Turkey’s military action against Greece would be suicidal – Greek Alt. Foreign Minister

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is in Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin as maritime tensions between Athens and Ankara brew. Is a showdown imminent? And what role could Moscow play? We discuss this with George Katrougalos, the Greek alternate minister for foreign affairs. 

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Sophie Shevardnadze: George Katrougalos, thank you for being with us today in our programme. It’s a pleasure. Welcome to Moscow. 

George Katrougalos: It’s a pleasure for me. 

SS: Lots to talk about. Prime Minister Tsipras and President Putin are set to discuss the TurkStream natural gas pipeline project which has a possible extension to Greece. I understand, Moscow is yet to decide whether this will go through Bulgaria or Greece. How do you think your prime minister will convince Putin that it’s more profitable for Russia to tilt towards Greece rather than Bulgaria? 

GK: Well, it will not be the only issue, or maybe not even the most important issue that the leaders are going to discuss, and this is not the first time that they meet. Look, we have in mind an economic model in which Greece is becoming a hub, not just for logistics and transport, but also for energy. So we are quite open to a lot of pipelines going through our soil. And I think, it’s also to the interests of the Russian Federation. We have common interests. There are some legal objections from Brussels regarding the feasibility of that… 

SS: We’ll get to Brussels, but why, do you think, Russia should go for Greece rather than Bulgaria? 

GK: There are many technical reasons regarding the feasibility aspects of the project. We have better possibilities of infrastructure than our neighbours. But ok, this is up to the Russian Federation to decide. 

SS: Ok, let’s talk about Brussels. Your prime minister has also been talking to Brussels about Greece getting a TurkStream pipeline. Do you think he can push it through? Do you think, Brussels will agree and support this? 

GK: There are many similarities between the legal conditions for North Stream and TurkStream. So what we always say whatever is going to happen regarding the one must happen to the other. So it’s not a difficult situation for us. We say that to the European Commision: we must have the same standards. 

SS: Then there’s Hungary, which is also hoping to benefit from the project and is demanding from Brussels to ‘stop putting spokes in the wheel’ of it. Do you think this is what Brussels is doing - putting spokes in the wheel? 

GK: You must ask the Hungarians about that. 

SS: Yeah, but you’re an observer. 

GK: We’re not an observer. European Union is our home. But what we’re trying to do is also building bridges between European Union and Russia which has traditional ties of friendship with us. So what we’re trying to do is something mutually beneficial not just for us and the Russian Federation, but for the European Union as well. 

SS: Sure, I wouldn’t expect any other answer from a foreign minister than this. For us it’s interesting to observe how different members of the European Union within this big EU family are maneuvering or reacting to this or that project, especially the gas pipelines when it comes to Russia because you know that historically the gas pipelines that go from Russia to Europe have met opposition and resistance, like, for instance, the South Stream pipeline, another gas project, went down thanks to the EU Commission opposition… 

GK: Look, we have some fundamentals in our foreign policy respective international law, European law or law in general. But besides that we consider that the only way to settle disputes is through a political dialogue and also by building economic ties. So we regard economic diplomacy a natural complement of normal, political diplomacy. We do not consider the Russophobia that exists in some minds today is the right way to treat the differences we have between the European Union and Russia. 

SS: Then there’s the German approach, for instance. When Brussels and Washington were scolding Germany for building the North Stream 2, Germans were like “you know what, we’ll take care of this on our own, thank you”, they were very firm about it. Do you think Greece can have same sort of position if it is pressured from Brussels? 

GK: Brussels is not pressing - Brussels has legal opinions. And you know, if you have two lawyers sometimes you have three opinions. But here it’s not so much about the judicial aspect of it, it’s more about interests. Both European Union and Russia have national interests. We’re very much aligned with Germany about that. And we’re very much aligned in the position that whatever is going to happen to the North Stream there’s no reason for that not to happen to the TurkStream and whatever other pipeline is in the same legal position. 

