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Interview of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Kotzias, in the Athens daily Efimerida ton Syntakton, with journalist Nikolas Zirganos (21 July 2018)
JOURNALIST: The Prespa Agreement was even welcomed by the European People’s Party, to which VMRO and New Democracy belong. But we haven’t had positive messages from Belgrade. Why?
N. KOTZIAS: The Prespa Agreement laid bare the differences that exist between the forces stuck in the past – opting for inaction on many issues – and forces like us, who believe in an active democratic foreign policy that actively endeavours to change the conditions in the region to make them better and more progressive. We don’t want history as a prison; only as a school. New Democracy and VMRO thrive on problems. We thrive on resolving problems.
With regard to certain nationalists in Belgrade – who are in the minority, fortunately – my feeling is that this agreement puts paid to their ‘dreams’ of regaining leadership of the region. In contrast with these circles, the majority of the political forces and Serbian society are, I believe, well disposed towards the agreement.
JOURNALIST: Russia isn’t very happy about the prospect of fYROM’s joining NATO. Was there resentment from Russia? Is this why the two Russian diplomats were expelled?
N. KOTZIAS: Our policy is based on the criterion of national interest. Russia has to realise that it cannot disrespect the national interests of another state simply because it feels stronger than the other state. We will not accept such a stance – and we have proven this – from the West or the East.
On the other hand, I must say I’m more interested in the domestic reactions that don’t bear these interests in mind. When I raised the issue of removing the occupation forces from Cyprus, they criticized me and urged me to show understanding for Turkey’s demands to keep the occupation forces in Cyprus. When I wanted to resolve the name issue and, consequently, thwart third parties’ designs on the region – first and foremost Islamist designs – they falsely accused me of surrendering Greek Macedonia. Now they are asking me to show tolerance for espionage activities in Greece. The people saying all of these things are playing the hard-line patriot, but in reality they are supporting third-party interests.
JOURNALIST: There were internal reactions to the Prespa Agreement in both countries, with the opposition in both countries using virtually the same arguments. Are you concerned that this polarisation might have broader repercussions, at least in Greece.
N. KOTZIAS: In both countries, the opposition is using hate speech. They are cultivating political hatred in all its dimensions: domestically and in international relations. New Democracy rejects the agreement on the grounds that we conceded everything to Skopje. Ivanov and his party aren’t ratifying the agreement because it supposedly subjugates their country to Greece. If you hold these side by side, the obvious conclusion is that, in both countries, these are parties that thrive on this rhetoric, on the non-solution of problems, on inertia. They have failed to understand history, the geopolitical developments in the region, and, with regard to the agreement, they don’t understand even a paragraph of international law.
At the end of the day, of course, I’m not concerned by the disagreement on the Agreement. From one standpoint it is natural. What concerns me is where the propagation and legitimization of extreme-right hate speech will lead the country.
JOURNALIST: What is your message to citizens who disagree?
N. KOTZIAS: They should read and study the agreement more carefully; listen to the other side of the argument; consider in practical terms whether the risks some camps within the opposition are pointing to are in fact real. For example, one woman told me that, through the agreement, we are conceding Thessaloniki as fYROM’s new capital. As we say in Greece, lies and deception are short-winded.
It is no coincidence that the vast majority of the historians dealing with the Macedonian issue, along with the professors of international, public and private law, and diplomats who are experts on these issues, support the agreement. This was clear on Thursday, at the conference we held, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on the legal aspects of the Prespa Agreement.
JOURNALIST: What are the risks for the two governments in the long roadmap for sealing the agreement.
N. KOTZIAS: The leadership of North Macedonia have to win the referendum and the parliamentary votes on amendment of the Constitution. We need to continue to ensure a parliamentary majority in favour of the agreement. Together, we need to deal with the hate speech, because we want to live in peace with the people of the neighbouring country. The interests of our two countries are closer than fYROM’s interests are to those of any other country in the region.
JOURNALIST: Can you describe two pivotal moments in the negotiations when you thought everything was falling apart?
N. KOTZIAS: In my life, as a minister, and, in the past, as an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I have carried out numerous negotiations. My experience is that, in these negotiations, one must be very focused on the latter, on the basis of the needs and interests of the country, and our European course, while at the same time carrying out a realistic assessment of the other side’s needs. There are many difficulties and few pleasant moments in these negotiations. You have to maintain your composure and orientation, not losing sight of the goal because of difficulties. You have to be sober and come up with solutions to the problems that arise.
The most difficult moment was when we had finished the negotiations but not everyone saw it that way. It was also difficult to persuade the EU and the UN to let us find the agenda for the solutions. But we did persuade them. Because the more sides are involved – whether with various pretexts or good will – the more complicated and difficult the negotiations become. Fortunately, the UN helped through its role, and everyone else kept their distance from the negotiations. The most difficult point in the negotiations themselves was the issue of the constitutional changes.
JOURNALIST: And also when you felt the agreement was being completed?
N. KOTZIAS: As you know, I am not a career politician. From a young age, I have been a ‘political being’. On the large political stage, I agreed to contribute to the solution of problems and to bringing Greek foreign policy out of the mire of submission and inertia. When the agreement was completed, I really had few moments – and only moments – of joy. But as you know, politics – at least as I know it, as its servant – has the disadvantage of usually being very bitter, but the advantage of never being boring.
