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Interview of Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Kotzias, on ERT Radio 1’s ‘Politika Paralipomena’, with journalist Alfonsos Vitalis
JOURNALIST: We have Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Kotzias with us. Good morning, Mr. Kotzias.
N. KOTZIAS: Good morning, Mr. Vitalis, and good morning to our listeners. And I think we have to wish all the Theodores a happy name day. It is a moveable feast, and sometimes we forget.
JOURNALIST: Of course, you do well to remind us. You do keep a good calendar, I must say. And I’d like to thank you once again for coming here to Hellenic Radio’s First Programme and to this show at a time with lots of developments on all of the major foreign policy issues.
N. KOTZIAS: I would say this is a period that is making foreign policy interesting again, though there is a good deal of distortion and fake news.
JOURNALIST: What do you mean by fake news?
N. KOTZIAS: I’ve been reading about some fictional developments, with accusations levelled at me...
JOURNALIST: Like what?
N. KOTZIAS: That I have handed the whole Ionian Sea over to the Albanians ...
JOURNALIST: Ah, you handed it over?
N. KOTZIAS: ... New Democracy is talking about grey areas. About an agreement that has not been finished yet, that we haven’t seen. On the one hand, they criticize me for not keeping them up to date on what is happening in these processes, and on the other they criticize me for the content of these processes. I hope at some point they decide on exactly what they want to accuse me of.
JOURNALIST: Let’s clarify for our listeners that we are talking about the agreement with Albania, right?
N. KOTZIAS: Yes. And as you know, in particular with regard to the maritime zones, we are at the stage where the President of Albania has to authorise a negotiating team from the Albanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to negotiate with us. And while there is still an institutional procedure pending in Albania, I am already being criticized for the content of this agreement, the details of which we will negotiate when the President of Albania has given his permission. Of course we have already negotiated, and everything being said about what has been lost is fantasy – in the hope of their finding grounds to criticize our foreign policy – rather than reality. But this is how it always is. I think people who don’t have a clue about foreign policy are getting involved in it. For example, I had a question from Mr. Kikilias, who asked me...
JOURNALIST: I was just about to say, but go on...
N. KOTZIAS: He asked me whether I am retaining the ‘influence’ of the islands north of Corfu in the agreement with Albania. And as there is no ‘influence’, I replied that, when he asks me questions about serious matters, and we’re not chatting about this in a café, he should ask proper questions. I assume he is asking about EEZ rights.
JOURNALIST: Yes, I saw your reply.
N. KOTZIAS: That is, what percentage of EEZ an island or islet gets. And in fact we have a very interesting ruling from the International Court in The Hague regarding Costa Rica and Nicaragua, which, in three of its four points, facilitates and confirms the positions of the Greek state. We always have to monitor the International Court’s thinking on these matters.
JOURNALIST: We’ll come back to the Albania issue, because it is very interesting. All of the developments in the Western Balkans. Let’s go to an issue that is burning right now. Yesterday and of late. In the end, do you think what happened yesterday in the Cypriot EEZ, this action on the part of Turkey, might not only fuel a crisis in the wider region, but also overturn energy plans that have already been made?
N. KOTZIAS: I don’t think Turkey can do that. Turkey knows that Cyprus’s next energy plans are linked with France and the USA. As you know, in neither case will they be able to engage in ‘bullying’ in the Cypriot EEZ. Turkey has perpetrated multiple violations of International Law, and of course we will talk in more detail about that when the Republic of Cyprus decides to take action. What I want to say is, first, that Turkey is illegally interfering, through naval exercises, in a foreign EEZ, and this is a matter on which there are two rulings from the International Court in The Hague. One ruling concerns the Chagos Archipelago, and the other the South China Sea. One is from 2015, and the other from 2016. Second, it is violating the convention of International Law on the exercising of freedoms in the open sea, which is of course reflected in national legislation as well. Third, Turkey does not have the authority to issue NAVTEXs in foreign regions.
JOURNALIST: It’s illegal.
