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Highlights of Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Dendias’ interview on SKAI TV’s Apotypoma with reporter P. Tsimas, and former Minister of Defence E. Apostolakis as guest (18 October 2019)
JOURNALIST: We have with us today the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Nikos Dendias, and the former Minister of Defence, retired Admiral Evangelos Apostolakis.
Good evening, Mr Dendias.
N. DENDIAS: Good evening, Mr Tsimas, thank you for inviting me.
JOURNALIST: Let me ask this straight away: From day one, i.e. as soon as Erdogan invaded Syria, the question has been what does this mean for us. Meaning, could this – seeing he is also preoccupied with the troubles over there – soften him, make him more restrained towards Cyprus and the Aegean, or will it be the other way around and we’ll be faced with a more aggressive Turkey? Simply put, what are your expectations, your estimations?
N. DENDIAS: To start with, I do not concur with the view that if he’s occupied on one front he not paying attention to the other. Besides, north Syria is a front on land, while our disputes with Turkey mainly relate to the sea, and the same goes for the Republic of Cyprus.
JOURNALIST: The argument was not as much operational as it was political, meaning that if it gets what it wants from Syria, it might leave us alone.
N. DENDIAS: Let me remind you of the theoretical 2.5-war approach that had once been posited by the deep state of Turkey, as well as the latest illegal actions by Turkey in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Republic of Cyprus. But no, on the contrary, a country that demonstrates a mentality of intervention, invasion and violation of international law troubles me. I would rather have a neighbour that operates completely differently. But, of course, you don’t choose your neighbour, you find them.
JOURNALIST: In the last few years – I think it was a fixed policy of many governments, one after the other – Greece has been trying to build against Turkey, as Turkey is becoming more aggressive in the last few years, a security net, based on its upgraded relations with the USA. Mr. Pompeo was here in Athens on Sunday 6 October, the same night that the infamous Trump-Erdogan phone call that started it all took place. So, have we placed all our eggs in the wrong basket? Meaning, if Erdogan shifts from Syria to the Aegean, can we expect what we actually expect from the Americans or will they tell us exactly what they told the Kurds?
N. DENDIAS: As Minister of Foreign Affairs, I am obligated to tell you that our relations with the USA and our latest deal with the USA – which I think has been reckoned with, if not endorsed by the wider Greek political system-– is not a deal against Turkey.
It is a deal with a Greek perspective, a deal with a US perspective and a deal that we believe is a stability factor for the region. It is not a deal against another state. You realise that it would be a huge diplomatic faux pas for Greece to do such a thing.
JOURNALIST: That’s how you must say it, but I can ask it however I like.
N. DENDIAS: Other than that, of course, I haven’t got the slightest doubt that it operates – how shall I say it nicely – as a stability factor in the region. How will this stability factor operate in the event of a crisis? That remains to be seen. I believe that the US administration, and I don’t necessarily include the President in this, has a view on this subject.
But in any case, the question is reversed: Does it benefit the country for it to exist or not? Are its chances better if it exists or not? Do the interests of a superpower lie with a country it has such an understanding with or a country it doesn’t have such an understanding with? I think that all these questions have more or less been answered.
JOURNALIST: Do you agree with this, Mr. Dendias, meaning that if things get to that point worse comes to worst… [war], in reality we are alone?
N. DENDIAS: I would agree with the previous statement, that things should not get to that point. And I think that a country with a historical perception and an intelligent leadership may avert things from getting to that point. It would be an indication of our own failure to allow an escalation that would bring us to that point.
N. DENDIAS: Of course, the negotiations [on the deal with the USA] were already under way. We worked on them intensively; just the fact that I met with Mr. Pompeo three times in two-and-a-half months says something.
JOURNALIST: He seems likeable.
N. DENDIAS: He is!
JOURNALIST: Is there something – because it is a topic of concern for every Greek – we can do? Because you said it was possible, after this adventure or through this adventure, for Turkey to turn towards us more aggressively, and the limitations and conditions based on which we can expect assistance from the US or not are those you talked about, nicely or not. Is there something we could do that we have not?