SS: TurkStream right now is a hot topic for Russia, that’s why I’m talking about it so much. Ok, you’re saying that there’s no pressure from Brussels. Just legal points of view. But there are certainly a lot of opinions coming from America. For instance, America is saying that the TurkStream is threatening Europe’s energy security. But the pipeline will be able to supply 31.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Europe. When America tells Europe not to have that, does it have an understanding of the Europe’s energy needs? 

GK: Well, the United States have their own opinion on that. But if you compare the amount of gas that is passing through North Stream and the amount of gas that is going to pass through the TurkStream, you’ll realise that that is a very small percentage for the latter. So even f we take into account the American concerns what is important is the North Stream, not the TurkStream. So if there are political concerns of others, for us, the Europeans, it’s the decision is ours, that we must just our interests and also our legal framework. 

SS: But you started this interview saying that you think Greece should be like a hub, that there should be multiple pipelines going through Greece. And the U.S. is saying that the TurkStream project won’t increase energy diversification. Meanwhile, the United States is offering natural gas which is more expensive than what Greece is currently getting. Do you think Greece is willing to pay the price gap for diversification? 

GK: This is exactly my point. I said that our home is the European Union, but we are trying to follow multidimensional economic and political diplomacy. When I’m saying we want to be a hub of many pipelines I have in mind pipelines coming from the Caspian, pipelines coming from the Middle East… 

SS: East Med? 

GK: EastMed. I have in mind also the possibilities of having energy from the United States. This is the position we have. We want to be some kind of a natural bridge between Asia, Africa, Europe, and this is to the benefit of everybody and not against the interests of anybody else. 

SS: I want to talk a little bit about East Med, and I want to understand the logic a little more. This East Med is also supposed to run through Greece from Israel, but the TurkStream 2 will deliver gas sooner and cheaper. Does it make sense to build another pipeline just for diversification, when the needs of gas supply are met? 

GK: We’re speaking about economic diplomacy and not just about gains and losses exactly because in issues like the energy security - what the national economies are going to win, strategic interests, legal framework, European law - all that is intertwined and cannot be isolated. And one of the reasons we want to have this multidimensional economic diplomacy is exactly because we want to have at the political level a multidimensional diplomacy also to protect our national interests. So I think we’re quite serious and not in contradiction with ourselves when we’re following these goals. 

SS: Just in May The European Commission and Gazprom have reached an agreement which obliges Gazprom to provide as much gas as needed, at competitive prices to Europe. With this agreement reached, with the European supply now cheap and secure, is the diversification still an issue? 

GK: Yes, diversification is always an issue. It’s like if you’re an investor - you do not want to put all your money in one project, even in a blue chip. You must have a possibility to have a diversity of energy resources so that any political turmoil doesn’t have any serious impact on your national interests. 

SS: So you know, sanctions are sour point for us, Russians. The European countries are united on the question of anti-Russian sanctions, whether they are friendly towards Russia or not, they all are for anti-Russia sanctions. But when it comes to gas, they don’t mind having a piece of the Gazprom pie. Does it make a little bit harder to argue for sanctions when you’re at the same time getting…? 

GK: I will not agree with, first of all, saying that all European countries have, let’s say, the same standing on that. Once the decision is taken, all of us must respect it because, as I said, the European Union is our common home, and the rule-based diplomacy must be there for everybody, and respecting decisions is part of the rules. But anytime Greece has to discuss in the organs of the European Union the issue of sanctions we always say that sanctions are not productive, and the only productive way to re-incorporate Russia in the European system of security which is our common ultimate goal is through political dialogue. So we’re trying to be very constructive with that, be the real bridge between the European Union and Russia. But I’m repeating - once the decision is taken it should be respected. 

SS: I want to talk about Cyprus a little bit, because it also could become another gas producer in the region, and has already announced drilling plans. But Turkey obviously has a problem with that, it says to, actually, to stay away from Cypriot gas until a political solution is found for the divided island. But do you think, maybe, the economic benefits from drilling can help find a political solution quicker? 

