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Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Dendias’ discussion on Greek foreign policy in the framework of the Regional Growth Conference (Patras, 03.06.2021)
JOURNALIST: It is a great honour for us that the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Dendias, has accepted the invitation to participate in the Conference. Good morning, Minister.
Admittedly, you are one of the most active and effective Ministers of this government, so we are glad to have you with us.
Let me start our discussion on Greek-Turkish relations. There have been many comments on Mr. Çavuşoğlu’s visit to Athens on Monday, mainly for three reasons. The first was the walk you took together from the Maximos Mansion to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The second was the joint statements in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that were nothing like the press conference in Ankara and the third was the outpouring of friendliness demonstrated during the dinner at Acropolis, but also at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So, I want to ask you, have we passed from the gunboat diplomacy to the embrace diplomacy?
N. DENDIAS: First of all, on the subject of the hug that I know has been commented on. I have never made a secret of the fact that Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has been an acquaintance and friend of mine for 20 years. And I think that, exactly because of the “confrontation” in Ankara, he wanted to show that our personal cordiality had not been affected. After all, you know that it is always easier to discuss with someone who is your friend and with whom you have a personal relationship. Beyond that, it was indeed a completely different visit. But we must not be fooled by the fact that the climate was different. The climate was different because our differences were clearly articulated in public speech and I must tell you that they were reiterated during this visit. What has been done - and is a great improvement - is that I think the Turkish side has understood in the clearest way that, regardless of whether there are disagreements, whether there are completely different approaches, it must operate in a context that does not provoke the other side and does not violate international law. When this happens, we can manage our disagreements.
JOURNALIST: During your discussions, both at the bilateral and the expanded talks at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, did the Turkish delegation raise all the issues it raises in public? For example, did Mr. Çavuşoğlu and the Turkish side raise the issue of demilitarization of the Greek islands or even issues of sovereignty? I ask you this because many times in the previous period the Turkish side, the Turkish Foreign Minister himself said that "we will raise issues of demilitarization and sovereignty."
N. DENDIAS: I am not going to tell you what the Turkish side said, because that would not be proper. It was a closed meeting. However, I am going to tell you what we said, because this I have the right to do. We said everything that needed to be said, everything.
N. DENDIAS: Everything that constitutes Greek-Turkish difference and Turkish provocations from our point of view was raised and will continue to be raised. There is no way for us to depart from our firm national positions. Therefore, we have to look at things on two different levels. Yes, there is willingness to manage the significant differences between Greece and Turkey. However, these differences exist and the Greek side will continue to emphasize them. I also said that in the press conference. The tone was different of course. Nothing had been said from the other side that forced me to react. However, I said that there are important differences and completely opposite views on many serious issues. I said that. So, let us not jump to the conclusion that suddenly the Greek-Turkish differences have been resolved by waving a magic wand. They exist, they are there. We hope that in the future Turkey will refrain from provocations allowing for a favourable climate in which to discuss our differences and maybe, sometime, if Turkey changes its stance, to resolve them.
JOURNALIST: Since you mentioned the press conference, there was speculation that Mr. Çavuşoğlu was coming to Greece to somehow retaliate for what happened at the press conference in Ankara.
N. DENDIAS: This is not a football game. In Ankara, if you recall - now it makes no sense to interpret things - there were public statements made about issues that would have forced anyone, not just me, but any Greek Minister there, to respond. It is not an "à la carte choice" to be silent or to respond. Our country holds specific national positions, firmly based on international law. One is obliged to repeat them in public speech, when required. Otherwise, it will be considered that the country is departing from these firm positions and is embracing another perception. This cannot be allowed. I repeat this is not my personal issue. It is not an issue of the Mitsotakis Government and the position of the Prime Minister. It is purely a national issue. I believe that any Greek Minister in the same position as me in Ankara would have had the same reaction.
JOURNALIST: Indeed, in the press conference on Monday Mr. Çavuşoğlu was very careful and his tone, but also his statements did not resemble at all his rhetoric in Ankara in April. However, in an interview with "TO VIMA TIS KYRIAKIS" Mr. Çavuşoğlu, among other things, had said that Turkey does not reject the extension of Greece’s territorial waters to 12 nautical miles, where conditions allow. So, I wanted to ask you if at this stage Athens is considering the gradual extension of territorial waters in the Aegean.
