Albania and our northern neighbour Skopje. I underscored once again, and we agreed that all accession criteria must be met.

I briefed Commissioner Hahn on the state of play in the negotiations with Albania. As you know, we held a three-day meeting in Crete, which continued for a little on Sunday – four days, in a sense – with my friend Mr. Bushati, who is an exceptional person. We will continue on 19 and 20 January, in Korçë. We will be driving up from Thessaloniki. It is about a two-hour ride.

There, I hope that we will finish up with the issues we are looking at. I am cautiously optimistic. I don't think any of us are interested in seeing these issues perpetuated with the opening of the process of Albania’s negotiations with the European Union, or want them to constitute an obstacle to the negotiations. Both sides want to resolve the problems that have existed for a very, very long time, or update past agreements so that they meet current demands. Our general thinking is that this process should culminate in a new Friendship Pact between Greece and Albania. Or to put it correctly, that we update the Friendship Pact of 1996.

Our talks concern a number of issues. We are well prepared. The teams we have appointed to coordinate and work together in December are already en route. There is a positive attitude on both sides.

I hope the slogan “history must not be our prison, but our school” – will be put to practice. Our decision is to resolve the problems, and if we do resolve them, we will be firm supporters of Albania’s EU accession course. The problems we face aren’t so serious that cannot be resolved.

Mr. Hahn is also very interested in hearing from us about the negotiations on the name issue and the corresponding process under Mr. Nimetz. Mr. Vassilakis has long led our negotiating team. Our very capable Ambassador, Sofia Grammata has been included, and our friendly country has also added a woman who also attended the negotiations.

The talks were to take place on Monday and Tuesday, but bad weather intervened and kept the fYROM delegation from flying from Skopje to Brussels. They were forced to fly from Skopje to Vienna and then on to Frankfurt, where they caught the train. I have done this a number of times, and is a five and a half or six-hour ride. As a result, they didn’t get there until Tuesday morning.

I say this because I was surprised on Monday to read about the results of talks that hadn’t taken place. And they even insist after the denials, as I read. Some people just make things up about negotiations, results – and if it hadn’t been for the bad weather that delayed the Skopje team, they would have insisted on the truth of their report on the content of the negotiations. The bad weather just happened to spoil their prefabricated report.

We want this European course, provided the people of our neighbouring country want it and we will support it. There are two matters we need to resolve. One is for new confidence-building measures, and I don’t mean just economic measures. You know about the major project we have in Prespes. But, we also need to see indications that irredentism is not a used as a foreign or domestic policy tool in our neighbouring country.

And we also need to talk about the issues associated with the name. As you know, these issues are basically the type of name, the extent of its use, the acronyms and the derivatives. Regarding the latter, we have the trade derivatives, which I don’t think will be resolved by any negotiations at this time, because it is a complicated technical issue. We have a study conducted by university professors, which is two volumes long. Essentially, the issue of trade derivatives has to be resolved by the more competent authorities on intellectual rights, such as chambers of commerce and the like.

And of course we are very concerned about the name. Our friends in Skopje are very concerned about identity issues. I think we can find solutions on all issues. In our opinion, we shouldn’t let these issues drag on. We have to resolve these issues as soon as possible, if there is the will and the way, an efficient and creative way, so that we can leave behind issues that have dominated our relations in the past.

I think that’s it initially. I just wanted to make a short statement, but I said that, since we are all here and Christmas is around the corner – we are going to Italy for interesting talks, and you will have heard what I said yesterday about EEZs, that we intend to reach agreements on them. We don’t need to conclude them all at once. We are talking to Egypt, we have the agreement with Albania that we are looking for a way to implement. And we have made good progress with Italy, and I hope this trip brings us to the end of the course. This isn’t the main or sole subject of our meeting, of course.

JOURNALIST: So the trip to Italy is about the EEZ?

N. KOTZIAS: As I said, it isn’t the main or sole subject of our talks, but, as I stated yesterday in Parliament, I don’t agree with the approach that says we have to delimit all the EEZs and coastal zones all at once, because it has led, 30 years later, to our not having achieved anything. From 1986 until today - 31, almost 32, years. It is better for us to support our positions one by one and extend them.

