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Interview of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, N. Kotzias, in Der Spiegel magazine, with journalist G. Christidis (8.4.2018)
JOURNALIST: In October 2017, you invited president Erdogan to pay a state visit to Athens, which took place in December and was called historic, with the expectation that it would usher in a new chapter in Greek-Turkish relations. Did you expect things to be where they are today? How did we get from there to here?
N. KOTZIAS: In diplomacy, you don’t talk to just your friends. It is perfectly natural to talk to those with whom you have problems as well. So we talk to Turkey. The fact that you talk to them doesn’t mean you don’t have problems. What matters is keeping the channels of communication open. The invitation was an effort to rationalize our relations and the way in which we can discuss our differences.
JOURNALIST: Why didn’t this effort of rationalization succeed?
N. KOTZIAS: Mr. Erdogan is very restless right now. He is facing internal ambiguity, instability, conflict. Between a tendency towards arrogance and the sense that he can do whatever he wants in the region, on the one hand, and inward fear and insecurity on the other. We are trying to fuel the sense that Greece has no bad intentions and doesn’t want to be a bad neighbour. Of all of Turkey’s neighbours, we are potentially the best. But Mr. Erdogan decided to have problems with everyone – even with good neighbours.
JOURNALIST: Including Greece?
N. KOTZIAS: I say with third countries. You see what’s happening in Afrin. The Turkish president is very focused on energy issues. And how to pursue Turkey’s rights – even illegally – over the Mediterranean’s energy resources.
JOURNALIST: Beyond energy resources. is there an issue of border changes with Greece?
N. KOTZIAS: That is no way that is going to happen.
JOURNALIST: Due to Greece’s deterrent posture?
N. KOTZIAS: There is international law. And I don’t think Mr. Erdogan imagines that he can change Europe’s borders. For the time being, he has shown no such inclination. But he is showing an inclination to harass the country, to create incidents, to dispute our sovereignty and, by extension, that of the EU in a number of maritime areas and spaces. But he knows that Greece – and I say this in the friendliest way regarding these countries – is not Iraq, nor Syria. It is an organized state with much greater capabilities and capacities. I don’t think he wants to change borders.
JOURNALIST: So what is he trying to do?
N. KOTZIAS: I think he wants to make the countries around Turkey peripheral and to dominate the region. But Greece is a member state of the EU. We want a stable, western-oriented Turkey. Both because it is good for Turkey’s people and because a large percentage of Turks look to the West and to the EU. And it would be good for the EU to have such a Turkey at its side.
JOURNALIST: But does Turkey want to stay on its European path?
N. KOTZIAS: We want the ‘Europeanization’ of Turkey, but sometimes it seems like Turkey wants the ‘Turkification’ of Europe. And we don’t accept that.
JOURNALIST: What do you mean by ‘the ‘Turkification’ of Europe’?
N. KOTZIAS: Highhanded, harsh handling of allies. When, for example, Turkey detains an American pastor, German journalists, Greek military personnel. This does nt comply to a country with a European culture. It is up to him to decide.
JOURNALIST: Provocative statements and actions from Turkey, violations, disputes, revision of the Treaty of Lausanne, and so on. You have met and talked with Erdogan. What do you say to him?
N. KOTZIAS: Every time we meet, I tell him that Allah placed us next to each other. And He is waiting to see whether you will behave morally and correctly. You can’t change neighbourhoods.
JOURNALIST: And how does he respond?
N. KOTZIAS: We have a frank relationship and talk openly. I am always frank and try to find out what makes a given person the leader of a given country. Why Erdogan is the leader of Turkey. He is not some random personality. Whether this personality is structured and behaves in the manner I want it to is one thing. And it is another to question his capabilities and talents. From this standpoint, I say that, as a leader, he does not behave in the manner we would like him to.
JOURNALIST: I hear things on the street, at the convenience store, at the super market. Is war coming? The Defense Minister said that 7,000 troops are being moved to Evros river and the islands. Is Greece preparing for the eventuality ...
N. KOTZIAS: No, no. There is no alternative to peace and peaceful coexistence. But this doesn’t mean that we don’t bear in mind the conduct of a given neighbour and consider how to handle problems with our neighbours. All neighbours – even the best families – have their problems. These problems have to be resolved diplomatically, peacefully, based on international law.
JOURNALIST: But there are provocative statements from both sides. Are these statements for domestic consumption?
N. KOTZIAS: Turkey likes to fan the flames with statements. I respond one time in twenty, and this is the right thing to do. This is why I urge all of the sides in Greece not to respond in the way Turkey approaches the issues, because this is a Turkish game.
JOURNALIST: Correct me if I’m wrong, but is your tactic to convey every Turkish provocation to the international fora and to the international organizations, and not to get involved in an intra-Turkish conflict?
N. KOTZIAS: Turkey has a tendency – not always, and not everyone in Turkey – to create tensions. It is the way it does politics. We have another culture, and I think ours is more rational and just. We mustn’t be dragged into a ‘game of chicken’. Diplomacy has to calm things down and explain things to the other side.
JOURNALIST: What is Turkey’s long-term goal if it isn’t border change?
N. KOTZIAS: Turkey’s plan is to force us to go to the negotiating table on its own terms. And this cannot and will never happen, and Turkey would do well to realise this. Turkey also has a restlessness that it is projecting outwards. We mustn’t create an atmosphere that makes it easier for Turkey to project its restlessness onto us. He [Erdogan] also wants to draw the nationalist vote. He has yielded to their demands and choices. In the field of diplomacy, I concern myself with the degree to which this manifests itself in relation to us.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Kammenos – do you see a similar approach from him?