N. DENDIAS: Greece will not discuss the extension of its territorial waters with Turkey, or with any other country. Under the Law of the Sea and UNCLOS, the extension of territorial waters to 12 miles is our national sovereign right. Greece will exercise this right when it judges that it is in its national interest. Turkey has a peculiar view of things. First, it has not signed UNCLOS. This, in my opinion, is wrong, but this is the Turkish position nevertheless. Secondly, it has made the casus belli threat against Greece, which is completely unacceptable. It is the only country on the planet - the only one, I emphasize - that has issued a threat of war, has threatened another country with war, if that other country exercises its legal right. Turkey is a minority of one in this and we should always emphasize it. We must not forget that.
JOURNALIST: One of the issues you raised during your discussion with Mr. Çavuşoğlu, was the issue of casus belli, at least as we hear through diplomatic sources?
N. DENDIAS: You know, it does not make sense to repeat what I have said, because I am only the instrument to voice our national positions. Every Greek Foreign Minister is obliged to do so. It is not possible to talk to the Turkish Foreign Minister and not raise the issue of the unacceptable threat of casus belli, that’s obvious.
JOURNALIST: The point, however, is that they do not comply, Minister. You raise the casus belli, we talk about our rights, but it seems that Turkey pretends not to listen, pretends not to take into account the Greek positions and international law.
N. DENDIAS: Turkey has a completely different approach, I already told you. I'm not going to give the impression - that’s why I'm telling you this- that everything is rosy. The point is this: Turkey should not act in a way that violates international law. What Turkey thinks concerns only Turkey. Turkey's behaviour, though, is of great importance, and so were the violations that took place last summer.
Our country cannot tolerate this. What we are hoping for is that Turkey now realizes that engaging in such violations is neither beneficial for Turkey nor leads anywhere, except to aggravate and worsen our relations.
JOURNALIST: You mentioned the tension we had last summer. Now – in view of the ongoing exploratory talks, the upcoming NATO Summit on June 14 and your own consultations - do you believe this summer will be calmer? Will we sail in calm waters or will we have another Oruç Reis on the Greek continental shelf?
N. DENDIAS: To tell you the truth, I hope it will be calmer, because I would not want to go through the same as I did last summer. Anyway, these are the indications we have.
I hope that Turkey will refrain from provocations and I want to tell you something, which we have already conveyed directly to the Turkish side, that Turkey should be as careful regarding the Cyprus issue.
JOURNALIST: Prior to Mr. Çavuşoğlu’s official visit to Athens, he was, during the weekend – on Sunday to be precise, on a so-called private visit to Thrace. And although Mr. Çavuşoğlu kept a low profile and did not organise a fiesta like the ones we had seen in similar visits of other Turkish officials in the past, he uploaded a video afterwards. I would like to ask you what is your opinion about Mr. Çavuşoğlu’s visit to Thrace and how do you comment on the reaction of the Pomaks, who said that he is a persona non grata in Thrace.
N. DENDIAS: Regarding what the Turkish Minister said in Thrace, there was an immediate and clear statement by the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Papaioannou. Therefore, I consider this issue closed. We were told that we should not have let him go to Thrace and so on. Greece is a country with confidence, a European country, which respects international law and has nothing to fear. We are not a country that will impose restrictions. But - and that is why Mr. Papaioannou made the statement- we are a country that would clearly express its views, when the other side makes its own, completely unfounded allegations.
JOURNALIST: Now, let us discuss the Cyprus issue, if you have no objection. First of all, I wanted to ask you to comment on the announcement of Tayyip Erdogan, who has said that he will go to the occupied part on July 20, the anniversary of the invasion, and there he will establish a base with armed drones. This is one part of my question on the Cyprus issue and the second part is, how do you evaluate the opposition's proposal to link the prospect of a Customs Union revision in the EU-Turkey relationship with the recognition on the part of Turkey of the Republic of Cyprus and the prospect of having recourse to The Hague. Do you think it is a positive proposal?
