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Press Conference of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikos Kotzias, following the proceedings of the 3rd Ministerial Meeting between Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and fYROM (Thessaloniki, 3-4 May 2018)
COORDINATOR: Welcome to the press conference following the proceedings of the 3rd Ministerial Meeting between Greece, Albania, Bulgaria and fYROM. We will start with a general statement from the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Greece, Nikos Kotzias, followed by Q&A.
N. KOTZIAS: Thank you, Mr. Yennimatas. Good afternoon. I thank you for your trouble and care. This was the 3rd quadrilateral meeting. It is one of the initiatives we have taken over the past three years. As you know, our next initiative is on Thursday and Friday, in Sounion. Fifteen states, the Visegrad countries together with Slovenia, the four Balkan EU member states – Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece – and the six candidate and non-candidate countries of the Western Balkans will meet so we can discuss the European Union and the future of the European Union.
Moreover, we will be meeting again in Rhodes with a total of 22 Southeast European and Arab states. Together with observers from Vietnam, Colombia and Indonesia, to discuss issues concerning the development of stability and cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean. Additionally, on Tuesday we will be in Cyprus for the Greece-Cyprus-Israel trilateral meeting. These are for the coming days, the most important international formats we have created.
I also want to inform you that, after Sounion, on Saturday, in Athens, I will be meeting again with my counterpart Mr. Dimitrov, and Mr. Nimetz will be coming to provide his good services in the talks we are having on the name issue. In the talks we had yesterday as well. I want to inform you that I also saw Mr. Dimitrov yesterday, before the dinner we had, for an extensive discussion in a positive direction.
We are at the centre, we have resolved all the issues, and we have one or two central issues to resolve. And yesterday and today we discussed variations of solutions or possibilities on issues we are dealing with.
But this wasn’t the central issue of our quadrilateral meeting here. The central issue of our meeting is the relations between the four states who have common borders in the southern Balkans – how we can develop this cooperation. So we took a number of decisions, including the decision to step up cooperation between the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, to have more frequent meetings of the Political Directors and of certain Foreign Ministry Directorates that deal with problems of common interest, such as our Directorates for European affairs and the Directorates for the Middle East and North Africa.
We also agreed that our next meeting will focus on economic development, and to this end it will be preceded by a meeting of experts, in preparation for the ministerial meeting.
We discussed thoughts on collaboration between a major university from each country in order to form a network of our largest universities and research centres. And we talked about something that will interest you, and Bulgaria undertook to make the preparations, together with Nikola Dimitrov, for meetings between journalists to promote better understanding between our states. We won’t be organizing this, of course, but we will urge private organizations – which will have our support – to hold these meetings.
We also concluded that we need to continue our cooperation in the energy sector, which is very important to us, of course, and to the other Balkan states. Some of them don’t have their own route, beyond that coming from Greece, for ensuring the quantities of energy they need.
At the meeting we are scheduling for late October or early November of this year, we will be looking again at migration issues to see how the summer went, what measures we need to take.
And I also want to inform you that Greece is hosting the breakfast in Luxembourg, before the Meeting of Foreign Ministers, with Albania. We are in the process of resolving our bilateral problems with Albania. Agreements have been reached. The EEZ issue is still pending, and I hope we finish with it by the end of the month. What we have more ahead of us are certain practical issues, laws established by presidential decrees. In other words, the implementation, translation – let’s put it that way – of all these into binding texts.
Moreover, there were meetings between the Ministers of Transport and Interior, regarding the sector of civil protection. I want to tell you that the unique and positive aspect of these quadrilateral meetings in Thessaloniki is that various Ministries have their separate meetings, and we also have a plenary session to discuss things.
I have the conclusions here. Allow me to have in front of me the conclusions of the special meetings of our two Ministries. Regarding the meeting Mr. Toskas had, it was ascertained, and this is a major advantage of our cooperation, that we implemented decisions from last October. Everything we programmed was implemented: from the meetings and collaboration of the Police Directors, the Police Authorities, the Fire-fighting Authorities, our cooperation on issues of security and fire-fighting. We are now training or will train, in the coming days, in Ptolemaida, Fire-fighting Officers from other countries.
And at today’s meeting we agreed on five issues. Further strengthening of joint training and seminars on the issues I mentioned, stepped-up meetings on an official level, exchange of operational information regarding criminality and its prosecution. And number of joint initiatives for cross-border cooperation, and of course civil protection and fire-fighting.