N. KOTZIAS: It’s illegal. Fourth, the illegal obstruction of the movements of the Italian ENI vessel, this is also obstruction of the exercising of a state’s sovereign right to exploration for and exploitation of natural resources, but it is also a violation of Law, because it obstructs a vessel’s freedom of navigation. Because, even if it weren’t the Cypriot EEZ, there are the rules of free movement of goods and persons by ship, and Turkey violated this. And it violated article 77 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea, with regard to the rights of the Republic of Cyprus. Finally, it violated the rules of International Law in general by threatening and attempting to expel a moveable platform that was carrying out test drilling in an undisputed area. So we have multiple violations of International Law and the International Law of the Sea.
JOURNALIST: But let me ask you something here, Mr. Minister, because you raise a very interesting issue beyond the, let’s say, military dimension. All of these violations you mentioned, with characteristic violations of International Law and the International Conventions on the Law of the Sea and all of these ...
N. KOTZIAS: And the right of passage.
JOURNALIST: And the right of passage. Will these things have repercussions, legally speaking, for Turkey? Or will we stay ...
N. KOTZIAS: The statement the European Union made yesterday was very serious, condemning the violation of International Law and the violation of the Law of the Sea. It was a much sterner statement than the one from 1996 regarding the case of Imia.
JOURNALIST: Another good observation.
N. KOTZIAS: It is worth the trouble for a good and respected journalist such as yourself to compare that statement with today’s. Of course, the violation of International Law there was even graver, if one can say that.
JOURNALIST: Minister, let me ask you this: There is of course this strong statement made yesterday by the European Union ...
N. KOTZIAS: The strongest ever made regarding Turkey.
JOURNALIST: Right, we’ll bear that in mind. This issue, this statement, as well as the fact that, in a way, the course of EU-Turkey relations was linked with Turkey’s conduct in the Cypriot EEZ, and we see that the EU-Turkey Varna summit is also somewhat uncertain – in your opinion, is this a measure aimed at curtailing these illegal activities on the part of Turkey.
N. KOTZIAS: Turkey has to reflect on and consider what I have been saying for two years now: that “Greece is neither Syria nor Iraq.” I respect and value both of these states, and I don’t say this disparagingly. I mean that Turkey cannot violate International Law with regard to the rights of Greece and the European Union in the same way it does so in the Middle East. Greece is an organized country and has all the means to defend its borders and territory.
JOURNALIST: Minister, I come back to this issue because you have the following experience, the fabled Helsinki framework, through which the Greek side, at that time, wanted to curtail these violations on the part of Turkey; Turkey has violated it a number of times on its course towards Europe. And I want us to assess whether these limits the European Union is imposing again, linking Turkey’s conduct with its European course – how much this concerns Turkey, how oriented Turkey remains towards its European perspective?
N. KOTZIAS: At the two Summit Meetings, the informal and formal meetings in the second half of 1999; that is, October 1999, in Tampere, Finland.
N. KOTZIAS: Where we agreed on the European Union’s policy on Turkey, and in December 1999 it was expressed publicly. Turkey was much more interested in joining the European Union than it is today, and the European Union took a much more positive view of this course than it had taken previously and takes today. The position then – and it remains the same today – is that Greece is the country that wants more than any other to have a democratic and European neighbour, because, as you can see, we wouldn’t have all these problems. Whether Turkey can be democratic – as the West and the European Union see democracy – is a question that Turkey itself must answer. Last summer, at the Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Malta, where we talked about Turkey, I said – including to my Turkish colleague, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu – that we aren’t the ones deciding whether Turkey can or cannot join the European Union, because Turkey is already a candidate country. Turkey has to decide for itself whether it wants to have European characteristics, and it will have to forget any inclination towards, shall we say, “Turkification” of the European Union. So Turkey has to decide on the extent to which it wants to become a European country and leave behind these kinds of violations of International Law. You should always bear in mind that the European Union is Turkey’s top trade and economic partner and that Turkey has many, many economic interests linked to Europe.
JOURNALIST: And this is why Europe, if I may say so, doesn’t want to lose Turkey – if only via special relationship.
N. KOTZIAS: Some European countries have other reasons as well. What I want to say is that the problem today is that Turkey is a restless power with many internal contrasts and contradictions. Let’s start with the fact that it has regions and sectors of the economy that are feudal, and regions with developed capitalism; that it has ethnic problems, especially with the Kurds; that it has religious clashes, especially with the Alawites. Added to this system of contrasts and contradictions is the contrast of the military leadership, which, on the one hand, is full of arrogance due to Syria and Iraq and thinks that it can do whatever it wants, and on the other hand feels insecurity and fear, due not only to the coup that was attempted in the summer of 2016, but also to the fact that the attack on Afrin isn’t turning out to be as easy as they thought it would be. I remind you that we are in the seventh week, and the Turkish military haven’t achieved the results they thought they would.
