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Minister of Foreign Affairs Giorgos Katrougalos’ interview on Spiegel Online with journalist G. Christides (11/03/2019)
JOURNALIST: Minister, Greece has settled the dispute on the name issue that simmered for decades with the neighbouring country of North Macedonia. Are you pleased about this?
G. KATROUGALOS: I think that every Greek citizen can see how much Greece’s international standing has been upgraded recently. We have not only established ourselves as a stable democracy, but as a country that exports stability. Following the Prespa Agreement for resolution of the naming dispute, we possess as great diplomatic capital as ever.
JOURNALIST: You met this week with your counterpart from North Macedonia, Nikola Dimitrov. Is this the sign of a new era?
G. KATROUGALOS: Out of a bitter dispute that divided our two countries for nearly 30 years, a relationship was created in which we consider our problems to be common problems. We both wish for the letter and the spirit of the Agreement to be truly implemented. In addition, we would like to build a strategic partnership between our two countries, and more generally in the Balkans.
JOURNALIST: Greek Prime Minister Tsipras and the Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Zaev, are candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize. Are they worthy of this?
G. KATROUGALOS: This shall be decided by the Nobel Prize Committee. But I believe that the Prespa Agreement truly is a ground-breaking Agreement. A Nobel Prize would be appropriate recognition of this.
JOURNALIST: North Macedonia’s joining NATO looms ahead. What are the other specific effects of the Agreement?
G. KATROUGALOS: The Balkans are considered to be an unstable region, and a potential hotspot for Europe. Now the trend to the contrary exists: a trend towards stability and cooperation. And this is something that is positive both for the region as well as for Greece. Our goal is to promote a single economic space in our region, a large market of almost 50 million people.
JOURNALIST: Many Greeks are once again concerned that Alexander the Great and ancient Macedonia will no longer be considered Greek. A well-liked example: On a British quiz, at some point, the question was posed: “What was Alexander the Great's nationality?” The response “Greek” was false.
G. KATROUGALOS: Of course nobody believes that Alexander the Great was a Slav. Mistakes are always made. I remember the Hollywood blockbuster about Alexander the Great: When he would enter into battle, he would shout out: “For Greece!” Even in a Hollywood film, which reflects the views of the average citizen, it is clear what Greece was, and what Macedonia was.
JOURNALIST: A problem arose recently when pictures appeared at a North Macedonian kiosk at the International Tourism Expo in Berlin, where the country was advertised simply as “Macedonia.” Following Greek protests, the signs disappeared.
G. KATROUGALOS: Their desire in wishing to implement the Agreement is obvious. Violations of the agreement, either due to oversight or habit, shall be immediately recorded and resolved.
JOURNALIST: What role do Russia, the US, and Turkey play in the talks on North Macedonia.
G. KATROUGALOS: Those three countries have interests in the region, and they are all trying to impose their own will.
JOURNALIST: What does Russia want?
G. KATROUGALOS: Russia is against the expansion of NATO. But in our talks with North Macedonia, the issue was our own interests.
JOURNALIST: Did Moscow pressure you to withdraw from the talks?
G. KATROUGALOS: There was no pressure whatsoever. Either way, we don’t allow ourselves to be pressured.
JOURNALIST: Greece expelled Russian diplomats. It is said that they tried to incite protests against the Agreement by bribing politicians and entrepreneurs.
G. KATROUGALOS: Listen, when we determined events were contrary to the manner in which a country should respect the sovereignty of another country, we reacted. But formally, no pressure was applied by Moscow, beyond an exchange of views. As I said, we don’t allow ourselves to be pressured.
JOURNALIST: Did Germany apply pressure in order to promote the Agreement?
G. KATROUGALOS: The situation as regards our relations with Germany greatly improved, and especially Tsipras’ cooperation with Chancellor Merkel. We both fought together to tackle the migration issue. And this contributed substantially to mutual recognition between the two government leaders. The yellow press used many clichés at the beginning of the economic crisis, but these have now been greatly weakened.
JOURNALIST: Up to 70% of Greek citizens reject the agreement with North Macedonia. This is a problem for Prime Minister Tsipras.
G. KATROUGALOS: The exact percentage differs according to the poll. I think that this has to do with an emotional reaction, which can be explained above all by the fact that the national pride of a large portion of our people was wounded during the years of the economic crisis. The crisis for the average Greek not only meant great poverty, but weakening of our national sovereignty as well. But I have no doubt that our citizens will change their mind when they come to understand the true meaning of the Prespa Agreement; when they think logically and not emotionally.
JOURNALIST: Elections for a new Parliament are expected in autumn. Do you still have time to persuade citizens?
G. KATROUGALOS: Voters won’t just decide based on the Agreement. For example, the fact that Greece has exited the bailout programme also counts.
JOURNALIST: What is the next priority in your work?
G. KATROUGALOS: We discuss tension-reducing measures with Turkey. This month, I will meet with my Turkish counterpart. We want to see if talks can recommence on Cyprus, in order for the island to be reunified according to the resolutions of the UN. We wish to exhaust every possibility of achieving this.
JOURNALIST: Greece is making claims for German reparations for damages suffered during World War II. Tsipras had promised that, by the end of 2018, the issue would be discussed in Parliament. Since then, this has continuously been postponed.
G. KATROUGALOS: I can’t state a specific date. I was present when Tsipras broached this issue with Chancellor Merkel. For us, this continues to be a pending issue - ethically, historically, politically, and legally. We shall continue to insist on discussing this.
JOURNALIST: In the immediate future?
G. KATROUGALOS: In the near future, the issue will come before the Hellenic Parliament; in March or in April.
JOURNALIST: And when will elections be held? Some expect early elections in May.
G. KATROUGALOS: Elections will be held in October. This is what the Constitution stipulates. Besides, our economic situation has just started to improve. We have no reason to change anything with regard to the date.