JOURNALIST: Minister, last year Mr. Hahn issued the Commission’s conclusions on the subject of enlargement, but the briefing of the members of the Council of Minister of Foreign Affairs – which met a few days later – lacked depth. Did you draw his attention to the need to avoid repeating this mistake?

N. KOTZIAS: In the case of enlargement, the Commission has limited criteria with regard to some states. When the Commission report came to the Council, we added the necessary criteria. For example, the report on Albania raised only the judicial issue, but this was complemented with a total of five, which are the actual issues.

We want Albania to resolve these issues. We want to contribute to their resolution and we want our relations to develop. Be aware that there are other countries that, despite not raising these issues initially, are rerthinking these issues in a very strict manner – much stricter than our thinking was.

JOURNALIST: Do you mean a veto?

N. KOTZIAS: I’ve said what I had to say.

JOURNALIST: Mr. Hahn tweeted that Greece is a key partner on the enlargement issue. Would you like to comment? It made a very positive impression on us.

N. KOTZIAS: I think Mr. Hahn recognizes and attests to the reality of the situation: that our foreign policy’s role has been upgraded, that our foreign policy is proactive, and that we are not just waiting for the large states or the Commission to make decisions. Athens has a role, and not just in this sector.

JOURNALIST: Minister, of late we have seen optimism regarding the name issue in both Athens and Skopje. This bears out what you said in your previous press conference: that it can and must be resolved in the first half of 2018. Now, following the first meeting with Mr. Nimetz, are you optimistic personally?

N. KOTZIAS: I think we have to be a little faster in the negotiation process, so that it doesn’t drag on. In other words, the team’s decision was for the next meeting to take place at the end of January. This seems a little far off to me. We started in November. The negotiators fell ill. It is now December, and the next meeting is set for the end of January. In other words, we will be meeting again after three months. If it goes on like this, the targets they themselves have set will become more difficult to reach.

JOURNALIST: Are you afraid of something?

N. KOTZIAS: I have never been afraid of anything. This is well known. And I have no reason to fear anyone or anything.

JOURNALIST: In an interview with the Athens News Agency, Prime Minister Zaev said he hopes and is planning to visit Athens. Do you have any information on that from the Greek Prime Minister’s office?

N. KOTZIAS: I think that our Prime Minister is always open to meeting at international fora with the leaders of other countries, and especially of our northern neighbours. But an official meeting can happen only after we have moved ahead in the negotiations. The meeting must have purpose and content, even if we don’t make everything public. Because there are certain things you have to discuss with someone. But things have to move ahead for there to be meetings. In other words, if an official meeting is announced, you will know that significant progress has been made.

JOURNALIST: (off microphone)

N. KOTZIAS: What I said was that, when the negotiation process ends, it will take two or three months for the results to go through the UN, and then come our friendly country’s applications to the international organizations. Because, 2019 brings an election cycle. So by summer – I’m not saying six months hard and fast, maybe seven or eight months – we need to have resolved the issue. If we don’t do that, we can’t resolve it in 2019, so we’ll go for 2020. It will, therefore, be moved back. I never said that we have to resolve it now, but if they want us to resolve it and open the EU negotiation process, it has to happen now.

What I always say, which is what I said to Mr. Nimetz in our meeting and in the latest talks with Mr. Hahn, is that the government and I place our hands on our hearts and say “we want a solution.” Let them respond by putting their hands on their hearts too. Because if we want a solution, it is a matter of deciding we do. It isn’t a matter of finding the right phrasing or finding a secret. It isn’t a matter of some professor coming up with a fantastic idea. At the table, we all know what the issues are, the method for solving them, what the content is.

Consequently, I think we need to do this soon. But this also depends on other factors. Mainly on the state of mind in these countries, on the resolve of their leaderships to compromise. That is why, as you have seen, I always underscore that this culture, which is the European culture and is the culture of our civilization, the culture of consensus, of compromise, of good, not rotten, compromise – of good compromises, so that it is win-win for all sides. And, chiefly, so that we can escape this prison of history.

We will not make a bad compromise, a ‘rotten compromise’, as I am fond of saying, and I don’t think anyone from the other side wants a rotten compromise either.

JOURNALIST: I want to ask whether the subject of the election of the mufti in Thrace came up at any point during Erdogan’s visit.