GK: There is only one thing that is superimposed to the national interests of state, and it’s international law. Because it’s only through respect of international law that we can have an organized international community. So what the Cypriot Republic is doing is exactly exercising its rights, sovereign rights, which are in conformity with the international law, and especially the Law of the Sea. And the reaction of Turkey is exactly not something that we can understand, explained by reasons of different conflicting interests, it’s something that everybody should reject exactly because it’s in violation of international law. So in issues like that, it is not if that is profitable or not, it is if it is legal or not. 

SS: So you have said, I am quoting your right now, that that Ankara’s reaction to this issue is “erratic”, and it’s a demonstration of weakness. Does Athens have a stronger position on this issue, and can it push Ankara? 

GK: I am really flattered that I am quoted by you, but… 

SS: I prepared well for the interview, did you not see that? 

GK: It’s obvious in all of the discussion. What I said is that when you’re provocative, when it is clear that you are trying to, let’s say, to project power, this is really an implicit proof that you are not strong, that you’re weak. And the weakness is exactly in the activity against international law. And it is not us that were saying that. In March of this year, the European Council, the Council of the leaders of the European Union, has characterized as illegal, as contrary to international law, similar practices of Turkey. And when I am speaking about weakness of our neighbours, with whom we want to have a peaceful relation, is exactly a weakness stemming from the fact that they’re acting against international law. And they’re in isolation because of this practise. 

SS: So another issue in the relations between Athens and Ankara is the Greek territorial waters. Greece wants to expand their maritime borders, according to the UN convention that would actually give it the right to do so - but Ankara is saying: “Well, we haven’t signed this Convention”, so they’re not having any of that. How far is Greece willing to push with this? I mean, this could create a pretty nervous situation, no? 

GK: You said that this stems from the international treaty, that is has been signed now by practically all countries of the world, besides Turkey… 

SS: But Turkey! 

GK: But Turkey, exactly. And, you know that international law, they say, is the sum of a general acceptance of rules, it’s becoming not just law by treaty, but also customary law. So we consider that Turkey has a right to respect our sovereign right to expand our territorial waters. But there is something more than that, and it’s a demonstration of my claim that Turkey is not acting within international law. Turkey, to be exact, not recently, by a decision of its National Assembly, dating some decades, said that they consider a casus belli the possibility… The exercise of our inalienable right to extend the territorial waters, but threat of use of violence is against something even more fundamental than the Law of the Sea - the Charter of the United Nations. Because if we want to have a peaceful cooperation, then the absolute necessity, the condition, is not to have the war as possibility of politics by other means. And every nation that is threatening a neighbor by war, by use of violence, by this act, it’s putting itself out of the international legal order. 

SS: So, according to some recent reports, Greece is also seeking to invoke the mutual assistance clause of the Lisbon Treaty to stress that its maritime borders are also those of the EU. How willing do you think Brussels will be back you on that? 

GK: This is an idea of President Macron that we are backing. He’s speaking about European sovereignty, that has, as other basis, this article of the Treaty, Article 42 paragraph 7, similar to the Article 5 of NATO, which says practically that every European country which is under attack has the right to ask the assistance of its allies, of the members of the European union. We consider it as self-evident obligation of the European Union to protect its borders, because the borders of the European Union are the borders of the country members. And this is one of the reasons that we are supporting European defence capacity. Recently, President Macron and Chancellor Merkel have spoken about a European army. Maybe it’s early to speak about that, but this vision of a Europe which protects its member states and its citizens, I think it’s a vision of Europe that we want to share with France. 

SS: But from whom? You have NATO. What do you need your army for? 

GK: NATO did not protect us till now from threats like that, exactly because Turkey is also a member of NATO.

SS: So do you think a European army would be alternative to NATO? 

