‘Our aim is to integrate Western Balkan states into the European family and, at the same time, aid in their protection from the infiltration of extremist networks and neo-Ottoman attitudes,’ Dendias says.
Αthens will join a dialogue with Ankara sincerely, constructively, but also fully aware that Turkey is no longer the same country as it was in 2000, with the aspiration to join the European Union, and not even as in 2016, when exploratory talks were launched, Greece’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Dendias notes in an interview with Kathimerini.
Referring to Athens’ diplomatic overtures, Dendias explains that Greece is expanding its strategic horizon while strengthening its traditional alliances. To that end, he is looking forward to the meeting with his new US counterpart, Antony Blinken, and to the conclusion of negotiations for a long-term Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement with the USA. This agreement, he says, will not be about setting up new military bases on the basis of a Cold War logic, but rather will be adapted to today’s realities.
Dendias also believes that the arbitration agreement between Athens and Tirana probably be ready after the Albanian election on April 25. As to the extension of Greece’s territorial waters beyond the Ionian Sea, the foreign minister says it will happen at an appropriate time.
2020 was a difficult time, but, as far as foreign policy is concerned, there were significant agreements. Do you believe there will be some landmark developments and, if so, what will they be?
I agree with your remark. At the beginning of last year, no one could have imagined the disruptions of the pandemic. Despite the adverse conditions, we achieved a lot. We solved issues that had been pending for decades. We signed three very significant agreements – two concerning maritime zones with Italy and Egypt and a third on an innovative cooperation in foreign policy and defense with the United Arab Emirates.
At he same time, we agreed with Albania to resolve the maritime zones issue at the International Court in The Hague, according to the rules of international law, specifically the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Finally, we proceeded with the necessary actions to extend our territorial waters in the Ionian Sea to 12 nautical miles. It is useful to make it clear to everybody that, despite complaints from certain quarters, Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ government faced multifaceted challenges and hybrid threats this past year with ample self-confidence. It concluded agreements that safeguarded national interests and extended its cooperation with several other countries.
We aim to continue serving this approach, which constitutes an expansion of our strategic horizons compared to the past, in 2021. Our country does not remain hostage to rhetorical claims without any result or perpetual procrastination. It safeguards its rights and national interests through agreements. We will continue in 2021 on the same foundations, by developing bilateral relations, trilateral/multilateral cooperation and by being especially active in international organizations.
How will you achieve that? Through what specific actions and initiatives?
We will move our bilateral relations forward, first of all by seeking significant accords: with the United States, the updating of the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement; with Saudi Arabia, the defense agreement, jointly with the Defense Ministry and Minister Nikos Panagiotopoulos; with France, [an agreement] on deepening cooperation. This week I will visit Italy and Portugal, then I’ll visit Belgium and, a bit later, the Baltic states. That’s just for the first few months. We will develop the new cooperation framework with the United Kingdom. At the same time, we are creating new channels with emerging powers and states in Asia and Africa, with India and Kenya, for instance. A few days ago, these two countries became non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. We are developing these initiatives without neglecting our immediate neighborhood.
We have a very important role to play in the Western Balkans, consolidating stability and peace, both through continuous support of their European aspirations and through active participation and contribution in regional initiatives. Our aim is to integrate Western Balkan states into the European family and, at the same time, aid in their protection from the infiltration of extremist networks and neo-Ottoman attitudes. This effort is supported by the Muslim countries in the wider region that share our positions, with whom we are building a stable and sincere relationship. Our aim is to become a bridge of cooperation with the majority Christian countries. To achieve these goals, we have developed an especially active presence.
A few days ago, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama was in Athens on a private visit. North Macedonia’s Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani will visit Athens this week. During this visit, we will sign three memoranda of cooperation that denote our commitment to strengthening bilateral ties. At the same time, we have begun the process of further strengthening our presence in Kosovo. We also undertake initiatives in Bosnia-Herzegovina, through the European Union, to create a framework of stability and governability. We and Cyprus will strengthen the multilateral initiatives with regional countries that share the same principles: Egypt, Israel and Jordan. And of course we look forward to strengthening these initiatives with other countries, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, and also important global powers such as France, India and of course the United States. Finally, we will develop initiatives within the EU, the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and, why not, even within NATO. The pandemic continues to put obstacles in our way. But we cannot stop. We have a duty to protect our national interests. And we will achieve this only if we look beyond our limited horizon and undertake initiatives. We are opening doors that were closed for years. This is the effort being made by the New Democracy government and me, according to my constitutional duty, from my position as foreign minister.
The first bill submitted to Parliament this year is the extension of territorial waters in the Ionian Sea to 12 nautical miles. Is it possible that something like that could happen in the Aegean?
The relevant bill has already been introduced to Parliament. And it will be voted on immediately. It would be right not to underestimate its significant. This is the first territorial expansion for the Greek state since 1947, always with peaceful means and on the basis of international law. This expansion is an inalienable right of our country. But let me go back to your main question: We are preparing for expansion in other parts of the country. We are taking the necessary technical steps, so that we are ready when we see fit to proceed. When this will happen is a political choice.