N. DENDIAS: First of all, I will tell you that my advice to the Turkish side, if it has any value, is to avoid further provocations in Cyprus and the Cyprus issue. In any case, Turkey is completely in the wrong, regarding the Cyprus issue. Turkey invaded Cyprus under the pretext of the Treaty of Guarantee, but has remained there as an army of occupation. Whatever Turkey is doing in Cyprus is simply aggravating an extremely thorny problem and making it even more difficult to solve. I still have hope. It is not for me to advise President Erdogan, but I hope that during his visit to Cyprus he will avoid anything that would be a breach of international law. He should avoid disregarding not only Greece or the Republic of Cyprus, but international law, the European Union, the need for a comprehensive rules-based framework to govern international relations. Now, you are asking me a series of things related to the Cyprus issue. I will tell you something more general. We are far behind anything that would allow optimism for a solution to the Cyprus issue. Unfortunately, the Turkish stance in Geneva a few weeks ago has brought us to the worst point since 1974. Why? Because from 1977 onwards there had been at least one agreed framework for discussion, as well as efforts to decide on the terms of the functioning of a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. This was the first time that Turkey and the Turkish Cypriot side questioned this framework laid down in a number of UN Security Council resolutions, as well as supported by a common understanding of all parties until recently. So, we are at the worst point we have ever been. And the last thing we need in this very difficult situation is more provocation.
JOURNALIST: Yes, unfortunately it seems that the Turkish side is not backing down but insists on a two-state solution. And that is probably why the discussions in Geneva did not have the results you would have liked, at least according to the statement you made after their conclusion.
N. DENDIAS: Indeed, there were no results in Geneva, we went several steps back and I am very sorry to say that. What we are saying is that a solution for Cyprus – in fact a solution anywhere in the world – cannot exist outside the framework of international law. There are no ad hoc solutions. This is not getting us anywhere in life, either in the lives of people, or in the lives of states, or in the history of mankind. Solutions are sought within the framework provided by international law and the United Nations resolutions. This is what we are asking from Turkey, this is what we are asking from the Turkish Cypriot community and this will be the Greek position - it was, is and will be.
JOURNALIST: One last thing about the Eastern Mediterranean region, I want to ask about Libya. The German Foreign Ministry announced that the next conference will be held on June 23 with the participation, for the first time, of the new transitional government of Libya. Has Athens been invited to this conference and what are your expectations, since you have visited Libya many times and are in communication with the new transitional government?
N. DENDIAS: For us, the situation in Libya is very different now than it was a few months ago. We have reopened our Embassy, we have opened a Consulate in Benghazi, we have visited Libya, and we are in talks with the government of Libya. That was not the case with the Sarraj government. So, Greece is in direct dialogue and communication with the Libyan side. Nevertheless, we are extremely dissatisfied with the fact that Germany, obsessively insisting on a specific tactic, did not invite us to this meeting. I have also expressed our dissatisfaction to my German colleague and I think the same will happen at the level of the Prime Minister. I will soon meet with the UN Special Envoy Jan Kubis, just to convey the same to him, although I know that he has no responsibility for it.
JOURNALIST: So, despite the fact that Athens will not participate in this conference, do you think that the issue of the Turkish-Libyan memorandum may be on the agenda? And do you think that, since it has not been ratified by the Libyan Parliament yet, its ratification should be discussed with the new transitional government?
N. DENDIAS: What should be in the thought and practice of the transitional government is its non-activation. In any case, the memorandum is legally non-existent, it is a legal absurdum. It is an agreement made under peculiar circumstances, devoid of any legality and realism. What the current government can do, must do and we think will do, is to leave it in the lurch, hold elections and then the new elected government of Libya should act in compliance with international law, regarding the memorandum. But this is not the only issue in Libya. What must be decided and implemented is the immediate withdrawal of foreign troops and mercenaries from Libya. This is the imperative. Foreign troops and mercenaries must leave Libya - tomorrow morning if possible - and there are certain countries that are stalling and do not want that to happen. And I am referring to Turkey, to begin with.
JOURNALIST: Right. Now we move further north, to the Balkans. I want to ask you if there is a scenario of border change in the Balkans on the table, because an anonymous non paper that was released a few days ago mentions something like that. So, I would like to know if you have any such information and what is the position of Athens in such a case?
N. DENDIAS: The Balkans is a peculiar region. Tomorrow morning, I will go to Kosovo, the issues there are well known. Bosnia and Herzegovina is another issue. The course of the accession of the Western Balkans countries to the EU is not a given. It is a long-term and difficult effort. The last thing the Balkans really need is thoughts of border changes. The Balkans is a potentially volatile region, especially the Western Balkans. We do not need to go far back, as long as we remember what happened in the last decade of the 20th century. Things reminiscent of the Middle Ages happened a few hundred kilometers north of Thessaloniki, at the end of the 20th century, at the dawn of the 21st century. Everything we do in the Balkans must be done very, very carefully, so as not to trigger other uncontrollable developments, which unfortunately are always very near to the surface and not far from becoming real, much more so than the average person thinks today. So, I say that I do not believe in any way that this non paper came from any state, head of state or government in the Balkans. After all, everyone denied it, even the one who was blamed for it. But, in any case, any reference to a change of borders in the Balkans is sacrilegious. It is something extremely dangerous.
