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Interview of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Kotzias, with the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (22 July 2018)
“Our country is determined to send a message to the East and West, to all of our friends and to those who are not our friends, that anyone who violates the principles of sovereignty and respect with regard to us will meet with corresponding measures. The era of diplomacy that backed down is over. This kind of diplomacy belongs in the chicken coop and not in foreign policy,” Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Kotzias stressed in a televised interview with the Athens-Macedonian News Agency (AMNA).
Asked about the recent tensions in Greek-Russian relations and the visit the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was to carry out to Athens, Mr. Kotzias underscored to AMNA that he is not concerned and hopes that any problems can be resolved in a friendly manner.
“Sergey Lavrov, whom I regard as one of the best diplomats on the international stage and with whom I have friendly relations, asked me to invite him to come to Greece to prepare Prime minister Tsipras’ visit to Moscow. And they invited him to Moscow. I extended this invitation, if he wants to come. If he doesn’t want to come, he won’t. He is welcome in any case. If he feels he has to identify with the people we expelled or with those we banned from entering Greece, that’s his right. As you know, and our announcement says this, I tried not to identify these negative cases with official Russia. It’s up to Russia whether it wants to identify with them.”
The Minister of Foreign Affairs emphasised in his interview with AMNA that “I am not concerned about Greek-Russian relations. What concerns me is a situation that has taken shape in our country, where when I say that the Turkish troops should leave Cyprus, they tell me it’s not patriotic; that I should leave a few. When I go to resolve the name issue, the Skopje problem, they tell me not to rush. When I take measures against people who are violating international law and rules for guests in our country, they tell me I shouldn’t. I don’t understand why. Because on the one hand some people are using hate speech inside the country and against small countries – the future 'North Macedonia', Albania, etc. – and on the other hand, when large countries break our rules, they say we should tolerate it and back down. As I said at the Foreign Ministry’s Scientific Conference, these people are not patriots; they are serving third-party interests.”
Mr. Kotzias characterized as “very good” the fact that the Greek main opposition party’s statements on Greek-Russian relations were cautious and low key.
“Conditions were ripe for the agreement with Skopje”
Referring to the Prespa Agreement, Mr. Kotzias noted that the conditions were ripe for resolving the dispute with Skopje. “They say we were hasty. The conditions were ripe. When conditions are ripe, it means you have to do whatever you can. There is the second school of thought, which says, leave the problems unresolved so we can exploit them. I ask: Do we want a fYROM that is under Turkish influence or a fYROM that is our friend? This is the question we have to answer – not whether we were hasty. Do we want a fYROM where Slavic fundamentalism will develop, creating terrorist flows from the north in Greek Macedonia, or do we want to eliminate the causes of and potential for growing Slavic fundamentalism and terrorism to our north? Do we want a country that is stabilised and will have economic, geographical and social ties with us, or do we want a country that will see us as an enemy and look to collaborate with other countries, which wouldn’t please us so much?” he underscored.
Responding to a question as to whether this was the best agreement Greece could have made with Skopje, Mr. Kotzias stressed: “If you and I sat at home and drew up the agreement, and there were no other side, yes, we could have made a better agreement. As I have said, in that case we wouldn’t call it 'North Macedonia'. We’d call it 'North Alaska'. And if there hadn’t been concessions and backing down in the negotiations over the past 25 years, everything would be easier. But we have two issues: one, that the other side has to agree, because we didn’t defeat them in war, so we can’t impose whatever terms we want. We want the other side, too, to convince its society, to get the requisite majority in their Parliament, to win the referendum, amend their constitution. We want them to do difficult things.”
“We were faced with accomplished facts and remedied them as best we could”
“Second, we were faced with accomplished facts, and you can’t continue negotiations without bearing these accomplished facts in mind. We corrected the situation where we could. There is continuity of the state, which is a longstanding principle of international law. First, the name was changed: 'North Macedonia'. Some people are pointing to what Zaev is saying today. But the agreement hasn’t been ratified yet and hasn’t gone into effect. Second, the agreement provides for their changing article 49 of the Constitution, which talks about the "Macedonian nation" in neighbouring countries; in other words, minorities. And previous governments signed the Interim Accord in spite of this. Zaev has agreed that this will change and that it will copy word for word Article 118 of the Greek Constitution, which of course does not talk about minorities within the country, but refers to defending and helping Hellenes across the world. And I was in complete agreement with him that they should copy the very good phrasing in the Greek Constitution. With regard to the frontier, the inviolability of borders is mentioned in a special paragraph in the agreement, also saying that we will not allow actions of a non-friendly character directed against the other country”, the Minister of Foreign Affairs told AMNA.