Recently, you again held discussions with the Albanian prime minister. Do you believe there can be progress in the discussions on demarcation? That is, is going to the court in The Hague imminent?
We now have a relationship of sincere collaboration with the Albanian prime minister. I had the chance to talk at length with him about all bilateral and regional issues, both during my visit to Tirana and his visit to Athens a few days back. As far as the recourse to The Hague is concerned, the relevant technical groups are continuing their work. The aim is to sign and submit the arbitration document as soon as possible – I suppose after parliamentary elections in Albania in April.
I note that all Albanian political parties believe that the issue of the demarcation of maritime zones between the two countries must be resolved on the basis of International Maritime Law by the International Court in The Hague. That’s what we are also telling our Turkish counterparts. And it is especially useful for me to remind you that Mr Rama accepted that Greece has the inalienable, unilateral right to extend its territorial waters to 12 miles. He added, indeed, that Albania had done the same thing 30 years ago. And that, therefore, no other country can oppose this right or – may I add – threaten us with war [for going ahead with it].
Are you optimistic that something substantive will result from exploratory talks with Turkey? Do you think Ankara sincerely wants dialogue? What is it precisely that Athens wants to talk about? Because it seems that Ankara disagrees with the agenda you are proposing.
Allow me to begin with your last question. As we have said on many occasions, the agenda of the exploratory talks is specific and can’t change. The next round of talks will be the 61st. These talks began two decades ago. One of the parties cannot unilaterally broaden the agenda. This would be an effort to undermine the talks. Whether Ankara is sincere remains to be seen. For our part, whenever these talks restart, we will enter them sincerely and constructively.
Now, if you ask me what the result of these contacts will be and whether we are optimistic, I will reply with an example from soccer: Once a coach was asked his prediction about a certain game. And he replied: “My prediction? Only at the end of the game.” Of course, we are prepared for all outcomes, as is our obligation. But I will tell you about what concerns me: Turkey in 2021 is not the Turkey of 2016, when the latest round of exploratory talks so far took place. And certainly today’s Turkey is not that of the early 2000s, when it was looking forward to joining the European Union. But of course no one can decide about yet another Turkish about-face on its behalf. I fervently desire it.
What can Athens expect from the new US administration? There has been talk lately about updating the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) with the United States. Can you explain whether this means an increase in the US military footprint and, if so, in what ways?
Allow me to begin by saying that the collaboration with the outgoing US administration, and specifically with my counterpart Mike Pompeo, was exemplary. His contribution to the development of bilateral relations to a level never attained in the past was decisive. Our ambition is to continue and further strengthen our relations with the US. I look forward to my first meeting with the new secretary of state, Antony Blinken. Our aim is to conclude negotiations for the update of the MDCA so that, first, it becomes long term – that it doesn’t need an annual update – and, second, to increase the American military footprint in our country in places that showcase our country’s strategic importance. The American presence does not consist of creating Cold War-era and Cold War-logic military bases. It will be flexible and adapted to current facts. And it will strengthen our country’s geopolitical importance in the wider area. One thing I find useful is an intense and continuous presence, both diplomatic and military, in the wider Eastern Mediterranean.
You have already signed an agreement with the UAE and one, mainly of a defensive character, is imminent with Saudi Arabia. Relations with Israel have been strengthened, while those with Arab countries, such as Egypt, are flourishing. Can this regional environment serve to contain Turkish provocations?
My answer is, yes, but under certain conditions. The countries you mentioned have, at some level, difficult relations with Turkey. But this is exclusively due to Turkey’s aggressive and expansionist policy. More than 100 years ago, the West viewed the then Ottoman Empire as the “sick man.” Now, Turkey aims to impose itself in the area formerly ruled by the Ottoman Empire as “the great revisionist.” This approach is contrary to fundamental principles of international law, undermines regional peace and stability and, of course, causes defensive reflexes. Unfortunately, the issue of a revisionist Turkey crops up in the agenda of meetings I have with colleagues from all countries.
In this aspect, the various initiatives we have developed aim also at containing Turkey’s aggressive behavior. But, allow me to underline this: I am talking about containing a specific behavior, not the country as a whole. Our development of relations with these countries, either bilaterally or multilaterally, is not against somebody else, and I have often noted this. On the contrary, we have often said that Turkey could be part of these formations – with one very simple but very important precondition: to accept that differences must be resolved peacefully, on the basis of international law.
I very deeply and sincerely hope that Turkey will recognize that its revisionist and aggressive behavior leads inescapably to the opposite results from those it hopes for. In the present circumstances, where it faces serious economic challenges, I think it would be advisable for Turkey to change direction radically and abandon its sterile expansionist aspirations. I also think, with all due respect, that this is in the Turkish people’s best interest. In any case, a very large part of Turkish society views a European future as the only prospect for Turkey.
* This interview took place before the announcement of exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey.