‘Greece has entered a critical period in its relations with Turkey’

Defense Minister Yiannos Papantoniou is quite clear; there is no question of Greece discussing sovereign rights in a dialogue with Turkey, an important point given the fact that Greece and Turkey are about to begin talks that could include questions related to the Aegean Sea. In this interview with Kathimerini, Papantoniou emphasized that Greece is talking to Turkey «but we will not negotiate our national sovereign rights… nor can there be a steady improvement in Greek-Turkish relations while the Cyprus issue is still unresolved and while Turkey persists with its claims.» Regarding developments within the ruling PASOK party, Papantoniou says that talk of finding a successor to party president and Prime Minister Costas Simitis is «baseless and inconceivable» and that such ideas ran counter to «democratic public opinion.» «What should be worrying us is the systematic and methodical attention given to opposition propaganda,» he said. Meanwhile, he announced that there will be five new joint commands set up for the first time in Greece within the framework of reorganizing the armed forces. Following the prime minister’s visit to the USA, the impression exists that we are heading toward dialogue with Turkey that will perhaps also include the Aegean. How is this being dealt with, given the Turkish Air Force’s provocative actions? At a Cabinet meeting two weeks ago we discussed this question at length and agreed on the following policy. Over the past decade there has been, very correctly, a policy of friendship and rapprochement with Turkey, with dialogue on a series of secondary issues on the basis of a new doctrine – to which we all agreed and which I supported from the outset – that it would be a mistake to say that we would not talk to the Turks. We will indeed talk to the Turks, but we will not negotiate our national sovereign rights. This policy has been successful; it has improved the climate between Greece and Turkey. On the other hand, there can be no steady, permanent improvement in relations with Turkey without a resolution of the fundamental issues between us; the open wound of the Cyprus issue and, of course, Turkey’s perseverance with its claims, particularly in the Aegean, against our national sovereign rights. As long as these issues remain open, any improvement cannot be based on strong foundations. We are now entering a sensitive period; critical time factors are approaching for the issues Greece is concerned about. The first is the imminent accession of the Republic of Cyprus to the European Union. As all international parties have made absolutely clear, a non-resolution to the Cyprus issue will not prevent the republic’s entry to the EU. That will happen, and it is also linked to the Greek veto on a more general expansion if the two issues are in fact linked at any point. Secondly, the Helsinki process with regard to Turkey provides for the raising of issues related to candidate countries’ bilateral relations with EU member states. It also provides a procedure for confronting and resolving problems through recourse to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. It is clear that over the next two years Turkey is likely to raise issues linked to its claims against our national sovereignty. The Foreign Ministry is prepared to deal with these issues. At the same time, I should mention the European force. There is pressure from other sources, mainly the USA and Britain, but also from other European countries, to deal quickly with relations between the EU and NATO. This also touches on our national sovereign rights and our own perception of the development of the European force. The framework you described means that Greece’s goodwill gestures should stop. In any case they do not seem to have been reciprocated. At the moment Greece has no reason to be concerned or to change its policy. I believe we should be consistent. Everything I have mentioned is in line with the view that we have entered a critical period, involving the Cyprus issue, relations with Turkey, and the European force. Experience has shown that when Turkey is under pressure or feels that various issues it may have with Greece are entering a crucial phase, it creates artificial tension. That is what I believe has been happening in many ways over the past few months, with an increase in violations (of airspace) in the Aegean and harsh statements by Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit and other members of the Turkish establishment. Turkey has also been raising issues more frequently than usual, such as those related to NATO. All of the above indicates that Turkey is nervous and I think we need to keep calm, to be absolutely firm about presenting and supporting our positions and of course our armed forces should be prepared and vigilant. This is the government’s position after the Cabinet discussion and that is how we will be proceeding over the next two crucial years. I believe that we should be optimistic, because our international position is much stronger than it has been in the past, thanks to the efforts of the present government. A strong Greece is in a position to obtain positive solutions for its vital issues or if that is not possible for reasons beyond its control, to avert any developments that would have negative effects on those issues. You have now been at the Defense Ministry for three months and even some of your Cabinet colleagues claim that in that time you have changed from being a «dove» to a «hawk.» My positions are absolutely unchanged. Let’s take the simplest issue; defense spending. These are unaffected by my taking the helm, as (they were decided by) the Government Council for Defense and Foreign Affairs (KYSEA) in April 2000, with the full agreement of my predecessor, Akis Tsochadzopoulos. The question was very simple. Defense spending in 1995 was 3 percent of the GDP. With my agreement as National Economy and Finance Minister, we increased this figure to 5 percent. There was a trend toward increasing it to 6 percent with various additional arms spending, but that was when I sounded the alarm bell, as such a development would stretch our national economy to its limits. Let us not forget that every GDP unit means 500 billion drachmas per annum. KYSEA agreed, and we limited the increase to 5 percent. For the next 2-3 years we agreed to restrict it to 4 percent until the end of the decade. It is this decision by KYSEA that I am carrying out as national defense minister, a decision taken at my own suggestion. I believe that it was the right decision, and one we should abide by strictly, as 4 percent is a high percentage for national defense. However, given the dangers threatening our country, I believe that it is completely justified. What are the priorities of the armaments program? You have said that there are programs which should be re-evaluated. There are at present a number of orders for armaments, including tanks, self-defense systems and transport aircraft which are ready, and it is time to take decisions. We will be reviewing the remainder with regard to the way they are to be supplied and I will be having talks with the new military leaders who take over on February 15. Everything is as we decided at the KYSEA meeting of April 2001; nothing has changed. ‘Talk of a successor is inconceivable’ To what do you attribute PASOK’s current introversion? I think that it is premature to draw conclusions, because we should not judge things on the basis of two or three actions… I believe that the lesson to be drawn from the party’s last congress is very clear. It gave Costas Simitis a large majority to lead the government effectively for the remaining two years (of the government’s term) and to lead PASOK at the next election in 2004. I think that anyone who did not understand that is mistaken. I believe that the electorate and particularly PASOK supporters, will condemn any expression of substantial disagreement or distancing from government policy as expressed by Costas Simitis and the rest of us. As a result, I do not believe that recent developments will go any further. We should also remember that in a large democratic party such as PASOK, minor expressions of disagreement are natural and should not be a cause for particular concern. What should be of concern to us is the systematic and methodical promotion of opposing views. I believe that this will not happen since the congress was clear in its political message. So you believe there is no basis for the scenarios that have begun to circulate regarding the possibility of a change of leadership at the helm of PASOK before the elections? They are completely without foundation and in my opinion inconceivable. Democratic public opinion and PASOK’s supporters would oppose any such views. I believe that Costas Simitis will lead PASOK to victory in the next elections.

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