Asked how he interprets the fact that six in ten Greeks are alleged, in polls, to say ‘no’ to the agreement, Mr. Kotzias noted: “I think the majority of Greeks, like me, say emotionally that it would be good if we didn’t need to make any agreement. I also think the opposition parties thrive a little on the non-solution of problems. And here we have to distinguish between those who specialise in creating problems, like the current opposition – New Democracy and Pasok, who governed the country for decades after the junta fell – and those who solve problems. The country needs the latter, not the former. But solving problems is more difficult. And as I said in my speech at the conference, if you don’t do anything in foreign policy, you usually don’t face opposition. But as soon as you start solving problems, everyone starts saying how the solution could be better or worse. But I believe deeply in actions, like the conference held by the Foreign Ministry’s Scientific Council, and that is why the media I referred to didn’t cover the conference, because they don’t want the Greek people to gain a better understanding of the Greek people’s real interests. And incredible things are being said. For example, a woman on the street said to me, “you should be ashamed of yourself for handing over Thessaloniki so the Skopjans can make it their capital.” Nonsense. But as the Greek people say, do you know what is unbeatable in our country? Malice and misinformation. It’s not the woman’s fault. The ones at fault are those who, in order to promote their opposition agenda, are undermining an agreement that, as you will have seen, is being called a masterpiece of a diplomatic agreement by respected newspapers abroad.”
“It will be referred to as 'North Macedonia' in all official documents”
Asked whether the agreement could have provided for fYROM citizens’ being called ‘Slavomacedonians’ or ‘North Macedonians’, and not as they want to be called, Mr. Kotzias noted: “We have to distinguish between two things: Officially, the term 'North Macedonia' will be in the title of their institutions, as well. But if you think I can make it so every citizen is called 'North Macedonian', I will ask you the following simple question: There is a resident of Skopje and he tells his girlfriend that he is "Macedonian". What do we do in this case? Will we set up a thought-police state that will put him in prison? What we said is that the citizens of this country have the right to self-determination. This is a global right that we cannot change. But at the same time, we can call them whatever we want. We can call them by their Slavic name. We can talk about a Slavomacedonian language, Slavomacedonian nation. On the level of the private citizen, only an authoritarian, despotic state can choose what the citizen will be called unofficially. But on the state ID, the institutional ID, everything will have the name 'North Macedonia'. In other words, their Ministry of Foreign Affairs will not be the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of "Macedonia" or the "Macedonians". It will be the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of 'North Macedonia'. Such and such a school will be the school of 'North Macedonia'. But outside the institutional system or state contexts, you cannot impose how people self-determine. Some people say, “we’re in the Balkans,” or “we are westerners,” or “we belong to the east.” Should we start punishing these people and throwing them in jail? And what will we decide? Are we westerners or easterners, or a mix? People self-determine as they want to ...”
We ensured the elimination of irredentism
“In negotiations, you make compromises. They say, “Macedonian citizens of North Macedonia.” For years, these people have been entering Greece, with travel documents, as “Macedonians”. And everyone who is criticizing the agreement is pretending they have forgotten this or didn’t know about it. And the question is not what we want to call them. Based on the accomplished facts and their needs, the question is: What’s better: Macedonians or citizens of 'North Macedonia'? That is the alternative. And of course the name “citizens of North Macedonia” is much better. And we have to remember that we didn’t fight a war against these people; we didn’t defeat them. We didn’t impose an occupation constitution on them. We carried out friendly negotiations. And we got the main thing for us, which was eliminating irredentism, recognition of the borders, recognition that there are no minority demands or rights in Greece, recognition that they have to change their name to 'North Macedonia', recognition that this name, 'North Macedonia', must be for all uses, recognition that they have to amend their constitution ... This is an agreement between two states. It is not binding for individual persons.