N. KOTZIAS: As all the analyses have shown – and chiefly that of Harvard’s Graham Allison regarding the Cuban crisis – foreign affairs and defense ministries act in different ways and manners. I am a fan of dealing with problems in a sober and composed manner. Reacting when it is useful for my country, not when I am provoked. Others see it differently.
JOURNALIST: Is this the outcome of coordination within the government? Good cop, the diplomat, and bad cop?
N. KOTZIAS: No, there are no such games. Mr. Kammenos reacts spontaneously to Turkish provocations. I have a different character as a person, not just because I head Greek diplomacy.
JOURNALIST: You have said we aren’t Syria or Iraq. A Western country, in the hard core of the West..
N. KOTZIAS: Greece’s institutional systems and capabilities are different from those of Turkey. And I say this for one reason: Once in a while, our Turkish friends have to be reminded that our friendliness and our willingness to respond via diplomatic means – even to military provocations – must not be taken for weakness. It is responsible behaviour. It shows strength of character and capabilities. Once every six months we have to remind them of this. Turkey has a special relationship in Syria. In the 1930s it took Alexandretta. It apparently wants to stay in Afrin. So, once in a while we remind them that we are a different kind of player in the international system. My country will defend its rights in a different way.
JOURNALIST: Will the EU and U.S. intervene in Greece’s favour?
N. KOTZIAS: I don’t think the EU, given its structure, can intervene in a more difficult problem. But it is intervening pre-emptively to keep the problem from escalating. To bring the tensions down a notch. At the present moment, the Americans aren’t present in the region the way they used to be. And one has to bear this in mind. There are other powers in the region, where there are also strained relations with Turkey. I am referring to Iran and Russia and Turkey’s disassociation from the majority of the Arab world.
JOURNALIST: Turkey – if the worst should happen. Do you have assurances?
N. KOTZIAS: I recommend that Turkey not do it, and I hope it doesn’t believe it can do it.
JOURNALIST: What we heard from Turkey: that Greece is a vilayet smaller than Istanbul, that it cannot be compared to Turkey militarily, politically, in terms of the influence it has or anything else?
N. KOTZIAS: Turkey is a bigger country, but it also has bigger problems, internal conflicts and insecurities than we do.
JOURNALIST: In early March, Turkey detained two Greek soldiers who unintentionally crossed the border. Was this one such provocation?
N. KOTZIAS: Turkey is behaving in two ways that are not rational. For the first time, an incident in which military personnel strayed ten metres over the border is being handled in such a way as to make it into a crisis, while for decades we have had similar cases on both sides. At my office, I have documents on hundreds of similar cases. There are even records of hand-overs, where we returned personnel without any escalation.
JOURNALIST: Has the doctrine changed?
N. KOTZIAS: The behaviour has changed. This isn’t good. Because it will happen that their soldiers accidentally stray over the border too, which has always happened from time to time. Second, this isn’t the behaviour you expect from a NATO ally. We are two countries with peaceful relations. Moves like this don’t help.
JOURNALIST: The government partner called Turkey an ‘enemy’.
N. KOTZIAS: We talked about that earlier. I would never put it like that.
JOURNALIST: Greece demands an independent judicial system. We aren’t sultans. Why do you reject the same argument when Turkey invokes it?
N. KOTZIAS: It is invoking it for two different things. We didn’t arrest the eight Turkish military personnel. They requested asylum in Greece. Our military personnel aren’t requesting asylum in Turkey. They were arrested against their will.
JOURNALIST: Refugee flows have increased.
N. KOTZIAS: We have to deal with the source of the problem. The war in Syria has to end. Naturally, civil wars or wars in a limited geographical area end at some point. Whether because one side gets tired or because resources are exhausted. Here, neither one of these is happening, because third countries are continuously fuelling the conflict with supplies and personnel. As long as the flow of supplies and personnel continues, the war won’t end. And until the war ends, we will have refugees. Turkey has done a lot for the Syrian refugees, but it is also creating refugees. Nearly 500,000 people have moved out of the Afrin region. There are nine players in the Syrian conflict. When the country is reconstructed, we won’t have the problem. The war is the source of the migrant flows.
JOURNALIST: Mr. Kotzias, you took what I would call a bold initiative to resolve the Skopje issue. Will you tell me a little about where we stand right now? And I wanted to ask: Could a more realistic approach like this – more open, more ambitious – be taken with Turkey? In other words, could we sit at a table and resolve whatever issues need resolving?
N. KOTZIAS: We have been trying for three years. We made progress. But Turkey’s conduct changed after the failed coup attempt. We will try again, but they need to understand that we are doing this out of responsibility, not out of weakness. Our differences with Skopje are problems of a historical nature; identity, heritage and culture. These are sensitive issues. But they can be resolved through boldness, as we are doing now. While with Turkey we have problems of geostrategic and geopolitical nature. Turkey is claiming space, not heritage. I hope Turkey ‘comes to its senses’ and takes a better measure of its stature and interests.
JOURNALIST: Greece is emerging from a major economic crisis. Turkey is arming itself. Can Greece hold its own in an arms race?
N. KOTZIAS: We don’t have the same amount of money or logistical infrastructure, but there is a difference between arming for aggression and arming for defense. There are defense systems that cost less. Based on our economic capabilities, we are building up our defense. We have good personnel. And materiel. The six German submarines are a great asset at sea. Turkey is investing in major projects, such as ordering an aircraft carrier, but Greece has 2,000 islands.
JOURNALIST: The matter of war reparations from Germany?
N. KOTZIAS: The matter is before Parliament. The model for us is the German-Polish agreement on a joint committee for examining the issue. The German side didn’t want this, even though it proposed this very thing to the Poles. The occupation loan is not a reparations matter. Just as we are required to pay back our loans, Germany must do the same. The issue is pending. Greek-German relations are relations of love. Love always has its ups and downs.