GK: No. European defence is going to be complementary to NATO, and we remain members of NATO, and one of the few members that satisfy the obligation to pay 2% of their budget for defence capabilities. But as I said, we do not want to have alliance against Turkey, this is not our basic rationale. What we want is to be friends with Turkey. But that presupposes respect, mutual respect of law. We cannot be friends if we do not have agreement on the rules that we’re going to follow. 

SS: You know what I always wondered, I mean, you, Greece and Turkey, are both members of NATO. Do you think that’s what, essentially, keeps you away from a military confrontation with each other? 

GK: I don’t think that Turkey has in mind a military confrontation, that would be suicidal. And in any case, what we want is to engage them in a dialogue which has, as a final goal, to resolve our issues exactly by peaceful means through political dialogue. And we hope that we can achieve a similar goal. 

SS: I want to talk a bit about the migrant crisis, and Greece has been hit very hard by the influx of migrants into Europe. But then the EU-Turkey refugee deal, sort of, eased the burden for Greece. Can antagonising Turkey actually lead to the failure of this agreement, return of the crisis, maybe? 

GK: No, no. Exactly this agreement between the European Union and Turkey is a useful example of how cooperation between European Union and Turkey, between us and Turkey can be mutually beneficial. Of course, migration cannot be treated as a national issue, it is a global issue, and especially within the confines of the European Union, it should be treated as a European one. This is also, this aspect, our way of thinking - a collective way of engaging everybody is something that we think will finally be beneficial, again, for everybody. 

SS: Looking westwards now, the Greek economy is yet to fully recover from all the bailout trauma it went through, and a lot of banks are still in heavy debts - are you confident in the country, do you think it is steering through and staying afloat? 

GK: Yes. Now we have fully recovered, we have 6 consecutive quarters with growth, last quarter has a growth of 2.2%, projections for next year is for a growth of 2.5%. Of course, we have still in the Greek society the accumulation of 8 years of misery, but we’re starting to leave all that behind us. And not just economically, getting out of the programs of readjustment is also a return to full democratic control of the fate of our nation. So, both at the levels of the democracy and the economy, we have really turned a page after August. 

SS: So, Syriza has been brought to power in Greece by disillusioned voters fed up with regular faces in politics. Do you think all of this, you are part of a common pan-European trend of shaking up the conventional establishment? 

GK: It is not just the Greek voters, the Greek citizens, that are feeling disenchanted by what’s happening in Europe. Even the European Commission… 

SS: That’s what I’m saying, it’s a huge pan-European movement. 

GK: I am re-confirming that, and I am saying that even the European Commission in its recent book, White book about the future of Europe, says that we are the first generation of Europeans who fear that our children are going to have a worse life than us. And we see this feeling in the recent revolt in France, in the, let’s say, the reversal of the political system in countries that we considered to be very politically-stable. So, what is for sure is that this dismantlement of the welfare state, this explosion of inequalities cannot continue like that. The real question is, these challenges are going to be met by a progressive response, as the one that we are trying to build in European alliance with other powers, of the ecology, of the social democracy, or they are going to prevail again, these dark forces which want to return Europe in a golden nationalistic past that never existed. Therefore, we are speaking about two Europes that are going to affront each other in the next European elections. And we believe that the Europe of progress, of openness, of human rights and freedoms is going to prevail. 

SS: So… Why do you think that in Greece, the popular discontent movement actually resulted in a left government, and then everywhere else in Europe in the right, Trump-style?

GK: Well, it is not universal, what we are saying… Look at what’s happening in the UK, or even at the United States. This feeling of the working class that their demands are not met, it is, as I said, can be faced either by the left of by the right. I was reading in the Wall Street Journal, a poll saying that for the first time socialism is not a bad word for the Americans, it is something new. If you look at the program of Corbyn, or Sanders, you’re going to see there political positions that some years ago would be considered suicidal for those who state them. So I trust that we can have in all counties, especially those Meccas of the international capitalism, real responses for the big majority, for the working class and the middle class. 

SS: George Katrougalos, thank you for this interview, and good luck with everything. 

GK: Thank you.