I’ll give you an example. In the Interim Accord, it says that both sides are prohibited from manifesting irredentism. At the demonstration that took place here at Syntagma Square and at the demonstration in Thessaloniki, some far-right elements – not everyday people who rightly went to the demonstrations out of concern – shouted, “bring us guns so we can enter Skopje.” What is that? Is that not irredentism? And I was left with a question regarding the political parties and Church officials who supported these demonstrations: Why didn’t they condemn these slogans? Do they think it is to be expected that, today, in Greece, people are shouting, “bring the guns so we can enter Skopje?” In other words, if we heard slogans like that at demonstrations in Turkey, in Istanbul, in Ankara, wouldn’t we see it as a provocation? Wouldn't we condemn such irredentist phenomena? How can we grant ourselves such ‘rights’ and not grant them to others? To be honest, I haven’t heard slogans like that in Skopje.
Irredentism – as professor Marilena Koppa put it correctly at the conference – expresses an intention to retake territory that you have lost. Irredentism means, first, that you are making territorial claims and, second, that you will pursue these claims by all means. I no longer see any territorial claims. Mr. Zaev has been saying this from morning to night. Now, if there are foolish opposition protesters or people doing this out of business interests, saying there is irredentism, our societies have to take measures – not suppression measures, naturally. Measures include, for example, the provisions for changing school books. The process started on 17 July. A month after the agreement, meetings and the creation of the scientific groups started regarding this issue. Irredentism is also their laying claim to our ancient Greek heritage. These claims have ended. Skopje’s airport has already been renamed Skopje International Airport. The name of the motorway running from our border to Skopje has been renamed, the statues have been taken down or are being taken down. I think these are all very serious issues, because we are fighting, together with the Zaev government, to stop people from being poisoned with fanaticism; fanaticism that has no place in today’s world. We want friendship. We want a common course so that we can contribute to the development of this region, and so that this region can contribute to the development of the Balkans as a whole. If you read the books by Michalis Papakonstantinou, of New Democracy, and of Mr. Skyllakakis, the Secretary General of Mrs. Bakoyannis’ party and former Secretary General here at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, you will see what they all say. That 25 years ago we unfortunately did not realise that the world was changing and, instead of dealing with the essential problems, we argued over problems of formality. And that, unfortunately, we did not realise that we needed to make our northern neighbour our best friend, instead of keeping it at arm’s length without understanding how the world was changing. This still holds true for some people today,” the Minister of Foreign Affairs stressed to AMNA.
But aren’t there differences between the current policy on Skopje and the national line drawn by former prime minister Kostas Karamanlis in 2008, in Bucharest?” we asked Mr. Kotzias:
“In 2008, Kostas Karamanlis said that the country we still call fYROM had to change its name. If the name didn’t change, they couldn’t join NATO. Now the name is changing. The content of the Bucharest process and negotiations did not include negotiations on the name or even a proposed agreement. Not allowing this country to join an organization is one thing, and the agreement the two countries are making is another. Bucharest was not a proposed agreement. Bucharest was a condition for fYROM’s joining NATO: first we had to reach an agreement.
The solution on product names
We asked the Minister of Foreign Affairs about the disagreement and objections being expressed by businesspeople in Northern Greece regarding product names.
“Let’s be honest: More objections are coming from businesspeople in Athens. Because businesspeople in Thessaloniki, as you saw at the conference the Prime minister attended there, welcomed the agreement. And why did they welcome it? Because some people are acting as if, until now, our neighbouring country’s products had the name 'North Alaskan', and suddenly they are being called 'North Macedonian' products. That’s wrong and it’s a lie. Until now, this country’s products have been called "products of Macedonia". And from now on, as soon as the agreement is ratified and goes into effect, they will be called products of 'North Macedonia'.
Is there a time frame for this?
“It will happen automatically for products of 'North Macedonia'. What will take more time to solve is the products themselves, their brand names, and not their country of origin or production. Because there are Greek products that are correctly called Macedonian products and fYROM products that are also called "Macedonian". There are 3,500 businesses in the two countries – that is how many the University of Thessaloniki found, and we have the study here – that have the word ‘Macedonian’ in their name. This is why we said we will create a committee under the supervision of the European Union and the UN. We are a member state of the European Union. We’re not concerned. However, didn’t these products have these names up until now? Now we are going to regulate the issue. We are going to resolve it. The people who saw the problem and did nothing about it are cursing now because we want to solve it.
Mr. Minister, what makes you believe that the 140 countries throughout the world that have currently recognised fYROM as "Macedonia" will accept the new name?