JOURNALIST: Minister, again regarding the Cyprus problem, but more with regard to our own involvement, for a number of reasons, in the latest round of negotiations – you were there, you were present, you represented Greece at those international conferences – has the resolution of the Cyprus problem been linked to the exploitation of hydrocarbons? Because, curiously, we heard the Turkish Energy Minister say that when the island is reunified...
N. KOTZIAS: Mr. Erdogan’s son-in-law; there is a family relationship and family interests ...
JOURNALIST: He said that if the island is reunified, they will allow exploration and extraction.
N. KOTZIAS: As we said, Turkey is taking a number of illegal actions that, in my opinion, it will not be able to repeat when the French and American platforms – Exxon, specifically – arrive to implement the agreements they have made with the Republic of Cyprus. Let me interpolate something here: When I became Minister, in January 2015, I found a Cyprus problem in the following condition. The Cyprus problem, as you know, is an issue of occupation, illegal occupation, violation of every aspect of international law regarding the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Cyprus. The Turkish invasion also violates the poor individual agreements of the Geneva Convention that concerned Cyprus, such as the Treaty of Alliance. Over time, this problem deviated from its substance – that it is a problem of occupation. And it was reduced – not that it doesn’t exist, it certainly exists – to a management problem between the two communities. A political problem regarding the rights and obligations towards each other of the two communities, of the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot sides. When of late, when I became minister, it had evolved into a problem not of the political relations between the two communities in general, but of distribution of resources. In other words, of the natural gas that had been found; how this resource would be distributed/shared. There is certainly an issue, and an issue of the Republic of Cyprus itself, of how its resources will be shared. But the Cyprus problem had evolved from an issue of occupation into an issue of the social state. How the state’s resources would be shared. Again, these issues certainly do exist, but they aren’t the fundamental characteristic of the Cyprus problem. In the negotiations at Crans-Montana – we started with two days in Geneva, in January, and then, in the summer, 11 consecutive days of negotiations in Crans-Montana – what we achieved was that the substance of the Cyprus problem was put on the table, and it won’t be taken off. And this substance is the occupation and ‘guarantor rights’ of Turkey, based on which it can intervene in the internal affairs of the Republic of Cyprus. I think the problem of the distribution of resources exists. The two communities discuss it when they talk. But this is an individual aspect of the Cyprus problem, an individual result, a product of the occupation of Cyprus. The substance of the Cyprus problem remains, as always, the illegal occupation and the existence or not of Turkey’s right to intervene in the Republic of Cyprus. We ended the taboo on the discussion of these two issues. The international community, too, came to the table, for the first time since 1970. It fully supports that we are right and that our demand is reasonable.
JOURNALIST: Let’s look at another issue. We had the attempt by the Turks to ram a Greek coast guard vessel at Imia. The Greek captain kept his composure. The worst was avoided. Shortly afterwards, you said that if a similar move is made by the Turks, Greece will have its own response. And I am surprised and concerned, Mr. Minister, that one of your colleagues, the Shipping Minister, Mr. Kouroumblis, went to a Greek island.
N. KOTZIAS: Isn’t it reasonable for him to go?
JOURNALIST: Very reasonable. Extremely reasonable when there is a Greek military outpost there. Isn’t that the case?
N. KOTZIAS: Yes.
JOURNALIST: But his helicopter was almost pursued by Turkish fighters, who said Mr. Kouroumblis’s helicopter was in Turkish territory.
N. KOTZIAS: The Turks have been trying since 1996 – if you look at the wording of their statements – sometimes to characterize islands and the Aegean as grey, and sometimes what they characterized as grey on Monday and Wednesday, they characterize as theirs on Tuesday. I would say that this is not just an issue of the Erdogan government. The Turkish opposition is much worse, “accusing” us of...
JOURNALIST: They say they will carry out a landing to take the islands.