You see, as we found last summer, when Greece’s fire-fighting forces – and once again I thank Mr. Toskas publicly for this – had a major presence in our neighbouring countries, and especially in Albania, because fire knows no borders; it doesn’t go through passport control. It just crosses the border, and we should contribute to putting it out rather than letting it move ahead and spread.
What we discussed a great deal and are part of our relevant agenda are issues discussed by Mr. Spirtzis, and I thank him very much. His Ministry and his policies are an important positive-agenda tool in our international relations. It is that we have a vision, and he has the vision – I am conveying it, but it was developed by Mr. Spirtzis and is self-evident – that, in the future in this region, we don’t want citizens to feel there are obstacles to moving from one country to the other, to suffer long delays or have problems every time – to feel that there are obstacles and that the necessary security doesn't exist.
This is the vision – if I’m putting it correctly, Christos – and what I understood is that there were a number of connectivity agreements – road and rail – as well as new ideas regarding telecommunications, hydroplane transport, since the region has a lot of lakes, a lot of rivers and large seas.
And another thing, which I didn’t know and Ι am learning in my meetings with the competent ministries, is that there is a need and potential for common systems for capitalizing on new technologies to monitor road networks. There is dysfunction, particularly at the crossing points between one country and another, in monitoring the course of large trucks whose owners sometimes want to evade customs or their other obligations.
We also undertook to pass on our know-how on issues of European legislation pertaining to tender competitions – the standards, specifications of these competitions. Regarding our telecommunications connectivity and telecommunications fibre optics and utilisation of new technology.
And because there is a large range of connectivity issues, issues of major economic interest and major prospects, we decided to hold a meeting of politicians, scientists and officials with companies active in connectivity, here in Thessaloniki.
Personally, I must say that the meetings we have in Thessaloniki – this meeting and the others we have had – the conference we will hold with the help of the most competent Transport Ministry, underscore that when the borders essentially fall in the region, when we develop our cooperation in the way we can, as soon as we have resolved all of the issues inhibiting this cooperation, Thessaloniki will emerge as the obvious centre of this whole region. A city with a long tradition of international relations, of meetings with the other populations and peoples of the region. And this upgraded role will give Thessaloniki the position it deserves, geographically, historically, culturally and in terms of the economic potential that exists throughout the region.
Thank you very much.
COORDINATOR: The Minister will take some questions. Please state your name and the media outlet you represent.
REPORTER: I would like to request a clarification, if I may, Mr. Minister. As you referred to one or two central issues for the meeting with Mr. Dimitrov, whether these central issues can allow for a meeting, very soon, on the level of the prime ministers of the two countries, and whether you think there will be developments soon on the name issue.
N. KOTZIAS: I think that I and my good friend Nikola Dimitrov have done so much work in the past ten months that it would be a shame if it didn’t bear fruit. In fact, we joke that we see each other more often than we see our families. If I’m not mistaken, this was the tenth meeting this year. Sounion will be the 11th, then, with Nimetz, the 12th, Rhodes the 13th and lucky one. So we are having a lot of meetings because we are doing work in depth. I think we thought of many alternatives today. We didn’t come to a conclusion. We have to inform our Prime Ministers. If we conclude on these alternatives, conditions will have matured for meetings on a higher level, but of course this isn’t up to the Ministers of Foreign Affairs. It is up to their superiors, who, when we have taken the steps I hope we will take, will be able to contact each other and make decisions regarding their meetings. But I think we have to fight to the end to find this solution.
I am very happy that, at the beginning of June, we will have finished with the large package of issues we had with Albania – some of these issues are 40, 60, 70 years old. They seemed insoluble, but the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, from this perspective, have a duty to resolve problems and create the best possible framework for the other Ministries to act – Ministries that are taking action in any case, and I am always grateful to them. In particular, Mr. Spirtzis and Mr. Toskas, who have helped exceptionally in implementing the goals of foreign policy.
REPORTER: Can I assume, Minister, and tell me if I’m wrong, that the two central issues are the final name and whether the other side will agree to amend its constitution?
N. KOTZIAS: They might be, but you are drawing your own conclusion.
REPORTER: Minister, there is a question, in other words, of whether you can catch up, as Charilaos said. In other words, the dates for the NATO summit, with the European Union, for accession.
N. KOTZIAS: I will tell you that one very interesting issue is that – as you know, I read everything – I found a meeting between Charilaos Florakis and the leadership in Skopje. It must have been 25 years ago, and I thank the person who gave it to me. It is always interesting to read history. History catches up. We need to catch up with history.
REPORTER: Do you see the same political will from the side of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to resolve this issue? Is it ready to make a fairly painful compromise?
