1 January 2002
The Velvet Revolutionary Exclusive Interview: George Papandreou
Braving the new world
By: Michael Howard
Photos: Camilo Nollas
When George Papandreou took the reins at the Greek foreign ministry almost three years ago, there were many who doubted whether the soft-spoken man who had spent years in relatively junior government positions, had the toughness to guide Greece back into what one western diplomat called "the saner areas of international diplomacy."
At the beginning of 1999, Greece's standing abroad was at an impressive low. The bungled attempt to harbor the Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan seemed to confirm the feeling among Greece's allies that Athens was playing to different rules. Its handling of the Macedonia name issue and support for the Milosevic regime had already marked it out as a member of the awkward squad.
Now those days of diplomatic adventurisrn seem a thing of the past. True, there are still some chronic pockets of nationalism and anti-Americanism in Greece-most worryingly in the country's often neanderthal media. But Papandreou, in temperament the antithesis of his firebrand father Andreas, has been coolly propounding a coherent, modern vision of where Greece's real interests lie. And he is transforming the country's image abroad in the process.
As foreign minister, Papandreou has engineered a series of foreign policy successes-improving relations with Turkey, backing the movement for democracy in Serbia, and providing logistical support for NATO's operations in the former Yugoslavia and the US pursuit of Osama bin laden in Afghanistan. He has become one of Greece's most popular politicians with few outright enemies, though plenty of critics, he is many a pundit's tip to succeed Costas Simitis as prime minister-an office held by his father and grandfather.
Born in Minnesota in 1952, Papandreou spent much of his childhood in California, where his father was a professor at Berkeley, and went to high school in Greece and Canada, before studying in Sweden and London. Papandreou sports his liberal, multicultural pedigree proudly, which is clearly reflected in what one commentator describes as his '°touchy-feely" approach to politics, projecting a kinder, gentler Greece.
The foreign minister spoke to Odyssey about Greece's take on the new world order post-September 11, and about perhaps his biggest challenge-the Cyprus imbroglio.
Michael Howard: President Clerides of Cyprus and Turkish Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash have just had their first face-to-face meeting in four years, and have agreed to meet again in January. Everyone seems to be predicting an end to the Cyprus impasse, but is this really such a big step forward or just the latest in a long line of false dawns?
George Papandreou: That's a good question. One which I don't think there's an answer to just yet. But we can say, however, that we have a new situation in general, and this is what is important. Cyprus is moving toward becoming part of the European Union. There are new prospects both for the Greek-Cypriot and the TurkishCypriot communities, particularly if there is a solution that means Turkish Cypriots will participate in the EU.
There's a great opportunity for Turkish Cypriots to be part of this new European family.
It's also an opportunity for Turkey because obviously Turkey will have the possibility through the Turkish-Cypriot community to be more closely involved in European affairs, as well as being a candidate itself. Being a candidate means you have to adhere to specific criteria. Cyprus is adhering to those criteria and is moving forward; Turkey has still some way to go. Turkey as an EU candidate will inevitably have to deal with the Cyprus issue, and the earlier the better for Turkey and for all of us.
I also think the international community is now much more interested in Cyprus than they were during the cold war simply because they have understood that regional crises can blow up into international crises. Having a stable GreekTurkish relationship is a very important aspect of stability in the wider area, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, the Balkans and so on. These are all prerequisites for a very different kind of approach.
Michael Howard: The leadership in Ankara has expressed fears for the safety of Turkish Cypriots under a united Cyprus. Are those fears justified?
George Papandreou: What's important here is that with the European Union we're creating a union of values; a community of values. Everyone has to adhere to these values. And in doing so we think this gives both communities on Cyprus guarantees and opportunities to be protected by these values and institutions.
Michael Howard: But do you think the EU as an institution is adequately prepared to take on board all the complexities and the sensitivities of the Cyprus issue?
