Kotzias: ‘Turkey is a neighbouring country on edge’

Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, in an interview with Alpha Radio, inter alia stressed:

On Turkey: I think Turkey is currently a country very much on edge. It has many problems. It has a problem with its neighbours, problems with Russia, with Armenia, with Israel, difficult relations with Egypt. It has the wars in Iraq and Syria. This puts it on edge.

The second thing is, domestically we see a realignment of the power bloc, as we call it. Erdogan, a very powerful personality, remains, but at the same time the army is returning to the agenda, because it is carrying out four wars. Don’t forget that it is carrying out a war against the Gulen supporters, a second against the Kurds, domestically, and two external wars, in Iraq and Syria. Consequently, there has been a de facto strengthening of the military’s role.

Third, the Erdogan system wants to transform the – formally – prime minister-centered Turkey into a political system where the President has many, many powers. To achieve this, he has to isolate the extreme right or integrate it, adopting its slogans. Included in these are nationalist slogans against Greece. At the same time, he has to exert pressure on the Kurdish issue, calling it a terrorist problem that must be dealt with correspondingly. I think that Turkey is a neighbouring country on edge. Foreign policy has no other job to do than to ensure that, despite Turkey’s being on edge, there won’t be tensions or that the tensions in the region won’t multiply.

On NATO’s presence in the Aegean: I would say that we are experiencing one of the greatest paradoxes: a government of the left not objecting to NATO’s participating in deterring or controlling the refugee flows, and the Turkish government not wanting it. First, its not wanting the extension of NATO’s actions to the third and fourth region; that is, the Dodecanese, Ikaria, Samos. Second, its not wanting helicopters to be used because it is afraid Greece will create an ‘acquis’ in the airspace. Third, it essentially wants the mission to end. I think that, at the NATO summit meeting in Warsaw, Turkey will likely ask for the complete withdrawal of NATO from the region, calling the mission successful to get it to leave. This means, in other words, that the tools with which they once exerted pressure on us are now irritating our neighbours.

On ‘Grey Zones’: We have this amazing situation: We have a neighbour who is on edge and to whom we explain – and they need to understand – that we are the best possible neighbours, despite our problems. We are not Iraq or Syria, we are not at war and we cannot allow our relations to evolve in that direction. We are making proposals to them on a number of issues; proposals to which we do not yet have responses, and at the same time we are creating major infrastructure, such as: the Agreement Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras made in Izmir on connecting Istanbul with Thessaloniki via high-speed rail, as well as the linking of Izmir, by high-speed rail, cargo and passenger, with Thessaloniki. That is, there are major projects. We have a million Turkish tourists in our country. That is the positive side. We have a Turkish leadership that, over the past twelve years, has not provoked a ‘heated’ incident. We have to acknowledge this. That is, despite the problems we have, it isn’t like the old days, when the seculars provoked a ‘heated’ incident from time to time. On the other hand, however, we have a Turkey on edge; a Turkey that, if it doesn’t contain society itself, domestically, may go onto other paths.

Let me say something about the grey zones, too. The grey zones have a very great absurdity. There are those who think that the Turks have declared as grey zones some islands adjacent to their shores. But one of the islands they have identified as a grey zone is Gavdos, which, as I explain to all of my international collocutors, is not just below Crete, but is also in the western part of Crete. That is, it is the side that looks towards Europe, not the side that looks towards Anatolia and the Middle East.

[…] They tried to characterize Oinousses as a grey zone. In fact, some Turkish admirals wanted to say that the maritime areas around Oinousses are also Turkish, but these arguments did not stand in the international organizations. We didn’t give Turkey the opportunity to take such a game further.

On Hagia Sofia issue: We said that Turkey should have the pleasure, have the satisfaction that, for historical reasons, major monuments of global culture are on its territory right now. It doesn’t see this, though, and it handles these cultural wonders in an uncultured manner. By extension, it sometimes shows that it’s as if certain sectors of its public administration, as we say in yesterday’s announcement, haven’t reached the 21st century.