“Watch the BBC video that shows what the BBC called fYROM before the agreement and after the agreement. Before the agreement, the BBC, CNN, all of the major channels called fYROM plain "Macedonia", and there was no Macedonia on the map of Greece. With the agreement, fYROM is called 'North Macedonia', and Greek Macedonia is shown on the map as Macedonia. And I ask you, what it patriotically closer to what we want: the map that eliminates Greek Macedonia and refers to Skopje as "Macedonia", or a map that has Skopje as 'North Macedonia' and Northern Greece as Macedonia? Listen, Zaev’s recent letter to NATO is very interesting. It says that his country is applying to join NATO under the name 'North Macedonia'. What NATO member state or member state of the European Union can refer, from now on, to a state other than by the name under which that state itself is asking to join them? And the second thing is, the commitments fYROM has undertaken include its writing to all the states that have recognised it as plain "Macedonia" to say that it will now be called 'North Macedonia' and wants to be called that from now on. If Turkey, for example, wants to continue to call it plain "Macedonia", it will be violating the NATO treaty, the agreement at the UN and the agreements the state of 'North Macedonia' itself has made with each third party.”
The agreement will come before the Hellenic Parliament as soon as the whole process is completed in Skopje
How realistic is it, however, to believe that the agreement will be accepted in fYROM in the end, given that the latest poll shows that 54% of the country’s residents oppose the agreement?
“I saw that, but three days ago there was another poll that said 70% were in favour of the agreement. Tell me what company carried out the poll and what interests that company represents, and I will comment. In my opinion, the majority of the friendly neighbouring people want to join NATO, not to say an absolute majority of the Albanian element and a majority of the Slavomacedonian element want to join NATO and the European Union. If they decide not to join – I don’t want that, I don’t believe that’s what they’ll decide, I don’t think that’s what will happen – but if that happened, I think it’s clear that we are not at fault in any way.
Ratification will take place with the referendum and then the constitutional changes have to be made. You have to understand how difficult it is for a country to change its name and to change its Constitution. And what a major move it is on the other side’s part – some people cursed me for acknowledging the other side’s difficulties. It is a difficult thing, and they are doing it to have good relations with us and a Euroatlantic perspective. And if you will, from their standpoint, they will be doing all of this without knowing what will happen in the end in Greece; whether we will ratify the agreement.”
“Everyone wants us to resolve the problem so they can have the right to level accusations at us”
What is your real assessment of the Greek side’s stance?
“I think that as soon as the constitutional changes are ratified in fYROM, it should come before the Hellenic Parliament the very next day; in the Foreign Affairs Committee and then the Plenary,” Mr. Kotzias replied to AMNA.
And if Parliament doesn’t ratify the Agreement? Snap elections?
“There is no chance of that happening,” Mr. Kotzias reckons. “It is in the interest of both states – and the majority in both countries will realise this – for this story to end. And let me say something else: I’ve been hearing a lot of criticism from the opposition. I used a phrase in Parliament and I will repeat it: It is my feeling that everyone wants us to resolve this problem so they can have the right to level accusations at us. That suits them,” he added.
But what is happening with your partner in the government, Mr. Kammenos, who is reacting?
“I think he has the right to his own opinion, just as I have the right to mine,” Mr. Kotzias told AMNA, adding that "we should wait and see how things develop. I think that when the agreement is voted on in Parliament, a majority of the people will have understood the positive aspects of the agreement and that no one took Thessaloniki for the Skopjans. They will have seen that frightened and cowardly people are fabricating disaster scenarios and that the bold patriots are the ones who are right.”
But if the Independent Greeks vote against the agreement and withdraw from the government? Do you foresee a change in government in Greece and, consequently, the possibility of the agreement’s being voided?
“I don’t see a likelihood of a change in government, and no government can void international agreements that easily: agreements that have been confirmed by the 28 other member states,” Mr. Kotzias responded, noting that “these threats to void the agreement are playing to public opinion. And I reiterate, they are condemning an agreement that is many times better than any other agreement. The opposition politicians know it is a very good agreement, but it suits them, as an opposition tactic, to criticize it. Deep down, they are pleased. We are doing the hard and bold work, and they are pretending innocence. As I always say, history is a school for us to grow up, develop and learn in. It is not a prison. We have to throw off the shackles we ourselves put on.