N. KOTZIAS: We don't discuss those kinds of things with Mr. Erdogan. For the first time, I would say, and I consider this excellent with regard to Thrace, Mr. Erdogan made the following admissions:

First, he admitted that there is a Muslim population that is not of Turkish origin, but is Pomak or Roma in origin. And in fact –I can’t give you the numbers now, because I didn’t come here to talk about this– I have the sense that ten years from now the Roma will be the majority Muslim population in Northern Greece. This is, therefore, a very important admission, because it recognizes that the Roma have nothing to do with what he would like to say.

The second is his statement that Turkey understands and agrees, accepts that the issue of the Muslim minority is a domestic matter, that no one can play the role of protector of the Muslim minority, and that is why he said, “We aren’t expressing a political stance. We are making a request out of our general interest in Muslim populations.”

I think these two positions were extremely good, and his conduct was extremely good from this standpoint. I’m not saying from every standpoint, because the last time Mr. Erdogan came to Greece he made four speeches that hadn’t been scheduled. Turks had come from Istanbul, even the Secretary of his party, the AKP, was in Komotini. This time we didn’t have mobilisations of this kind, which is why we didn’t see such large crowds. If you look at photos from 2004, it was a different situation.

Another positive thing is that he didn’t visit the villages with majority Muslim populations, as he had done the last time. He kept to the itinerary, and that’s why we didn’t see the four-hour delay we saw in 2004. As I said in Parliament yesterday, I think that, because the opposition said that what Erdogan would do in Thrace was the criterion on which the visit would be judged –they said this before everything else started– this proved to be the most coordinated and cautious official visit a Turk has paid to Thrace.

And since I am often asked, “Why should they go to Thrace?”, my answer is that we have nothing to fear and nothing to hide. We are proud of the fact that in Thrace –in spite of many difficulties, with many social and economic measures needed– the Muslim minority is growing and developing, in contrast to what happened with the Greek community in Istanbul in the 1950s. I and the Prime Minister said this to Mr. Erdogan in person.

JOURNALIST: Again regarding the Erdogan visit. You said in Parliament yesterday that the only change was the interview, which wasn’t given to the Athens News Agency, but to SKAI – the Turkish producer intervened, as you said. Were you informed of this by the other side, or is this based on news reports?

N. KOTZIAS: We had a debate in Parliament over whether this visit was well prepared and well programmed, and I made a comparison saying that the previous visit was neither prepared –and I read out a despatch from that time– nor carried out according to schedule.

The last visit was both prepared and programmed. But there was one change, which was a change that broke the agreement. What was this change? Although it had been agreed that the Greek Prime Minister would give an interview to Anadolu and the Turkish President would be interviewed by the Athens News Agency, the first part of the agreement was honoured, the second wasn’t.

Our information is that, on the flight from Thrace to Istanbul, the President of the Republic of Turkey realised that he had made a mistake in listening to certain people. I conveyed this as information coming from these sources. He didn’t say it to me, but the question remains of how and why President Erdogan broke the agreement.

Let me clarify something: I am not reproaching anyone for interviewing Erdogan, but the question remains. I’m not making an assessment, the fact is, he broke the agreement. Why did he break it? One wouldn’t expect it him to break it on that point, but on another –for instance, that he wouldn’t go to speak in villages in Thrace. He was disciplined on this matter, the difficult matter.

This was the explanation the Turks gave. I’m not reproaching the journalist, to be clear, but the question remains. Because a shift is being attempted as to whether the visit was programmed and planned –which it proved to be in our case– while we are being criticized by those who were responsible for the 2004 visit.

JOURNALIST: Minister, you and the Defence Minister, Mr. Kammenos, have come under attack from media groups and journalists recently.

Can you comment a little on why you think this is happening? Because the attacks on you are at the very least ...

N. KOTZIAS: Stupid – let me say it. I get the impression the opposition initially dealt with the government as transient, as it would last two or three months. Those two or three months became six, twelve months, two years. Three years in January, and it looks like it will last longer. So they are trying to find other ways to undermine or break up the governing majority, and as part of this I think they are mounting a sustained attack on Mr. Kammenos.