I think there are some people in Turkey who want to make a show, domestically, of being good and faithful Muslims, and they convert every sacred site into a mosque. Others want to show internationally that they do whatever they want in their country.

But to me this shows insecurity and not self-confidence. When you feel secure, you honor the great cultural monuments, heritage, that history has brought to your territory, and you don’t treat them in an uncultured manner.

[…] it isn’t a bilateral problem. It is international. They don’t have respect for an international cultural monument, which UNESCO and all of the international players respect. A monument for which Turkey had shown respect, at least since the days of Kemal Ataturk.

On Turkey’s stance: I have to say that we had certain positive points from Turkey. You know that these things aren’t always passed on by the news media, and, as Foreign Minister, I have a duty to be balanced. We have, for example, for the first time in a very long time, masses being said in Izmir. We had the throwing of the cross for the first time, at the beginning of the year.

Moreover, the Patriarch and other Metropolitans of the Ecumenical Patriarchate were allowed to say mass in certain abandoned churches on Turkish territory, and faithful were allowed to travel from Greece. So we had these positive steps.

We also had, for the first time, a policy that allowed the junior high school and, prospectively, the high school on Imbros to reopen. I think it is a great success on our part that the Greeks of Imbros can go back, live there again with a church and a school, when at one time they were systematically pushed out. You know, at one time they opened prisons on Imbros, and the prisoners were let out at night to terrorize …

So we have these positive developments. Next to these positive developments, we have the negative ones, Hagia Sophia – we explained the reason a few minutes ago – which shows contradictoriness of the uneasy power of Turkey. And I want to explain “uneasy power.” Uneasy power comes as a political analytical tool for explaining the conduct of Germany after Bismarck, one and two decades before the First World War. It doesn’t serve to characterize whether it is a good or bad thing. It serves to show that it is contradictory, holding risks as well as potential for understanding.

On Albania: I would say that we have an interesting development in Albania. It is a country that is a very important neighbour for us, with which we have friendly relations as a country – I’m not talking about the governments; I’ll come to that. Moreover, we have the pleasure and good fortune to have 650,000 Albanian fellow citizens, in a sense, in our country. With the experience we have, I would say, in fact, that these people show that they are, in their great majority, people who can be integrated into Greek society.

I had students at the University of Piraeus who are teachers now in Albania, and I feel proud. We have a good relationship. But in this good relationship there are historical problems. And we have an Albania that had two characteristics: the one was that it drew closer to Turkey very quickly in the previous decade – Turkey tried to make Albania a part, shall we say, of the old Ottoman empire, the Ottoman alliance today – and second, a nationalism that was reborn through the dynamism of expansion of what we call the “Albanian factor.” So, in life, again, we again have two sides. I think we have these positive developments: that Albania isn’t tied to the Turkish chariot, that the Albanians, even their religious leaders, and look into this, have been frustrated by the Turkish leadership’s conduct towards them.

You know, it is important that the religious leaders – and I certainly don’t mean Archbishop Anastasios, this holy and wise man, I mean of the other religions – are deeply disturbed. Don’t forget that Gulen built a number of successful schools and foundations in Albania, which are attended by a large portion of Albania’s elite class. Luckily, there are also some Greek schools, such as Arsakeio, in Albania. These elite were frustrated, along with the religious leaders, at the all-out nature of the battle of the majority of Turkey’s elite with the Gulen supporters, with whom they had formed a connection. But I don’t want to analyze Albania. We have certain new phenomena in our relations. The disconnection of the close Albanian-Turkish ties is a very interesting development that Greek foreign policy needs to bear in mind. We are also bearing in mind that neo-nationalism is appearing and that a portion of foreign policy, the people who deal with foreign policy – and I don’t mean just diplomats, but mainly politicians – are watching domestic developments in Albania, the elections coming up next year. The elections are scheduled for the summer, but they may be held earlier, in January or February.