N. DENDIAS: I want to be absolutely honest with you; I always say it, I say it clearly, I say it to society, I say it to our friends, and I say it to our not-so-much friends. We ought to have self-confidence. Great self-confidence actually. We are not a weak, small regional country relying on the wind, luck or the wants of anyone coveting us. We have capabilities, we have tremendous capabilities; we have survived thousands of years as a society and we have managed to get to where we are. I honestly feel that we view Turkey as equal, at eye level. With respect, naturally, and with the wish that all goes well, so that it is able to reach the European acquis, to have its citizens enjoy the same human rights enjoyed by European citizens, the same standard of living enjoyed by European citizens.
I wish all this for Turkey. To become a region of peace and stability. But we view Turkey as an equal. We can improve our capabilities, we can deepen our alliances; however, we are a country that has accomplished many significant things.
Let me tell you something important I always say – because the average Greek you meet on the street will tell you that Turkey has a very successful foreign policy. Says who? The doctrine of Turkish foreign policy has been “no problems within our region.” And it has accomplished the exact opposite: to create problems throughout its region. It has no friends or allies anywhere.
And allow me to say this: in contrast, Greece is the one that managed to get Cyprus into the European Union with the Cyprus issue still unresolved. Whose foreign policy is successful and whose is not?
[news story aired]
JOURNALIST: Do you share the view that we are at risk of facing ISIS again?
N. DENDIAS: I think no one would find grounds to disagree; the conditions that could potentially allow a resurfacing are there. We cannot know if this will happen or not, but the conditions are there. And liberating a large number of prisoners from the camps that belonged to the Kurds also provides the grounds for such a resurfacing.
Now, how this might happen, under what conditions and when, remains to be seen. However, it is evident that this situation is much worse for combating ISIS compared to what we had.
[news story aired]
JOURNALIST: The view is not to expect an Erdogan who, for any reason, would be more restrained towards Greece, meaning we will never again meet the Erdogan from back in 2002, 2003, 2004. I don’t know whether you share this pessimistic view, but we must be prepared for the worst.
N. DENDIAS: To start with, we cannot begin an analysis by looking at the other side. We look at what our interests are, what our views are, whether they correspond to international law, and which forces globally are willing to support such a course. And we try not to veer from international law – which has always been a point of reference for our country, we do not proceed with analysing our interests based on our own law, but we always match what we are saying to international law. And we believe we are subject to international law. On the other hand, we forge alliances on these foundations and this understanding among states.
And we have an interlocutor who does indeed go through various stages and is difficult at times, there’s no argument there, but, I repeat, we are obligated to always try to find ways to conduct dialogue. This is Greece’s stance. Without, however, let’s be clear on this, ceding even an inch of our national interests.
It’s been said many times – and I don’t like it, but I’ll say it – that there are clear red lines; the country will adhere to them and that’s that. But it will not miss any chances if we can reach an understanding.
I hope, I think the current Prime Minister is the best outcome for Turkey if it is looking for an honest interlocutor on the other side. But I repeat: in the context of international law and mutual respect of national interests.
JOURNALIST: Right. That’s the fixed Greek line. I don’t know of a government in the last few years having another view. We are obligated to talk.
N. DENDIAS: Do you know how beneficial it is to have a national view on all these things?
JOURNALIST: The question is, what do you do if things end up in a way that does not allow discussions? Meaning, if things don’t go well in Cyprus, where we’ve already had a violation of the sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus, or if something happens at Kastelorizo; if we find ourselves in a situation where we can’t talk, no matter how badly we may want to?
N. DENDIAS: I told you before. And I don’t like saying it triumphantly or using vocabulary that was used recently – and I’m not referring to Admiral Apostolakis, who has always been very careful. The country has a Constitution; every one of its governments swears faith in and dedication to certain things. We cannot leave Greece in a worst spot than what we received it. We will always do what we have to.
This is the government's will, this is the view of almost the entire Greek society and I am certain this is the view of most, if not all, the opposition parties, so consequently, we’ll do what we have to do.
However, without bluster, without raised voices. Clear explanations to our interlocutors, the Turkish side, about what our interests are, what our view of international law is, what our red lines are. And a constant and ongoing effort to find common ground.