N. KOTZIAS: That, since 2005, Turkey has surrendered dozens of Turkish islands to Greece. In other words, that islands Greeks have been living on for millennia now, that, based on all international laws and rules, belong to Greece, that are designated on all the international maps and in all international treaties as Greek, that these were supposedly seized in the past ten years by us and the previous governments. This is a lie that fixes an idea in the consciousness of the Turkish people; an idea that is not at all good. And, second, it is a lie that is being used by both sides ahead of the elections. It is also being used for Erdogan to show two things: first, that his army is alive and wasn’t damaged at all by the coup attempt in 2016. And, second, that he is in a position to wage two or three wars simultaneously on different sides of Turkey’s territory, which is a show of strength. But these shows of strength, if they perpetuate tensions, don’t end well even for the one who is making them. But we have no reason to contribute to these constant efforts on the part of Turkey to create tensions in the Aegean, in the eastern Mediterranean.
JOURNALIST: Minister, it has already been some time since Mr. Erdogan’s visit to Athens. There was a lot of discussion at that time. I want to ask you: Seeing everything that followed, which wasn’t that pleasant, whether some of the opposition’s claims – that the visit wasn’t well prepared, that it wasn't the right time for Mr. Erdogan to come to Athens – give you cause for concern right now, and allow me to supplement the question.
N. KOTZIAS: Look, from this perspective it is never the right time to talk with Turkey, but it is the right policy to discuss things, because if Turkey wants to cause tensions, the worst thing Greece can do is follow suit, because Turkey has chosen the time and manner of these tensions. We have to show to the whole of the international community the pacifist power that we truly are. We have to try to defuse the tension so that Turkey doesn’t export the crisis to Greece.
JOURNALIST: Right. If you’re finished, I would like to ask for a clarification on an issue. It was announced that the Greek-Turkish High-Level Cooperation Council would convene in February, in Thessaloniki. Is this issue still on the table, Mr. Minister?
N. KOTZIAS: I think February is ending.
JOURNALIST: Ah, yes.
N. KOTZIAS: I think Turkey should come to its senses and realise that Greece isn’t a country it can ramble around it, as they seem to think, or that it can seize territory from. And, as a result, as I always say to Erdogan: Look, your Allah put you here next to Greece, and you have to decide to conduct yourself as a peace-loving believer and not as some warlike non-believer.
JOURNALIST: Right, very interesting, especially that last note, and it is newsworthy. Mr. Minster, the Western Balkans – I won’t tire you too much, but it is an issue we are discussing...
N. KOTZIAS: You aren’t tiring me. I’m very happy to be discussing these things with you. After all, you are a journalist whom I will always respect and remember, who survived the disastrous accident we had on the Falcon. It is one of the consolations of that accident.
JOURNALIST: Okay, that’s over. It’s behind us.
N. KOTZIAS: Yes, but it is a fact, and I’m happy to hear your voice, because, although it is a sad reminder of that day, it is also a happy reminder that some people survived.
JOURNALIST: We also lost colleagues. We also lost a great politician. And now that you mentioned this, I remembered a major effort: The effort of the late Kranidiotis, the effort to inventory the American materiel that the Turks had illegally taken to occupied Cyprus, and the struggle mounted at that time with the data taken to Congress. It was a major undertaking and an important moment in Greek diplomacy.
N. KOTZIAS: Giannos was a great Greek and a great Cypriot politician and diplomat.
JOURNALIST: Right. So, Mr. Minister, when will you be going to Skopje?
N. KOTZIAS: In March, I assume.
N. KOTZIAS: I’m giving you piece of news. Not in February.
JOURNALIST: Well, you said February is ending. So in March it will have been changed officially and published in the Government Gazette...
N. KOTZIAS: The changes in the names of the airport and motorway have already been published in fYROM’s Government Gazette. Now, as you know, as of a few days ago they are taking down the signs, because on Skopje’s national road there is a sign saying the exit for the airport, under the old name, is in 10 km. All these signs have to be taken down, and when this process is completed ...
JOURNALIST: You’ll go and land at the airport.
N. KOTZIAS: You are welcome to come too. I imagine we will be accompanied by reporters.
JOURNALIST: ERT will certainly be on that trip.