George Papandreou: I think the EU is an ideal organization because it has helped in similar conflicts around Europe and (has) been able to integrate different communities. With Cyprus, we're talking about two different communities that have been separated -violently- for the last 27 years. The EU includes different populations from around Europe into a wider family. You have different minority groups in different countries that feel more positive because they feel that they will be under the large umbrella of the EU; it creates much greater cohesiveness.
The EU has been very positive in Ireland; very useful in dealing with similar internal problems in Spain. This is the experience the EU brings with it and this is why there is so much support among the Turkish Cypriots for being part of the EU. In a recent Gallup poll over 90 percent were in favor of being part of the EU. It also provides an important challenge for reform and change in Turkey.
Michael Howard: If things don't go according to plan, and for some reason Cyprus isn't accepted into the EU because a settlement hasn't been found, will Greece use its veto to prevent EU expansion?
George Papandreou: We solved this problem, at least theoretically, at the Helsinki summit in 1999. The EU said yes we want Cyprus in as a whole, that is with a solution, but don't make it a precondition. Therefore, Cyprus will be in the EU one way or the other. So someone would want to have to overturn that Helsinki decision. Obviously we would have to react to the overturning of that decision, but my feeling is that there is a momentum which is very strong and it will be very difficult to do. What I can say is the Greek parliament would never accept the accession of other countries without Cyprus. Cyprus is number one in the race for EU accession.
Michael Howard: Do you take seriously Ankara's recently repeated threat to annex Cyprus if it joins the EU before a settlement?
George Papandreou: We obviously take seriously whatever is officially said by Turkey. But I believe there is a debate going on in Turkey about the Cyprus problem. I think that rather than react to every statement, we have to let this debate take place and see what the outcome is. Clearly we have the beginnings of a more substantial discussion between President Clerides and Denktash. That it is not coincidental; it is part of the important debate and rethink that is going on in Turkey.
Michael Howard: Will there always be mutual suspicion between Greece and Turkey until Cyprus is solved?
George Papandreou: The Greek-Turkish rapprochement is something which is very important but will in the end be judged by whether we can move on Cyprus. I've been very clear in saying that Cyprus will either divide us or unite us. Will it keep us apart, with continuous friction, or will Cyprus become a showcase of Greek-Turkish cooperation, which I think is possible.
SEPTEMBER 11 & THE WAR ON TERRORISM
Michael Howard: In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Odyssey has had many letters and calls, particularly from Greek Americans, who were basically appalled at some of the insensitive comments coming out of Greece. Comments such as, "They deserved it." Some have said they felt ashamed to be Greek. Is anti-Americanism a problem in the country? What do you say to those in the diaspora who have asked us, "What the hell's going on in Greece?"
George Papandreou: First, if you take the statements of the Greek government and the political parties, you have over 90 percent of the Greek population that have officially, through their parties, taken a very strong stance against terrorism, showing their solidarity with the United States and giving strong support for the very practical measures of assistance we have given to America.
Let me say that almost every family in Greece has a relative in the US and I think they understand the feelings in the US and are very much in solidarity with the US. I think also that TV stations here will always find the most controversial views to put out, to make the ratings go up. Taking all these factors into account, we should be very careful about passing judgement on Greece.
Michael Howard: But if there is a problem with getting the right message across, shouldn't Greek political leaders stand up and be counted on the issue?
George Papandreou: We have done. If you read the recent debate in parliament, I think there was unequivocal support from 90 percent of the government and opposition. Now if you want to look at the 10 percent, then you're giving a distorted view of the issue. We should not pick up the few voices here and there that make the extravagant or radical statements. But if you really want an understanding then you should hear all the voices in the right context.
When you talk about Hellenism, one of our basic tenets is democracy and there are all kinds of opinions you can hear here, just as you can in the US. If you want to look only at the extreme positions, then you will get a very distorted view of public opinion. We have to make a very clear separation between the events of September 11 and what the average Greek feels as a far as US foreign policy goes.