What does Greek foreign policy need to do? One thing is to denounce the bad sides of relations with Albania, and these bad sides exist. The other is to sit down and say, proudly, that we have the good sides that we have achieved. I am a fan of proactive foreign policy. That is, I go and fight to improve relations and resolve problems. Because in Tirana, at both the press conference and the university where I went to speak, I said this: Do we have problems? We have problems. Foreign policy has to help to resolve the problems and not be afraid in case the problems are resolved and we lose another aspect of our job. And I ask you to note this: The Greek Foreign Minister spoke with all the channels, live, and I was able to send my messages to the Albanian people; messages I had to send in a friendly and clear manner. And not in a way that would create enemies, giving vent to the frustrations of some people here in Athens.

So I went to solve the problems. In a difficult situation, because my visit was preceded by the conference of the Cham party, at which the tone was raised on this issue, and while the Greek press, four newspapers, asked, “Where are you going Kotzias?”. So, as I said, it isn’t foreign policy to say, “don’t go and solve any problems, because what will we have to say then?”.

I have two things to say with regard to the Cham issue. First: The Foreign Minister of Albania said four times, publicly, during the press conference and at the University of Tirana, with all of the cameras on him, that ‘Cham Epirus’ and such nonsense does not exist. That Albania is part of the system of the Helsinki Final Act, and no one can ask for or dream of a change in borders. The basic demand of this Cham party died, right in front of me. The question isn’t whether or not I should have gone. The question is whether my going paid off.

The second: Mr. Rama himself – when I met with him, and who states his opinion, have no doubt – didn’t raise this issue with me at all.

On the Cham issue: I was asked about this issue by the reporters. And I responded as a prudent foreign minister should, in my opinion. That is: We have Chams who were in Greece. We have Cham Albanians who came from Albania during the German occupation and formed the Cham units, particularly in Thesprotia, and they tried in Corfu as well. And we have the large mass of Chams – the Chams, you know, are Islamized Christians, Islamized mainly between 1611 and 1630 – who always lived in the region of Albania and in the state of Albania, never came to Greece and had nothing to do with the Second World War. The silliest thing I could have done would have been to fuel this Albanian nationalist propaganda that is trying to portray the issue of the Chams of Epirus, mainly of Thesprotia, as an issue that concerns all 200,000 Chams, who have never seen Greece. So I explained that the Cham problem isn’t the Chams who were born, grew up and lived their whole lives, from generation to generation, for four hundred years, in Albania. Nor are the Greek Chams currently living in Thesprotia and integrated into society a problem. The problem is the Chams of Thesprotia and the rest of Epirus who collaborated with the German invader, committed terrible, heinous crimes, attempted to seize the property of Greek citizens, committed acts of murder, as you correctly said, and who, with the liberation of our country, knowing that they would be condemned, even to death, as happened to some of them, fled to Albania.

These people weren’t expelled. They left under the weight of their crimes. These people cannot be the object of nationalism from the rest of the Chams, who never lived in Greece or came to Greece with the German conqueror, and nor can they be the ones who will determine the relations between Greece and Albania.

So these people gathered outside the Albanian Foreign Ministry and were kept off to the left side, 200 meters from the entrance. A journalist – and I won’t give his name, because he is otherwise a good journalist – who wasn’t there, who was in Greece, wrote an article on a website, saying that they tried to block me from entering. And he wasn’t even there. He lied and created this whole fuss.

And the Albanian students at the university asked me about this, and they asked me in Greek. As you know, the University of Tirana has a wonderful Greek Literature school, with 250 students who speak excellent Greek. Not the Greeks of the indigenous Minority, but children who grew up in Greece, with their parents, and returned to Albania due to the crisis. But they love our country, and now they want to study Greek culture.

These children asked me, “Did the Chams bother you, those fanatics demonstrating there?” Some, in fact, told me that they also have some sort of relationship with Turkey. I don’t know about that, I can’t confirm or deny it. But what I wanted to say is this: I responded to them that I have demonstrated many more times in my life, with stronger slogans than those. It’s just that I continue to believe that I demonstrated for better, more correct and more just reasons than theirs.