Athens, 23 September 2002International Herald Tribune —
ATHENS In less than two years time, the Olympic Games will return to the country they were born in more than 2,000 years ago and where the first modern games were held in 1896: Greece. If the events of September 11th and the failure of Greece to stamp out terrorism at home cast a dark shadow over the Games of 2004, that shadow now seems to be lifting. IHT-TV’s John Defterios spoke to Greece’s foreign minister, George Papandreou, in Athens.
I’d like to start with the effort to eliminate the terror group November 17. What changed in the government’s tactic that led to all of these arrests in only three months, after literally decades of hiding?
November 17 was a very tight-knit and small group, and therefore, very difficult to find. But we were very systematic over the past years, having worked with international agencies in the United States, the UK, and other countries in developing our methods. I also think that this group had become more and more isolated in public opinion, making it very difficult for them to move around without being detected. Finally, they made a mistake, and we were ready. Our sources were ready to use this mistake and, from there, unravel and dismantle the organisation.
Let’s turn our attention to Iraq. You met with the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell during the UN General Assembly. Are you comfortable with the aggressive approach Washington is taking against Iraq, or should the weapons inspections process proceed, even if it takes months or years?
First of all, we all want to see Saddam Hussein apply the UN resolutions. Secondly, we were very happy to see that this issue came back to the UN, and is being discussed in the UN, and therefore the UN will be the organisation taking the lead. Certainly, we want to see this problem solved through diplomatic means. Pressure must be applied from the international community in a collective stance. And if that pressure can be maintained, we may have a diplomatic victory.
Washington certainly sees it differently. Will this further strain U.S.-E.U. relations?
I think this is an important question. We have, as Europeans, voiced our opinions, and we need to cooperate very closely with the United States on this issue.
First of all, we feel a collective stance is important. Secondly, it is important that this issue is being discussed within the UN, giving the issue of Iraq international legitimacy. This is important in the eyes of many countries that, if you like, should be educated into accepting international law, and UN resolutions.
But thirdly, there’s also a question as to what military confrontation would mean, not only for Saddam Hussein, but for the whole region: how the Arab world would react, how the region would then be affected, how this would affect the economies and the political situation in the region.
So there are a number of factors that have to be looked at if one is going to talk about a more aggressive military stance. I think that we all need to back the UN effort, and make sure that Saddam understands that there is a true possibility that military action will follow if he does not comply.
The European Union will soon decide whether to formally accept Cyprus within its ranks. Will that take place even if a settlement is not reached on the divided island?
In 1999, the 15 leaders of the European Union made a very important decision in Helsinki.
We said we wanted Cyprus to join the European Union, as a country which is unified and has solved the problem between the Greek and Turkish communities. However, we also said that this would not be a prerequisite for membership, but that we would make every effort, of course, for peace.
Over the next few months, Secretary-General Kofi Annan will be making very important efforts to try to get a solution on Cyprus before December in Copenhagen.
If not, I think what we’ll have to do is continue towards solving the Cyprus issue, so that the Turkish Cypriot community can become part of the new constitution of Cyprus as well as part of the European Union.
Do you take Turkey’s threat seriously, that it will annex the northern half of the island if membership is granted without a deal?
This has been mentioned at times by certain Turkish leaders. We hope that this is not the case. In the long term, Cyprus should become a showcase of cooperation between Greek and Turkish Cypriots, where these two communities can and should live together in peace in a democratic European Union. Together, enjoying the stability and economic benefits of being part of the EU.
Turkey is looking for a commitment to begin formal negotiations to join the EU itself. Do you believe that Turkey has made enough progress on improving human rights and political reforms to grant that request?
The EU Commission will be coming out soon with a report on Turkey’s progress. Certainly they’ve made a number of very important decisions this summer in their Parliament, but I think there are certain steps they have to continue to make and implement. That does not mean, however, that we cannot give a positive response to Turkey in December.
And Greece is one of the more adamant countries in trying to help Turkey on its European path. We will be working both within the European Union and with our Turkish counterparts to help them attain membership.
John Defterios IHT-TV