Turkey came very close to crossing Greece’s red lines in the Aegean last week, when a Turkish coast guard vessel fired shots in Greek territorial waters east of the islet of Farmakonisi, Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias told Skai Television’s “Istories” program Tuesday night. In a wide-ranging interview with Kathimerini’s executive editor, Alexis Papachelas, Kotzias spoke also about Greece’s determination to protect its sovereign interests, the Cyprus issue, the case of the eight Turkish servicemen whom the Supreme Court refused to extradite to Turkey, and NATO’s operations in the Aegean.
“A year-and-a-half ago I described Turkey as a nervous power, a power, in other words, which like Germany after Bismarck in the 19th century had become nervous and did not maintain a balance with its environment,” Kotzias said in the interview, which was recorded last Friday, the day of the Farmakonisi incident. “Some people in Turkey think that Greece could be like Syria or Iraq. The ‘game’ they played at Farmakonisi is a serious violation of international law and I think they should know that we will not always be tolerant, that our response will not only be the one that we gave then, that it will be much harsher.”
Asked what the Greek government was doing to face this “nervousness,” Kotzias said: “We have communicated with all the major powers on the planet, we have informed all international organizations and, of course, we have made the necessary protests against Turkey for their violations of our territorial waters and for their behavior. The international climate and international law are on the side of our interests, they are tools that we will not abandon. But I want to repeat from here, in this interview, that they are not the only instruments we have. We are not Syria, which has been destroyed, nor a disorganized Iraq… Turkey is making a mistake if it thinks that because we have an economic crisis we are weak as regards our country’s security. They are making a big mistake. Because we have economic problems our care for the security of our country and its sovereignty is greater than in the past.”
Asked whether Turkey had crossed any of the Greek government’s red lines, as in the Farmakonisi incident, Kotzias replied, “They nearly did this morning.”
Commenting on whether differences between Greece and Turkey could be solved at The Hague, Kotzias said: “If I had to choose between a court and war, I would choose the court. If I had to choose between a court and a bilateral, substantial and real agreement, a process of agreement, I would choose the latter. For the time being, we are in the latter process. With the difficulties caused by the situation in Turkey.”
The Greek foreign minister spoke also of the opportunity that had been presented by the Helsinki Agreement, which had provided a framework for Greek-Turkish relations. “It would have been good if the Helsinki agreements had held. You know, I have an opinion on this. The Helsinki agreements had obliged Turkey to accept that for any issue that it had, we would go to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The Helsinki Agreement – we allowed them to pull out of commitments that they had, because other political forces believed it was bad that there should be such agreements concerning the International Court at The Hague. I see no other way for us to be able to resolve our differences, other than diplomacy and justice, and, by extension, if necessary, to use all the legal frameworks that exist in the international community. This does not mean that we will go to court at this time. Our strength… is international justice. This does not mean that we do not rely on other types of strength.”
Turning to the talks aimed at settling the Cyprus issue, Kotzias denied taking a maximalist position, saying that he had never said all Turkish troops should withdraw the day after an agreement. He said this would not be feasible but he did demand a gradual withdrawal. “What annoyed [the Turks] was that there would be a deadline by which all would have to leave,” Kotzias said. “It is bad when a process gets bogged down and we have to keep it alive. That is why I agreed to a second Geneva conference… despite the fact that I believe that until the referendum it will be difficult for Turkey to decide whether it wants a compromise or not,” he said.
On his own role in the negotiations in Geneva, and on how he perceives Turkey’s tactics, the Greek foreign minister said: “The issue of the presence of occupying forces and of the system of guarantees is [Turkey’s] weakest point on the Cyprus issue. And this is a point where it will either make a substantial, real compromise and concessions, or it will come to the point where it will break off the negotiations. Because Turkey has not decided – at least until the referendum – how it will really handle the issue of guarantees and security, if it will really agree to scrap the issue of guarantees and security, it is trying to find intermediate issues so as to throw the talks off track… [Foreign Minister Mevlut] Cavusoglu left [Geneva], he went to Ankara, he started to cricitize me, saying that I am not at the negotiations, and I replied, ‘I am still in Geneva and we are discussing Cyprus.’ They have a difficulty. So they suddenly put forward a new issue, the four freedoms [enjoyed by EU citizens] for the Turks. They had never put forward this issue in this way. Why did they? In the hope that [President Nicos] Anastasiades would be forced to reject it and break off the talks at this point, so that they would not break off where they were afraid, where their arguments were weak – on the issue of guarantees and security – or that we would accept the demand and then the Cypriots and Greece would clash with the European Union, as it is well known that [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel cannot accept this issue.”
Speaking on another thorn in relations with Turkey – the Supreme Court’s refusal to extradite eight Turkish servicemen whom Ankara accuses of involvement in the July 15 coup attempt, Kotzias emphasized the judiciary’s independence. “We must be clear, there are two principles: Politically, we condemn any kind of coup and we would be the last country, especially [with a government of] the Greek left, which could accept or tolerate a military coup. On the other hand, who is a coup plotter and who is not, and whether he will have a just trial in Turkey or not, and has fled to Greece, will be decided by the Greek courts. The political condemnation of the coup does not mean that any Turkish citizen whom Ankara accuses of being a coup plotter will be judged as such by the Greek courts. These are two different estates – politics and the judiciary – and I hope that at some point this will be understood more clearly by the other side,” Kotzias said. “I will not judge what the Greek courts have decided. If the courts decided that they can and must remain in Greece, they can and must remain in Greece.”
But the foreign minister pointed out that the issue is not yet closed. “The Turks have a right, as any one side that accuses another, to use and exploit all legal means in order to continue the crisis around these people. And I think that the Greek judiciary will take into consideration any new evidence provided by the Turkish side and will judge accordingly,” he said.
Asked whether there was any international initiative to ease tensions between Greece and Turkey, Kotzias replied: “No. First, I think that the Americans are not in the position, nor do they have the appetite that they had in the 90s, to get involved in these processes. The Russians, of course, do not like what the Turks are doing in the Aegean but they are working together in Syria. [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan believes that this cooperation can become broader and last long. I think that he does not know Russian foreign policy and diplomacy very well. The European Union, too, has been informed, and it is the EU which, in various ways, issues declarations to Turkey. I remind you that it is the EU which rejected Erdogan’s comments on the Lausanne Treaty, that one can violate international agreements.”
The foreign minister mentioned the role that NATO has been playing in the Aegean, pointing out that this has annoyed Ankara. “In recent days, I can reveal, we have spoken with NATO. And, as you remember, Turkey wants NATO to withdraw from the Aegean, where it is part of the refugee operation. We had told them that one of the reasons that Turkey wants this is not because it is anti-NATO but because it does not want international witnesses to what it wants to to do. And it is no coincidence that the latest incident [at Farmakonisi], was in blocs 3 and 4, where Turkey has ruled out cooperation in the refugee operation… I think that the presence of NATO annoys Turkey, especially on the days or in periods when it wants to violate international law.”