Michael Howard: Which stems from the days of the military junta?
George Papandreou: In every country there are events in history that remain as issues. There is a lingering feeling here from the dictatorship period and Cyprus, and at times on Greek-Turkish relations, where people felt Greece was dealt with unjustly. This is still there in people's minds. People were jailed and tortured, not by the US directly, but they felt the strong support that was going on there from the US. And on Cyprus. I'm not saying that the Greek military did not bear a very strong responsibility for Cyprus, but it was a Greek military government and not a democratic one, one which was then supported by the US. So some of us go back to that history.
What was very important was that President Clinton came here and said let's turn a page, and that was very welcome and I think that helped to change the atmosphere, even though it happened in a period just after the Kosovo war when there was strong opposition in public opinion to the policies that NATO had decided upon-and Greece's stance was as part of the alliance. Again, separate the critique of US foreign policy, which you will find in any country, and the very strong commitment that exists to fighting terrorism and showing solidarity with America.
Michael Howard: There do seem to be some similarities with the Kosovo crisis in that once again the Greek government is supporting a campaign with which the majority of Greek public opinion disagrees.
George Papandreou: Greeks felt Kosovo was so close by and that the fighting could spread to its borders. Such perceptions of insecurity are easily carried over into other issues. But that's a very different thing, I want to make that very clear. Very different than saying we are not against terrorism.
How you deal with terrorism is a question that is debated in the US congress, in the US senate, in the media. These are issues which are not Greek but which are being discussed internationally. President Bush says we are not against the Muslims. We're fighting for tolerance against intolerance. Against the logic of using violence to spread a political creed. No one's against that, but you do get different opinions in Greece, valid questions about should there be an extensive war in Afghanistan? What about the victims? Does it create problems with the Arab world? Shouldn't we be careful about not creating the concept of a war of civilizations between Muslim and Christians?
This is very important for Greece, which lives with huge Muslim populations on its borders. A war of civilizations would mean a continuous war on our borders, but a dialogue of civilizations would be one which we would promote. So I want to try to separate -and sometimes it is not easy- the serious discussion about what our policy should be, because of the gravity of the situation and because of the enormity of the impact of our decisions in this new world, post-September 11, of new alliances.
Michael Howard: You mentioned the assistance Greece is giving to the US. Could you be more specific?
George Papandreou: The use of the Souda Bay naval facility on Crete. Greeks piloting the AWACS planes are now providing for the defense of the United States. This is very important, also symbolic -Greek pilots flying over US territory. We have offered help in the redeployment of American troops away from the Balkans as well as help in the diplomatic and humanitarian field. We have close cooperation with the agencies that are working with counter-terrorism, and money laundering and information on possible terrorist activities in the region.
Michael Howard: A book on chemical warfare that was reportedly found recently in a raided Taliban house in Kabul was said to be by an Abul Khabad, who described himself as coming from Greece. What evidence do you have that the Al Qaeda network has been operating in Greece and the region?
George Papandreou: We're looking at any information that we have, and whatever information we have we've given to the US. We have not found any network of people in Greece. There are in other areas in Europe but not in Greece. I don't want to name them because I don't want to single them out. We're all responsible.
In the Balkans, among the Muslim populations, it seems that groups like Al Qaeda did proselytize and try to develop organizations for terrorist activities or certain political activities. The US is working with the Albanian government on this and I can say they are being very cooperative. It does seem in Bosnia and-also in Kosovo that there were contacts and possible training with these groups. Greece has known about such links over the years and it has made us even more strongly against terrorism -just one more reason why we're with the coalition against terror.
Michael Howard: Some might say there's a question of Greece's credibility when it makes statements against terrorism, given the fact that is has failed to arrest any members of its own domestic terrorist group in 26 years.