[news stories aired]
JOURNALIST: I tried to outline this change. Mr. Apostolakis, you’ve lived through it, because in essence, as soon as Erdogan’s policy started changing, i.e. going back to the old stories with the Aegean, you were Chief of Navy, then Chief of the Hellenic National Defence General Staff and then Minister of Defence; so you’ve lived through it on an operational level and not just a theoretical one. Did you feel this change? Meaning, did something change from one day to the next?
Does all this frighten you, Mr. Dendias, meaning that you may need to manage similar crises?
N. DENDIAS: I have served as Minister of Defence.
JOURNALIST: Yes, I know.
N. DENDIAS: To tell you the honest truth, any Greek would rather have Belgium, or Luxembourg, or a similar country at its borders.
JOURNALIST: That’s true.
N. DENDIAS: But it didn't happen.
JOURNALIST: We’re fine where we are. It’s just that we have troubles.
N. DENDIAS: We do have troubles. But let me say it again: I have immense confidence in the country, the society, its capabilities and the armed forces. Let me tell you without any compliments, besides I’m not in that Ministry any more, I had tremendous human resources when I was Minister of Defence. Tremendous human resources, amid the difficulties – I think the Admiral was modest. I think these people deserve praise.
I think we can even surprise ourselves with our capabilities. Naturally, we must be on the same page: it would be extremely naive, stupidity I’d say, to militarise our tensions with Turkey. This is probably what the other side has been attempting many times: to lead us to such a confrontation that would eventually allow our allies and our friends in Europe and the USA to see us both as the disputers of the SE Mediterranean, who must be dealt with at equal distances.
JOURNALIST: In theory, the next step, given they view us as disputers, is to tell us to sit down and resolve everything politically.
N. DENDIAS: Yes, but under conditions; conditions that veer from the perennial point of reference of Greek politics, whether they concern our disputes with Turkey or the issue with Cyprus. What are they? International law, the Treaties in force and the Security Council resolutions.
We are anchored on this way of addressing the issues. It would be a huge mistake – in the context of the temptation of escalation, on which the Admiral expressed his opinion very well before – to leave this stable position and set off towards a sea that takes us nowhere.
However, this is not a position we hold out of fear, because we fear what is standing opposite us. This is Greece’s DNA. Greece is not a Balkan country any more, it belongs to Europe, it belongs to the core of the European Union, so it has actually become a European country in the Balkans. This is what it exudes, this is its strength.
It is puzzled by Turkey because Greece has gone beyond: it supported and helped, to the extent possible, Turkey’s course towards the European Union, honestly and without the Greek-Turkish differences having been resolved.
JOURNALIST: Yes, but unfortunately the difference is that Turkey is no longer much interested in this.
N. DENDIAS: Turkey is veering from this course. Greece ought to monitor it to see where the Turkish policy will rest, what it will try to do. Because Erdogan keeps changing, let’s not fool ourselves.
JOURNALIST: You know, the question is always the same. Lately, it has emerged from public discussions from many sides that we have an actual pending issue from the 70s, a real pending issue. There are Turkish claims in the Aegean, there are issues regarding the delimitation of the continental shelf and more. This discussion has been dragging on and no one is rushing to find a solution. No one is saying “let’s resolve it” or “let’s take it to the International Court.” Has the time come to change this or will we keep it as is?
N. DENDIAS: At times, there have been talks about confidence-building measures. This was in the beginning of 2000. It was said that on some issues, we were close to approaching views. I’m not saying we have resolved them, for God’s sake.
Mr. Tsimas, we are always open to dialogue and discussion. But let me say it again: dialogue cannot always take place as the Turkish side attempts most of the time, based on the principle of fairness and this, that and the other. We are anchored on international law, we are anchored on the Treaties, we are anchored at the point where a modern European country must be anchored.
That’s what we are broadcasting and that’s the foundation on which we talk. We are always prepared to talk with Turkey. Always, even at the worst moment. But within what context? We will not talk outside a context. We have clarified this very well.
We even told them again recently, during the talk between Kyriakos Mitsotakis and President Erdogan. I then met with Mr. Çavuşoğlu, whom I know very well. We sat and talked for three-quarters of an hour off camera, without it being an official discussion.
JOURNALIST: What was your impression? I don’t mean about the people, you know them. I mean about where we’re headed, what lies ahead.
N. DENDIAS: Let’s not kid ourselves. No one – however personal their relations may be – lays their cards on the table easily. It is an exploratory approach. We’ll see where it goes. What Turkey is doing is not helping us; this story with Syria and the way it is handling things exudes a mentality that is not helping. The story with Cyprus, as it is handling it, and the violation of the sovereign rights are not helping.
Our position towards Turkey has always been, and I also say this privately, “Why are you doing these things? They are not leading you to a better situation.” In my humble opinion – and I’m not the one who will force them – the future of Turkey is different to an exuding militarism, it’s different to an Islamification that hides some sort of militarism inside it.
Erdogan may have started off with nationalistic roots from Erbakan, he may have wanted to bring back the religion that Kemal had expelled from Turkish political life, but he came off as a modernist.
Now, of late, he is at risk of appearing as reacting against anything modern in Turkey. I don’t think this is good for anyone and we tell them this. We tell them clearly and honestly and openly, as friends who want the best for their potential friend. But I don’t think they’re hearing much.
JOURNALIST: The question that remains is whether the time will ever come for us to sit down and talk. Meaning to resolve our real differences, what we accept as real disputes.
N. DENDIAS: I hope so, Mr. Tsimas.
JOURNALIST: There’s always the feeling that if we resolve them, we will not reasonably get what we consider fair for us and, consequently, it would be best if we never resolved them, because we will find ourselves in a situation we would not like.
N. DENDIAS: This – and I’m not saying you believe it, you simply mention it – is a short-sighted view. Of course, every negotiation has some...
JOURNALIST: It’s just that I believe this short-sighted view was for years the view guiding the Greek state.
N. DENDIAS: However, it is not the view of the Mitsotakis government, to be clear. I don’t think it was Konstantinos Mitsotakis’ view either, to be fair. And I think Kostas Karamanlis had an open view and I think Kostas Simitis did too. I think Turkey has often not helped us to accomplish something better.
JOURNALIST: There’s no doubt there.
N. DENDIAS: Let me say it again: where you’ll end up is not the only important thing – there is also the context of rules based on which you will attempt to explore the solution. If we agree that they are the rules of international law...
JOURNALIST: It would be better if Europe helped a bit, but tonight I’m seeing that Europe is a bit restrained. Meaning it is afraid of a refugee wave; afraid of losing a trade and economic partner.
N. DENDIAS: But tonight is the tremendous closed dinner, without mobile phones even, which will focus on: Brexit, enlargement, the refugee crisis. I cannot think of a more crucial dinner among European leaders.
JOURNALIST: That’s true.
N. DENDIAS: At the moment, Europe has many issues to resolve.
JOURNALIST: It is in a truly tough spot, but anyhow. Mr. Apostolakis, I don’t know if you oppose what's been said.
N. DENDIAS: If you'll allow a small intervention. Actually, we recognise the issue of the continental shelf as a Greek-Turkish dispute. That’s our line.
JOURNALIST: One of the major concerns lately, especially in the last nine days, has been whether the developments in Syria will create a new refugee wave. We already recorded increased inflows in September.
N. DENDIAS: However, they’ve been down over the last few days.
JOURNALIST: They’ve been down in the last few days because the new refugee waves, meaning the people leaving from there now, are Kurds, who are obviously not passing through Turkey to come to Greece, they’re not going to Turkey, they are returning back south, through Syria, and they’ll leave from there if they do. However, we had an issue...
N. DENDIAS: Yes, a serious one. A very serious one and that’s why Kyriakos Mitsotakis asked for it to be included in the Summit agenda. It was discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council. We had a significant success. A specific paragraph about the refugee/migrant crisis – which pertains to supporting the countries facing problems, i.e. Greece – was included in the conclusions.
JOURNALIST: So you’re saying we got something out of it.
N. DENDIAS: I think that under the circumstances – with the Council having to handle Syria, having to handle the issues with Brexit, having to handle the violation of the sovereign rights of the Republic of Cyprus – to add the refugee issue and get something out of it is important.
[news story aired]
JOURNALIST: An image can sometimes be misleading. Because an image many be pleasant. You see faces, you see children laughing, but Samos is experiencing a drama. This population ratio of 7,000 residents / 6,000 refugees and migrants in a camp, which is normal by one-third and out of control by two-thirds, with a road separating the camp from the town, is a truly unviable situation. I don’t know how this situation can change.
It cannot continue, though. Even if there is no major increase in inflows, this cannot continue.
N. DENDIAS: I think it was established and I think Mr. Mitsotakis clearly expressed his opinion on this. The migrant issue is a huge topic. I don’t want to get into it. However, it is true that the islands of the eastern Aegean are experiencing an untenable situation.
JOURNALIST: I have never understood why there was such an agreement made between Europe and Turkey regarding the geographical constraint, meaning that for people to be returned to Turkey they must not have left the islands.
But for 5, 4 years, we have seen no returns. And it’s ridiculous.
N. DENDIAS: The number of those returned by the previous government is 1,800.
JOURNALIST: 1,800 in 3.5 years. That’s nothing. Since we won’t be returning them, why are we keeping them on the islands and pressuring the islanders? This is truly what everyone is wondering, Mr Apostolakis.
JOURNALIST: Tonight, none of you seem to want to enter into a political dispute.
N. DENDIAS: On national matters? These are national matters.
JOURNALIST: Ladies and gentlemen, if you’re still with us at this hour, it is an evening full of developments. It is an evening when the landscape in the major issue of the last few days, the Turkish operations in Syria, is shifting. The Vice President of the US administration and the Secretary of State, Mr. Pompeo, were in Ankara and they announced an agreement. There will be a 120-hour truce. During this truce, the Kurdish forces will withdraw from the borders, so that a security zone can be established.
Turkey announced it will respect the truce. However, it is not calling it a truce. Mr. Çavuşoğlu said that it is not a truce because they don't recognise the legality of the interlocutor, i.e. the Kurdish forces, but there will be a ceasefire.
We have not had any official reactions yet from Damascus or Moscow. We only have a statement by a Kurdish politician on an Arab channel who said that the democratic forces in Syria, meaning the Kurds in Syria, accept this agreement and will just stay on alert to react and defend themselves if they are attacked.
This is all we know up to now. We will have to wait for hours, days to see how this will end. What we are already seeing, though, is that during a major crisis, we had a Turkish President and a US President resolving the issue between them, with Europe remaining stunningly silent. With NATO remaining entirely uninvolved. Don’t you feel we are caught in what seems to be a security gap?
N. DENDIAS: You are being a bit unfair to Europe.
N. DENDIAS: You are being unfair in that it had a clear stance. It condemned. It started the imposition of sanctions, i.e. the arms embargo, etc.
JOURNALIST: Europe did not manage to reach an agreement. It’s just that every country, one after the other, announced they were stopping the sale of weapons.
N. DENDIAS: Yes, but based on a common decision. It’s not that every country decides. There’s a common decision that is implemented legally, because due to Turkey’s participation in NATO, any other approach would lead to a clash. I’m not going to get into a legal analysis, but there would be legal problems.
The essence, however, is that Europe, with all that’s good and bad – in my opinion, Europe is the most ambitious undertaking in the history of the planet – lagged behind a bit. It is not one person who decides. It is not one person picking up the phone. There are Councils upon Councils, the Council of Ministers, the Summit Meetings. But Europe took a stance; a clear stance and condemned it. This is important.
It condemned an illegal operation by Turkey on the soil of another country, Syria. Now it remains to be seen whether this agreement will stand. Thirteen points have been released to the public. We have to see which of these will be implemented and how they will be implemented. One should not be hasty with these things. We must be extremely careful; extremely careful. That’s the only thing we can do. Hope for the best, for our region and for these people. Human lives are at stake and from then onwards...
JOURNALIST: Correct. You are absolutely right in what you’re saying. Human lives are at stake, but there are also extremely tormented people there.