N. KOTZIAS: We think it would be good to hold, in some way, not a celebration, but a small symbolic event that underscores the fact that the current is changing directions. Rather than having an escalating “nationalist assault” of symbols and irredentism against Greece, we have a reduction and disassembling of the irredentist symbols that have flooded Skopje. As you will see, they have started taking down various other symbols, like statues.
JOURNALIST: Right. I assume you will have the draft agreement with you?
N. KOTZIAS: I will probably have sent it beforehand, to be honest.
JOURNALIST: Have you completed the draft agreement? Has it been approved?
N. KOTZIAS: At the first level, yes. It has been approved by our Ministry, by the Ministers collaborating impeccably at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and it has been given to the government.
JOURNALIST: It has been given to the government, and I assume our proposal for the name is in it.
N. KOTZIAS: For the name and its derivatives.
JOURNALIST: And its derivatives. "GornaMakedonija", a single word?
N. KOTZIAS: I won’t say anything about it here.
JOURNALIST: How many names are you proposing?
N. KOTZIAS: I won’t tell you that, either.
JOURNALIST: There is a lot of activity on the Skopje issue, and there is a reaction from public opinion.
N. KOTZIAS: We have a name that has been recognized by 140 countries, the vast majority. This country’s name as “Macedonia”. Now we are trying to conclude on a compound name and get away from this univocal name. Because there are some people who are acting as if this fYROM were created yesterday and today we are deciding on the name. For 25 years it has been called the “Republic of Macedonia” by the majority of states on this planet. And those who are responsible for our being in this position are criticizing us for not starting the negotiations on a non-existent basis: that the name “Macedonia” doesn’t exist. They accepted it, they put it in the Interim Accord of 1995, we lost the embargo in a way that was degrading for our country – black marketeers made money – they went to the international courts and lost, and now they are blaming us.
JOURNALIST: But the issue of the Constitution is a prominent part of this case, because Mr. Zaev – yesterday, if I remember well – virtually ruled it out.
N. KOTZIAS: I want to make two clarifications. First, what the other side says is not at all the agreement or what we say. Some people take the other side’s views and attribute them to us. It’s what I told you at the beginning of the show, “all things in good measure,” our ancient Greek forebears said. The second is that the main representatives of our friendly country to the north should not make such categorical statements about things that are under negotiation. The way to ensure – it might be done in one way, because constitution, too, can change – the stability of the name that is agreed on is for it to be put into the Constitution. Because, as you know, you can’t be called ‘A’ in your foreign policy and ‘B’ domestically, and consciously – it’s not just a translation – choose a name of a different political quality, because this will end in madness. I have dozens of examples for them, where documents circulated domestically – even medical tests, where the patient may decide at some point to go abroad for a major operation – circulate abroad. If there is a difference between the domestic and international names, it will cause at least a century of daily friction, if not clashes. As a result, it is good to avoid them. We persist in wanting an agreement that stands the test of time, an agreement that solves problems and doesn’t create new ones.
JOURNALIST: Will we have an agreement in March, as Mr. Zaev said?
N. KOTZIAS: I don’t know that. I don’t know. I’m not sure. If Mr. Zaev is more willing to compromise now than he has been to date, yes. But he said it would be finished in March, and at the same time he made statements that don’t show a willingness to compromise.
JOURNALIST: Right. You noted this earlier regarding the issue of the Constitution.
N. KOTZIAS: And other issues.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Minister, we have a minute left. I’ve taken time from the news show. I don’t know if we have a concluding observation.
N. KOTZIAS: Zaev is right about one thing he says – I have to say it: “No one ever asked for the Constitution.” Because everyone wagging fingers at the government – saying, “without the Constitution, we won’t support an agreement” – negotiated on the issue for 25 years – Pasok governments, New Democracy governments and Pasok-New Democracy coalition governments – and they never raised such issues or many others I don’t want mention publicly. That is why I have asked them to show a little humility. And this irritates them. They can’t say whatever comes to mind, because they have negotiated, and records of the negotiations exist, proving what they really sought when they were in government. We are seeking a lot more, much more seriously and having studied things much more thoroughly.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Minister, Mr. Kotzias, thank you very much for this talk on ERT’s First Programme.
N. KOTZIAS: Thank you and have a good day.
JOURNALIST: Sorry to cut things short, but we have already gone into the news programme.
N. KOTZIAS: There must be order.
JOURNALIST: Good day. Have a good weekend.