Thessaloniki, 26 July 1999
By Ourania Kargoudi
“THESSALONIKI’S TIME HAS COME”
In an interview with Thessaloniki newspaper, the Greek Minster for Foreign Affairs:
Reveals tough negotiations behind the scenes to secure Thessaloniki as the seat of the Balkan Reconstruction Agency. He calls upon the leaders of Thessaloniki to meet this challenge.
Discusses the need for calm, patience and determination in the latest round of bilateral talks with Turkey, and argues that results will show in due time. He believes that the Balkan reconstruction process will bring many opportunities for Greek-Turkish cooperation.
Insists that humanitarian aid must be provided to the whole of Yugoslavia to encourage democratic reforms, and supports the idea of an interim government.
Thessaloniki: Thessaloniki has won the battle for the seat of the Balkan Reconstruction Agency What were the objections to Thessaloniki raised by the European Commission?
G. Papandreou: That’s a good question and I’m not sure that I have all the answers. The Commission, which was basically against Thessaloniki, claimed that we didn’t have the necessary technological infrastructure. We proved that Thessaloniki is technologically the most advanced location, while we stressed that we have never had any objections to those responsible for day-to-day reconstruction being based in Pristina. It makes sense for a large part of the Reconstruction Agency to be in Pristina, but operational centers will also be needed in Belgrade and Montenegro, and later maybe in Albania, Skopje, and elsewhere. So the headquarters of the agency needs to be situated somewhere that is suitable for carrying out overall directorial responsibility, which is Thessaloniki.
So really there was no competition between Thessaloniki and Pristina, but rather between Thessaloniki and Brussels. Many decisions will now be made in thessaloniki rather than Brussels. Although the Commission will naturally continue to make basic decisions, the structure and development of proposals will take place in Thessaloniki. There was also some friction between the Commisssion and the EuropeanCouncil.
There is also a question of economic and political interests at stake. Many countries probably wanted the seat to be located somewhere in central Europe. Furthermore, although this has never been stated, it is the first time that Greece has made a claim for such an important position in a region which is currently at the top of the European Union’s foreign policy agenda. Maybe some people are reacting to the fact that Greece is now demanding to play a vital role in the region.
Thessaloniki: Who were the chief supporters of the Greek position?
G. Papandreou: Both Joschka Fischer and his Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese counterparts openly supported us. The Danish Ambassador was in favor of the Commission’s proposal. In any case, a bill was passed that officially makes Thessaloniki the seat, despite the fact that yesterday the European Parliament voted in favor of Pristina. Although this really only amounts to an opinion poll, it is an unpleasant expression of the intentions of the new central right European Parliament.
ON THE DIALOGUE BETWEEN GREECE AND TURKEY
“ We have shown that we are in favor of cooperation, peace and good neighborly relations. We do not need further proof.”
Thessaloniki: This is an enormous operation. Of course the city has a lot to offer, but it will require assistance from the government if expectations are to be fully met. Do you have any specific plans regarding this support?
G. Papandreou: First of all this is not just a matter for the Greek government. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs will be involved to a certain extent, but we are gradually handing over to the Treasury, the Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace, the Ministry for Development, and possibly also the Ministries of Health and Education. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs will have overall responsibility for coordinating operations. The Reconstruction Agency will be run by a board of directors from all 15 EU member states, as well as some members of the European Commission and will be active throughout the Balkans. But if we genuinely want to develop a strategic role for Thessaloniki, for northern Greece, for Greece in general, we must make Thessaloniki a real hub in terms of services, communications, material and technological support. For example, Mr. Hobach told me he wants to establish a second headquarters of the Balkan Stability Pact in Thessaloniki. If he feels the necessary infrastructure is available, he will certainly do most of his work in Thessaloniki, rather than in Brussels or Bonn.
The businesses that will take part in the reconstruction of Kosovo and then Belgrade and elsewhere must feel that they can set up regional headquarters in Thessaloniki, as a place where they can deal with other companies, use banking and communications services, and provide the necessary support for their staff, such as schools, hospitals, information technology. Thessaloniki must be prepared for this. Surveyors, experts, the local administration and industry must be equipped to provide information to foreign investors and agencies regarding the cost of transport, telecommunications, materials, housing, and so on. Then Thessaloniki will become the nucleus that will attract all these people as a safe and supportive environment for business transactions.
If Thessaloniki fails to meet this challenge, investors will not go to Pristina – they will go to Vienna, Budapest, Berlin or Brussels. Local administrators must not be thinking in terms of winning posts or favors from the Reconstruction Agency, whose personnel will be fairly appointed from a number of European countries. It is critical for Thessaloniki to start making the necessary preparations immediately. Of course the government, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs will take certain initiatives in association with neighboring countries regarding the reconstruction process, and will encourage foreign businessmen to come to Thessaloniki.
Thessaloniki: On the subject of reconstruction, let me ask you about Yugoslavia. All 15 EU Foreign Ministers recently took steps to hasten the lifting of sanctions on Yugoslavia .
G. Papandreou: This has been Greece’s position all along. We cannot allow a black hole to emerge in the Balkans which will effect the whole of Europe. We talk of stability, yet the economies of all the surrounding countries are being hit by the sanctions against Yugosalvia. The closure of the Danube effects Romania, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary. We have made a serious proposal for compromise: we advocate that humanitarian aid in the wider sense s absolutely imperative. This should include the development of electrical plants, the conservation of bridges, water supplies, oil and agriculture. Of course these can be dependent on certain political conditions, but this should not halt the first steps towards reconstruction and would also help the democratization of Yugoslavia until lasting democratic reforms are carried out. We believe that this compromise will win support and Europe is gradually moving in this direction. A team of Greek experts have already been appointed to go to Yugoslavia to estimate the scale of the damage and the immediate needs for reconstruction.
Thessaloniki: Do you think that the recent proposal that Mr. Draskovic made to you regarding the establishment of a provisional government led by Mr. Jukanovic presents a viable solution as a means to bringing Yugoslavia back into the international community?
G. Papandreou: I think it is a good effort to find a transitional solution that will contribute to political development in Yugoslavia and at the same time break the current isolation. I do not want to go into the details of this proposal, which might not be altogether concrete or realistic, but I am in favor of the overall approach as a means to bring about change, reforms, and the gradual reintegration of Yugoslavia into the international community.
Thessaloniki: During the crisis in Kosovo, Greeks and Turks worked together on humanitarian issues. Do you think Balkan reconstruction will create special incentives for the development of Greek-Turkish cooperation?
G. Papandreou: I believe so. We have a tradition of cooperation with Turkey on multi-lateral Balkan issues and our positions on regional objectives often concur. I think the crisis in Kosovo has had a sobering effect on all of us, as it raised the possibility of a much more serious regional crisis. Many people initially spoke of the destruction of the Balkans, of the outbreak of a giant Balkan war. Perhaps this made us more cautious, but also made us realize how fragile relations in the Balkans are and how important it is to strengthen the basic structures for cooperation.
I think certain issues that are classified as bilateral problems, not only by Greece and Turkey but also by other countries, are often less important than the possibility of a conflict as a result of these problems which would be disastrous for the entire region as well as our national interests. One can be more or less optimistic, but it is quite clear that we have mutual interests. Isn’t it integration into the European mainstream, economic development, the aversion of another Balkan war, regional development and cooperation, in the interests of everyone? When the Balkan countries took a united stance in NATO, in the Contact Group, our allies listened to us much more closely than when Turkey, Greece, FYROM, Bulgaria, and Albania took different stands.
Do we really want third parties to keep intervening in our affairs? Wouldn’t we all prefer to have greater control of our region? This is impossible unless we can find peaceful ways of living together. I think this realization has generated a climate of expansion and common approach to our problems. As far as the reconstruction of the Balkans is concerned, we have already taken a joint decision to cooperate with Turkey. Imagine if a Greek businessman and a Turkish businessman made a deal with a third businessman – perhaps a German, an American, an Englishman, a Frenchman. This would have create a great competitive advantage both economically, and on a symbolic level, politically. So let’s see how this proposal can go forward. If it does, it is very likely that in a few years time our common interests will become so strong that all the arguments today about territorial rights of rocks in the Aegean and so on, will be considered inconsequential. In nay case, we believe that these problems are actually non-existent.
Thessaloniki: What are your predictions about the meetings between Greek and Turkish officials scheduled to begin in Ankara today?
G. Papandreou: Nobody claims that this attempt at cooperation will be easy. We will face problems and ups and downs. However, what Turkey has stated about this particular round of bilateral talks – and I am not referring to other issues such as Cyprus and territorial disputes - is that it is willing to cooperate. This will be proved in practice, but we have nothing to lose by trying. It would be foolish to give up at the first sign of difficulty. If our intentions really are good, we must persist and extend our efforts.
We have clearly shown that we are in favor of cooperation, peace and good neighborly relations. We not need further proof of our good intentions. If our initiatives are not well received, we will simply say that we tried and saw that we remain exactly where we were before, we did not make any headway. If on the other hand the response is positive, we will have reason to celebrate this first, positive step.
So I think we should wait and see what the outcome will be. The results will not be immediate – they will not be apparent from the initial meetings, although of course we will be able to see what the general climate is like. After that, we must have the patience and persistence to test the process over a significant period of time and not jump to hasty conclusions.
Thessaloniki: In terms of Greece’s interests in the Middle East, there have been significant developments recently in Israeli-Palestinian relations with the election of Mr. Barak. The possibility of a peaceful resolution could have positive impact on the question of Cyprus, for instance. You met with the Ambassador of Israel in Greece that other day. What is Greece’s position on these new developments in the Middle east?
G. Papandreou: First of all, we see these as positive developments. We were always in favor of a peaceful resolution. The previous Israeli government was cautious or even negative about this process, whereas the new government has so far shown remarkable political will.
We have every reason to support the latest efforts of the Israeli government, and to assist them, as we already do by showing our support for Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. I believe that Greece’s involvement in this process – to the extent that we have good relations with all arab countries – will bring great benefits for our country. It will create a climate that encourages new approaches to problems in the wider geographical context, it will have an impact on Syria and Turkey, and possibly Iran, and will inevitably effect Cyprus also.
Developments in the Middle East are therefore in our immediate interests. Greece will be present and active in this process, as we have been in the Balkans. This was the message that I conveyed to the Israeli Ambassador.