I’d say that with everything we know so far, Erdogan seems to be winning; to start with, he’s winning in the interior because he has undoubtedly enhanced his power in the interior, his dominance in the domestic political scene, where he was having difficulties. And he got at least a part of what he asked for. A zone at his borders without a Kurdish political entity.
N. DENDIAS: That’s true. But let me give you the response. We were saying before, when we were discussing it outside, that he managed to give the absolute victory to Assad in Syria. Let me point out that one of the aims of Turkey was for Assad to leave. At the moment, Assad is all-powerful. So he has an enemy at the southern borders who will not easily allow their differences to be bridged. He has allowed Russia to assume a truly regulatory role in the area. It controls the air, it controls the information.
You do not call these a great success, to be honest. Meaning, I’d be more wary as to what Turkey will eventually gain out of this. And I believe, based on what was said before, that if there is a clear benefit, it will be at the level of Turkish society, which is still at the stage of development and is fairly easily mesmerised by such things. A more progressive society, a more advanced society, would not like these things very much.
JOURNALIST: It would not like army men much.
N. DENDIAS: Not much. It would see the impact on its economy. Turkey’s Achilles heel is its economy. I remind you that we see the armed forces, tanks entering. That’s all great. Do you remember the Soviet Union and how it collapsed with all that tremendous military force?
It’s the economy that is holding up countries at the moment. The Turkish economy has grown, but it’s at a dangerous point. Operations are certainly not helping. Billions are being thrown out the window through all this. I’m not at all certain that the final result...
JOURNALIST: What you’re saying also explains why Erdogan could not handle the US sanctions, whatever these may have been. The economic sanctions.
N. DENDIAS: Of course he couldn’t handle them. Nor the European. He could not handle them. Turkey must have a constant inflow of short-term investments to be able to stay afloat and has forced its central bank to keep printing money so as to constantly create demand, so the Turkish economy may continue to demonstrate positive growth rates.
And let me tell you, Mr Tsimas, seeing I am the Foreign Minister, I am not saying this because I am happy. The Greek government wants a stable and prosperous Turkey. That is our target. The rest is observations. Don’t think that we are wishing for the misfortune of our neighbour. We would rather have a thriving and powerful neighbour we can reach an understanding with.
JOURNALIST: As a citizen living on this planet, I do not feel very safe. I would prefer a planet with certain collective security structures where things could be discussed and certain rules could apply. Not for two people to talk on the phone and be able to start and stop wars.
N. DENDIAS: However, there is a state in the USA, there is administration beyond the President. Let’s call it a deep state, without it being positive or negative, which in reality continues to exercise politics. Let’s not kid ourselves with the tweets, etc. The President is always the President, but there is also...
JOURNALIST: And let me ask a last question. You’ve said it, but let’s clarify it, so that I may also understand it. Do you believe that this development, provided things go as announced today, is a positive development? Is it better this way?
N. DENDIAS: Obviously it’s better this way, rather than human lives being lost, than military operations under way, than having refugees, than having another war in our region. That's obvious.
Other than that, it is too early to tell what this thing will mean. We must wait for the dust to settle, to see everything, to see how it will work out; and all these things need much self-restraint and composure. Let’s not forget that the Syrian coasts are just over 50 miles from Cyprus. They’re right next to it. So we must be extremely careful, see what’s happening, weigh our reactions and be prepared for all contingencies.
JOURNALIST: That’s also a question. Meaning that once this zone is established, the Turkish army must obviously withdraw at some point.
N. DENDIAS: We’ll see. These 13 points are too hazy to make sense out of them. It’s still early. Mr. Tsimas – in this part of the world, everything needs patience to be decoded.
JOURNALIST: I would like to thank you very much for being here with us tonight, a night full of developments as we were speaking, and we have been left wondering and guessing about many things. But I think that anyone interested in understanding what exactly is happening in Syria, what happened in the Turkish interior and how this reflects on the Greek-Turkish relations has found tonight’s talk enlightening. Helpful.
Thank you very much.
E. APOSTOLAKIS: Thank you.
N. DENDIAS: Good night. All the best.
JOURNALIST: Good night.