The opposition has also seen a number of opinion polls and analyses that indicate that our current foreign policy is held in high regard by the Greek people, including supporters of the opposition – especially the patriotic wing of the opposition. It wants to stop this from spreading from the latter to the former. So foreign policy makes me a target too.

The third is that it is having difficulty mounting credible opposition to our policy, so it resorts to fabrications. In other words, I observed the following process: there is no scandal – including legally; I’m not a lawyer, I’m not a legal expert, but I do have a PhD in Constitutional Law – there is no scandal without a financial transaction.

Second, it based this scandal on a source that proved not to be the source. In fact, this source is from the New Democracy camp; this source that was not the source, as he initially appeared to be, through the government of Saudi Arabia or the royal family. He was a Greek who worked with the Saudi Arabian Finance Ministry. When they didn’t want him to work with them any more, he went to Britain. He decided that it was in his professional interest to return to Saudi Arabia, but a long way from being the secret informant on what a Ministerial Council is seeking.

And I wouldn’t have looked into this if it hadn’t seemed a little stupid to me from the outset for someone to tell me that the royal Saudi family tells various foreigners what it wants. Anyone familiar with diplomacy knows this doesn’t happen.

We asked the country’s competent authorities and they said these kinds of things don’t happen. In any case, a supposed scandal was staged, and because they themselves were convinced that it is a scandal, they then asked, “Who is responsible for the scandal?”.

The same thing happened now with Erdogan. A failure of the visit was staged before it began. In other words, we are dealing with prophetic abilities, magical political abilities the opposition possesses. And when the opposition had convinced itself that the successful visit was a failure, it had to ask whose fault the failure was.

This is a kind of opposition that doesn’t have to do with politics. It has to do with psychology, psychoanalysis – I am very serious about this. The attacks on me were based on the argument that Mr. Kammenos – and they linked me to Mr. Kammenos – criticized the Third Secretary -who is one rank above Attaché- in Riyadh and I didn’t defend the Foreign Ministry employee as I should have done.

What I did, and you know this, is I ordered a sworn administrative inquiry (EDE) into the matter; a sworn administrative inquiry that was concluded just yesterday, and we will see its results. I also sent the case to the Prosecutor. How can I judge the actors? But, what I said in Parliament yesterday, and I want you to remember this, is that the actors who criticize me for not defending a Third Secretary who has been with the service for three or four years, have insulted and abused the highest-ranking officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The latest insult was aimed at our Ambassador in Ankara, whom they irresponsibly said gets favourable treatment from me. I don’t understand. We are talking about an Ambassador who, as I said in Parliament yesterday, stayed in Belgrade during the aerial attacks and has done nothing that shouldn’t make him proud of his stance. We are talking about an Ambassador who was, of course, shipped off to Pakistan for seven years by circles here at the Ministry, and they didn’t bring him back. We are talking about an Ambassador who is bringing us a new Embassy, who designed the wonderful confidence-building measures and who contributed to there being – after many decades – directives issued to all the Embassies. We are talking about an Ambassador who has proven himself in a variety of situations, an Ambassador who isn’t junior, and I don’t know what else ... And he is not the only one they don’t defend – the same thing has happened to high-ranking, successful Ambassadors who don’t belong to our party.

It started with this story of the Ambassador and continued with the theory that “the Ministry knew everything”. The theory that “the Ministry knew everything” had two aspects. First, there was a scandal and we knew about it, and the “knew everything” presupposes that I will agree with their nonsense.

And second, what they fail to see is that the despatches from the Embassy in Riyadh and the emails that I read for the first time in the press are not addressed to the Ministry. We have an amazing phenomenon here: that I read emails and despatches in newspapers, on 11 November in TA NEA, let’s say, I read it on Sunday, 12 November. I came out of the negotiations with the Albanians and flew to Brussels from Crete and there I read an email in TA NEA that I had never seen, and I looked for it, and neither I nor the competent Ministry directorate, A6, nor the Ministry itself were among the recipients. And this isn’t the only document.

You can understand how this is a problem, in any case. Because the supervising authority through which all actions take place, in accordance with the Constitution, the law, the Ministry statutes, is the competent Directorate and the Minister. They should take a closer look at whom the despatches they have in their possession are addressed to.

JOURNALIST: Thank you very much.

N. KOTZIAS: Thank you.