JOURNALIST: You have made advance announcement of the agreement with Albania on the EEZ and the pre-emptive reactions started from the opposition in both countries. Do you fear a reaction like the one to the Macedonia issue?
N. KOTZIAS: We have problems with Albania that go back as far as 90 years. The reason they are unresolved is that they manifested themselves substantially after the end of the Cold War. And there is also the fact that previous governments ran out of steam in any efforts they might have made to resolve some of these issues. For example, the state of war. Can we pretend that these two countries are still at war? The opposition on both sides of the border is trying to play on citizens' emotions regarding this issue. They are trying to perpetuate negative stereotypes and prejudices between the two peoples. They went so far as to say Greece would lose Northern Epirus because of me. My answer is that they should look into whether the Asia Minor Disaster was my fault.
I think the Greek people are gradually learning to support solutions rather than problems. Consequently, it is my hope that there will be a more mature view of the solutions to our problems with Albania. We want friendship between our peoples and a policy of peaceful coexistence between our societies. Personally, I always look with pride on my excellent Albanian students at the University of Piraeus; students who are now professors in their country.
JOURNALIST: What is the overall strategy behind good neighbourly relations and friendship with our northern neighbours? How will Greece benefit strategically, economically and politically?
N. KOTZIAS: The social and economic development of our country is facilitated and bolstered by the development of the region. What’s more, together with our three northern neighbours we have started drawing up a cooperation and joint-action policy that will, I hope, constitute the basis of our future cooperation within the EU. It is also key to ensure, through the European course of these states, their independence from Turkish expansionism and from the strong Islamist movements that are trying to transform the nationalism in states of the region into religious fanaticism.
So, our policy is a political and economic, social and cultural, development strategy of Greece and the region, based on the principles and values of the policy of peaceful coexistence free of fanaticism of any kind, to the benefit of our states and peoples. Everyone sees us as leaders of the region, but exercising this leadership means fighting arrogance, impudence and any effort to make others submit to us. It requires a spirit of friendship and cooperation, consensus and compromise. It requires the spirit of Rigas Feraios.
JOURNALIST: What is your assessment of Turkey following the elections and how do you see Greek-Turkish relations developing? What do you expect from Ankara? A positive move on the issue of the detention of the two Greek soldiers? Escalation in the Aegean and the Cypriot EEZ? A Tsipras-Erdogan meeting?
N. KOTZIAS: Turkey is a difficult neighbour. The political leadership is restless and inclined towards revisionism. At the same time, they have proven to stand the test of time and the Turkish people find them charismatic. I’m not a fortune teller, so I can’t tell you how our relations with Turkey will evolve, but I’ll tell you what has to happen to keep them from deteriorating further. I think it has to be accepted that a number of problems we have with them need to be resolved on the basis of international law. Peaceful development of our relations and a stop to all provocations is imperative, as is the further development of socio-economic relations to the benefit of our peoples. Above all, the Cyprus problem needs to be settled on the basis of the UN resolutions, and the occupation forces have to leave. Our neighbours have to stop dreaming about the Aegean islands and understand that the Greek Muslim minority in Thrace multiplied, in contrast to what the Greeks in Turkey suffered. Finally – but of great and symbolic importance – Turkey needs to release the two Greek soldiers.
JOURNALIST: Exploitation of the energy deposits in the south-east Mediterranean and pipelines, transiting Greece, to Europe raise an issue of the security of energy facilities and routes. How will you deal with this situation?
N. KOTZIAS: Through closer linking of Greece and Cyprus and the development of our alliances in and for the region. At the same time, we will pursue better relations with Turkey, but that isn’t up to us alone; Turkey has to work in this direction as well. We will do what we can to keep Middle East crises and wars from spreading to the Eastern Mediterranean. The two regions are adjacent to each other to a great extent, but they don’t overlap. I also think our trilateral cooperation schemes in the region (with Egypt, Armenia, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon and Palestine) and the Rhodes Conference for a new security and stability structure in the region – in which 25 states and international regions are participating – are contributing in this direction.
JOURNALIST: Do you expect anything new from the UN Secretary-General’s latest initiative for reopening the Cyprus talks?
N. KOTZIAS: In the past, every new round of negotiations took place with a loss of ground on the positions of the previous negotiations. Each new proposal was a step back from the previous one. For the first time, this historical trend has been reversed. We are going into the new negotiations on terms that are better than the ones Mr. Eide prepared. We are entering this round with the proposals of the very serious UN Secretary-General, as these were set out at the end of the talks in Crans Montana. We have consolidated the position that the treaties of guarantee and alliance can no longer be maintained. And I am very proud of this last point because when I raised this in the negotiations – along with Prime minister Tsipras and my colleagues in ‘Pratto’ – most people distrusted and were even hostile to my proposals, especially outside of Greece.
JOURNALIST: How is the composition and balance of the new government in Berlin impacting the direction of the EU, especially with regard to the refugee issue?
N. KOTZIAS: We’ll see. On the refugee issue, we need to achieve a cohesive European policy rather than a zero-sum game of counterproductive national policies. In the initial stage of the refugee crisis, Germany opened its embrace. It now seems to have regretted this. I hope positive, productive thinking wins out in Germany. I hope they choose to ally themselves with France and the South, and not with nationalism. Otherwise, Europe will be facing major problems.