George Papandreou: I feel it is very unjust to judge like that. That would he like saying why didn't you know about [one of the WTC bombers] Mohammed Atef's activity four years ago, in the US? Let's say get our act together and become more efficient, which we are doing. That's very different from saying that you guys are supporting or tolerating terrorism. We're working closely with the FBI, Scotland Yard, on activities to ensure a safe Olympics, for example. November 17 have no party affiliations, no support from any party in Greece, they kill people from left and right and from different countries.
The problem with November 17 is that it is a small group which makes them difficult to catch. If it had a wider network we would have caught someone. It just shows how isolated it is. It has no links with the general population. Terrorists from other groups are in jail in Greece. There have also been shoot-outs with police, and one where someone was allegedly a N17 member. But he's not here to tell us about it.
The US is very happy with our cooperation. Colin Powell said recently we were in this fight together, it's a common problem. Obviously he wouldn't have made that kind of statement if his opinion was that we were not on his side. So I would say that we're talking about a huge portion of the political spectrum here that is very clearly against terrorism.
Michael Howard: The attention of the diplomatic community has currently diverted from the Balkans. But do you think the Balkans remains a powder keg?
George Papandreou: The Balkans have made tremendous progress and Greece has been very instrumental in that. We have said let’s work on principles; let's work together for mutual benefit; let's work to move everybody into the European Union. So basically what we've opened up is a common vision. That also means common principles and we've been trying to get across that we're working together now, the region, the EU, the US, and Russia.
There were so many mixed signals coming in throughout the centuries from the great powers, never creating a real framework for progress. Now what we've said is, let s work together, let's develop respect for international law, respect for democracy, human rights, minority rights, without changing borders. Also let's help each other.
Michael Howard: Yet you still disagree over what to call the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
George Papandreou: With this new spirit in the region it doesn't mean there aren't crisis points or outstanding issues. This issue is the one remaining with FYROM; we have very good relations with this county and I would say they are the best ever. There are some dynamics around the name issue, and some of the negotiations have been positive. But nothing is closed until it is closed.
Michael Howard: So you will accept a name with the word Macedonia in it?
George Papandreou: Our position is quite clear; we want a mutually acceptable name. Obviously this means both sides have to compromise. I'll leave it to my negotiators to discuss the details.
Michael Howard: There has been mention in Greece recently of your becoming the next prime minister -an opinion poll said you were among the most popular public figures in the country. But that same poll revealed that Archbishop Christodoulos was also one of the most popular figures. Does that not demonstrate a schizophrenia among the Greek public, because you appear to stand for very different things?
George Papandreou: Don't read too much into polls. We politicians can get very carried away, because polls go down as well as up. I think it's very difficult to compare a politician with a religious leader or indeed a movie star or an athlete. Having said that, I think Greek people have deep respect for their religious tradition and at the same time have a very democratic need to choose their representatives, and they are very critical in their choice.
I can only say that it is a heavy responsibility when you have high ratings because a lot more is expected from you. So it is a blessing and a challenge. As far as Greece is concerned, the point is we're in a changing world and Greece is a changing country. Changing as far as it is rethinking its identity, which is partly its roots, which go back to Olympic games, and the truce which we've revived, up to modern Greece playing the role of strong economic power in the region and an integral part of Europe. I think this is not schizophrenia, it is very logical. Go to America and ask, what are you? They may say I'm American or African-American or I'm of Greek origin or half Italian, or Polish, or Irish. Is that schizophrenia? No, that just gives a reflection of the complexity and beauty of our lives. And it just shows a strong dynamic that Greece is moving into a different league of countries, economically, politically and as far as its credibility and role is concerned. As we're moving into that, obviously there'll be changes in our perceptions of ourselves.
Ten years ago we were just coming out of the cold war and things around us looked very scary, and particularly to our north we reacted, indeed maybe overreacted, to some things. Because of fear. Now we feel self-confidence, it's not fear dictating our moves but a sense of responsibility. For example, How we can help Turkey become a European country? It's a very different approach.