N. KOTZIAS: I think the more time passes, the more they believe the problem has to be resolved. As you know, first, we have invested a great deal of energy in this issue. Second, there is so much to gain. One mustn’t look at these negotiations narrowly, the name issue on both sides, who wins, who loses. One also has to look at the significance of the negotiations. I would say that the solution of this problem, and this is profoundly understood on both sides, will be what the English call a ‘game changer’. The button that changes the game. Because I believe that, after a few months, when the problem has been solved, there will be a new perspective. I also believe that it is becoming ever clearer to both sides that our major geopolitical and geostrategic problems do not lie in the relations between us. I think that every person grows up and matures through negotiations. And this is also true for me, not just for the other side. And at the same time, the will to resolve the problem grows. I hope we don’t disappoint anyone.
Of course, at this time we had the courage, we made the compromises we had to make on our part. They, too, must draw courage from their society and make the last moves. But I think they are people of good will, willing to show political leadership, if we can put it like that. And I want to be optimistic. From a young age, I have said that my philosophy is the philosophy of historical optimism. Without that, we wouldn’t be able to grapple with all of these issues. They have the positive recent experience of the agreement they made with Bulgaria, which was taken so badly by both societies. But now that is has been understood, the two societies have only good things to say about that agreement. We are close to completing the agreement with Albania. What I always say holds true – and it is having an international career: that history must be a school, not a prison. I hope we don’t go back to prison, in other words.
REPORTER: Minister, I’ll take you to the Aegean, where we had another incident, this time with a Turkish merchant vessel and a Greek gunboat. Are you worried about the increased and continuing activities on the part of the Turkish side of late, in spite of assessments to the contrary?
N. KOTZIAS: Of course, your question assumes that I am certain as to whether the incident with the Turkish merchant vessel was intentional or unintentional. I can’t judge that as of this time. Whether it concerns me? They woke me at 04:40, and from 04:40 until I appeared here, I issued instructions. Because these are issues in which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is very much involved. They are matters of international law, they are issues of representations from NATO and clarifications, if you will, with the Turkish side. But let’s do the work we came here to do.
I spoke in detail about Turkey in a recent interview. As you know, I don’t give interviews frequently. I think the Minister of Foreign Affairs should try to make foreign policy, and not other things. Turkey – as I always say, I think I’m tiring you – is a country with many, many contradictions. And ahead of the elections, beyond the revisionism and the restlessness, it is also exhibiting insecurity, I would say, fears, together with excessive self-confidence, which creates a contradictoriness. I think there are powers in the region that see that the developments in the energy sector are not proceeding as they would like. And to the issues they are raising in the Aegean or on the Cyprus issue, at bottom, they are adding another issue, this. In other words, along with their restlessness and revisionism, there are what an old Marxist would call logistical interests.
I think the job of foreign policy is to use analyses – not for me to constantly analyse publicly; there are professors, colleagues of mine, with excellent knowledge of the issue – but more to take political action in a way that keeps these things from manifesting themselves: the restlessness, revisionism and logistical interests, in a way that crosses red lines.
Regarding the merchant vessel, the information I had up to 08:00, while I was monitoring the situation, is that it didn’t stay in Greek territorial waters. You were in a better position to monitor the situation while you were waiting for us. It exited, it went into Turkish territorial waters. We have asked the Turks to take the measures provided for by international law. We’ll see whether that happens.
REPORTER: Mr. Kotzias, you said you met yesterday evening and this morning with Mr. Dimitrov. You said you resolved some issues, that some remain to be resolved. Would you say that the breakthrough came on the name issue? On the issue of erga omnes?
N. KOTZIAS: If what you are asking about had happened, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be having a party. But we do intend to have a party, you can be sure. I think that, if we succeed, it will be the only thing, during the years I have been in politics, that has made me happy. I’m not a professional politician. I am a political animal, in Aristotelian terms, or a political being, to put it more politely. What I always say about politics is that it is very bitter, but it is never boring. If it now has a little joy, it will do me good.
REPORTER: I would like to ask whether, in the many meetings you have had with your Skopjan counterpart, you raised the issue of the Greek minority in Skopje. Whether you asked for protection of the human rights of the Greek minority there, and whether you also asked the minority there to help find a solution with the neighbouring country. Thank you.
N. KOTZIAS: I am following a discussion in a certain category of Greek media, regarding the Greek minority, with great interest. I assume you are referring more to the Greek-speaking Vlachs.
REPORTER: As I am a Vlach, I mostly mean the Greek-speaking Vlachs, Minister.