JOURNALIST: As regards Greek-Albanian relations, I would like to ask at what stage are our consultations to have recourse to The Hague. I ask this because we see that Edi Rama still has a very close relationship with Tayyip Erdogan.
N. DENDIAS: I'll tell you. There was an issue there that had nothing to do with Greek-Albanian relations. It had to do with the relationship between the Prime Minister and the President of Albania, the serious disagreement whether the President would give the Prime Minister authorization to negotiate the terms of the agreement, an agreement to which Edi Rama has publicly and repeatedly committed, so there is no problem.
But I will ask you not to consider Greek-Albanian relations through the prism that the Albanians are friends with the Turks, therefore by default they are not friends of Greece. It is much more complicated. Albania has made a historic choice. The fact that it is keen to become a member of the European family, which means co-signing all the decisions of the European acquis, shows where Albania will be in 50, in 100, in 150 years from today. And you will see that Albania has a record of significant compliance with the European Union's foreign policy decisions.
So, yes, Albania has close relations with Turkey, yes, Edi Rama has a personal relationship with President Erdogan, we know that. But this does not mean that there is not plenty of room for improving Greek-Albanian relations. And if you will allow me, Albania is doing what I would like Turkey to do at some point, to turn to Europe, to embrace European values and try to become a member of the European family.
This will definitely bring Albania very close to Greece in the future, as long as we understand it and encourage it. And, of course, we are not going to make any concessions to the Albanian side. It must fully meet the conditions for participation in the European project, including the full protection of the rights of the Greek minority. However, I am glad to say that Albania has made its choice. It is a matter of time and effort, but it has made the fundamental choice.
JOURNALIST: One last question, Minister. Regarding the developments in Belarus, we recently witnessed this spy thriller with the Ryanair flight. How do you see the European Union's relations with the Lukashenko regime and whether there is a debate about further sanctions against Belarus?
N. DENDIAS: I think we need to move to further sanctions. What happened is unheard of. If we have reached the point of hijacking by states, then it means that humanity is not living in the 21st century, it is far behind in terms of law and rights and the protection of human life and the protection of freedom of transport. What happened, maybe we did not experience it as much possibly because it is far from us, but is totally unacceptable. How is it possible for a European country to land an airplane that is flying over its territory in observance of the international aviation rules and to abduct and hold a passenger? How can this be tolerated by the international community? These things are unacceptable. First of all, we may remember the very strong statement by the Prime Minister, Mr. Mitsotakis, on the issue, which resulted in our position that "enough is enough" in the Council of Ministers and our full support to any decision to impose sanctions. And the fact that the European Union has not yet imposed sanctions on Lukashenko himself is because it wants to give him a window of opportunity to initiate a dialogue with the opposition and lead his country smoothly to elections. In the end this is what we want, to give civil society the opportunity to express itself. But this incident will not be forgotten, nor will we leave it behind. We will continue to demand, methodically and continuously, the release of the illegally detained passenger, the restoration of human rights protection in Belarus, the democratization of society and, finally, elections.
JOURNALIST: You were the first Minister of Foreign Affairs to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after the incident. I would like to ask if you discussed the issue and, in general, for you to comment on the level of Greek-Russian relations following your visit.
N. DENDIAS: I wish to be honest with you. When our government took over, the Greek-Russian relations were not at the best possible level. Lately there has been an improvement in these relations, without of course ignoring our differences, without ignoring the fact that Greece is a member of the European Union that has imposed sanctions on Russia. Greece, however, has always historically and within the European Union argued that there should be a "dual track approach" with Russia. We need to have open channels. On the other hand, we need to fully abide by the decisions of both the European Union and the NATO military alliance to which we belong, and also to be absolutely clear on the issues of democracy and the protection of human rights. This, if explained honestly, is well understood by the Russian side. Russia is aware that Greece is a member of both NATO and the European Union. The point is, then, to have a very clear and solid explanation of what we can agree on and what we have fundamental and serious disagreements about.
JOURNALIST: Thank you for your time, Minister; it was a great honour to have you in this Conference. I warmly thank you.
N. DENDIAS: Thank you very much.