N. KOTZIAS: So I understood you correctly, yes. I think there are exceptional people representing the Vlachs in Greece, and they are in a position to give you more information. There are 300 or 400 actual Greeks, holders of Greek passports, in our neighbouring country. We don’t believe there are minorities of the nature for making them an issue, our minorities, too. I remind you that the first thing raised by Konstantinos Karamanlis, and the first thing raised by Konstantinos Mitsotakis on the other hand, was that we should talk about expatriates, a diaspora, not minorities.
REPORTER: If I may, Minister, in a census, 300,000 Skopjans stated they were Vlach-speaking.
N. KOTZIAS: Yes, I know. As I say, they are Vlachs.
REPORTER: Who identify as Greek.
N. KOTZIAS: I’m with you on that, but they are not a minority in this sense. And I think that, here in Thessaloniki, you have Vlachs who know the issue well. I am thinking, for example, of Mr. Mertzos, who is a Vlach. I want to say this, because I think the Regional Governor of Epirus is a Vlach, if I’m not mistaken. I want to say that the Greek Vlachs – in general, I’m saying, at the opportunity of your question, and not as a response – are people of exceptional quality, highly educated and with a strong patriotic and internationalist consciousness. But I’m talking about the Vlachs in Greece.
REPORTER: In your last meeting, your previous meeting, in Ohrid, with Mr. Dimitrov, Mr. Dimitrov insisted with regard to ...
N. KOTZIAS: The meeting before last. Our last meeting was in Vienna.
REPORTER: Thank you for pointing that out.
N. KOTZIAS: No, I was trying to remember. It was our 3rd Vienna meeting in two months.
REPORTER: So, Mr. Dimitrov referred to Greece’s irredentism. Have you responded to him, or is Mr. Dimitrov insisting on this point.
N. KOTZIAS: Thank you for the question. First of all, I’m very surprised that Mr. Dimitrov said it there and that I responded there. In the Greek press, they reported one but not the other. So we don’t need to recycle those reports. But I want to clarify something. We are saying that the school books – because that’s mainly what we’re talking about – in our neighbouring country, our friendly neighbouring country, in this beautiful country, have elements of irredentism and that this has to end if we are to open the path they want. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of this friendly country asked me the same question the Albanian Minister of Foreign Affairs asked me when, a year and a half ago, we set up the Albania-Greece book committees. “Do I have the right to see the Greek books and whether there is anything that bothers me?” And I said, “You certainly have the right.” In other words, in international relations, I can’t say, “I’ll look at your books, but you can’t look at mine.” But while we found dozens of pages of problems, they found two problems on one page; two things they see as problems. That is what we meant: That, of course, when we are looking to reach an agreement, that we will look at this friendly country’s books to make sure they don’t contain irredentism, if they have any thoughts, they should express them to us. We have looked at our books and they don’t contain irredentism against them, and nor could they. But we aren’t afraid to let them read our books. I don’t understand the Greek press. In other words, we’ll go and take their books and make our observations, which they are bound to accept, but they don’t have the right to express an opinion? This sort of thing happens only after a war, when one has achieved all-out victory, like France did with Germany after World War I, and we saw how that took us to World War II.
We demand the implementation of international law, and when we demand that, we don’t exclude ourselves if someone else asks it of us. I stress that it isn’t admission of irredentism on the part of Greece. It is admission of their right, because he, too, has to maintain the balance in his country. I mean, what is he going to say? The Greeks came to look at our books, but we aren’t looking at theirs? How can he say this in his country? We recognize the same rights and we recognize them without fear, because we don’t have things like irredentism in our school books. We don’t have maps that include parts of their country in our country, while they do have such maps in their books. So we don’t mind if they look at ours and we look at theirs. There are no issues with our books. I am against a fear-based foreign policy.
I don’t have issues with international laws so that I have to hide, and nor do I have fear syndromes. I am a person, and our foreign policy and our government are open, with self-confidence, in the knowledge that, in our opinion, we are right whether or not we have problems.
Consequently, all of this discussion that took place in the Greek press hinged on their not writing my response. I would like to take this opportunity to make a general comment on some major sites and newspapers. Some politician in some prefecture comes out and talks about foreign policy: news. Another comes out: news. The Minister of Foreign Affairs speaks: what he says isn’t reported. In other words, I, as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, don’t constitute news regarding foreign policy? Only everyone else does? I’m saying as an office, as an institution. So a colleague, an excellent colleague of mine, Nikola Dimitrov, says something to me. The Greek press is interested only in what he says to me. My response isn’t reported. This is a strange kind of journalism. So thank you for your question, because it allowed me to make this observation. I’m grateful.
Thank you very much. We’ll be back in October or November.