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Ex-FM Kotzias: The future lies in our friendship

Nikos Kotzias, Greece’s former foreign minister, in an exclusive interview with MIA opens up about the friendship between the two neighboring nations and the positive effects in the two countries arising from the Prespa Agreement.

Athens, 30 december 2018 (MIA) – Nikos Kotzias, Greece’s former foreign minister, in an exclusive interview with MIA opens up about the friendship between the two neighboring nations and the positive effects in the two countries arising from the Prespa Agreement.

The future lies in our friendship, Kotzias tells MIA’s Athens correspondent adding that he is confident that ‘North Macedonia and Greece will have the friendliest relations in all of Europe.’

In a warm and cozy atmosphere ahead of New Year’s Day, the ex-foreign minister sat down with MIA’s correspondent to talk about an array of issues directly and indirectly related to the name agreement, but he also opens up about things that have nothing to do with the agreement between Macedonia and Greece.

He reveals what went on in the negotiations, from September 2017 via Davos and Sounio up to Prespa, where he signed the agreement together with his Macedonian counterpart Nikola Dimitrov. Kotzias reveals that he will most probably meet with Dimitrov again at a conference in Athens in March.

Although he is no longer a minister, he still is optimistic that the Greek Parliament has secured a parliamentary majority to ratify the Prespa Agreement.

He says he would like to visit Macedonia once again before he dies ‘to wander the streets of Skopje with a smile on his face.’ Kotzias prefers a snow-covered Skopje and says that if he were younger with more money, he would have bought a land in Prespa.

Mr. Kotzias, over a year ago at a news conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, you unveiled the framework and timeframe for a solution. We were at the very beginning then. Did you believe then that the countries would manage to come to an agreement?

Look, very early on I told both (Matthew) Nimetz and Nikola Dimitrov – as I put my hand over my heart – that I would go till the end for the agreement. I asked them to put their hands over their heart to pledge that together we will go till the end. I think then I expressed my deepest belief that we should put an end to this and that I was ready, i.e. Greece was ready. I think that from then on, especially after (Zoran) Zaev came to power in Skopje, there was willingness for solution on the other side, too.

You said it was doable at the news conference back then at the Foreign Ministry. Because it was still very early…

It’s not a matter of being doable. I have another theory – how can I make it doable. More precisely, if politics means to do the things that can be done at the moment, someone has to lay the groundwork for it. Thus, the Prespa Agreement – even though I’m not the foreign minister now – nevertheless, the agreement has been prepared and it will be ratified by the assemblies. You should do everything it takes to make something doable. That’s why sometimes in life we say that there is no such thing as ‘I cannot’, it means ‘I don’t want to.’ I don’t want to fight. Even if you want it and you fight for it, it doesn’t mean that it will happen, but it is the main precondition.

If you could turn back time, would you change something in the negotiations?

No.

Nothing?

Nothing. Firstly, you cannot turn back time, and secondly, it is a hypothetical issue that has no practical meaning in politics and no practical meaning for how far have we come. And also I think it makes no sense to judge based on your acquired experience compared to the time you had no experience. But, I think the result is good, useful and I’m deeply confident that the relations between your country, North Macedonia, and Greece will be the friendliest in all of Europe. I’m deeply confident that there is friendship and that we have also provided an institutionalized framework in which it can be implemented.

Probably, there was already friendship, but it was…

That’s what I’m saying, there is, but now we are constructing an institutional framework in order to be organized and expressed. I deeply believe that of all the countries and of all the nations in the region, Greece is the one that has no other intention for this country. We don’t want to occupy it culturally, we are not saying that is an extension of our tradition, we don’t have a part of the population that is like us. Hence, we have no other intentions.

Let us delve deeper into what had taken place in the negotiations out of the public eye. They took about six months. What was the hardest moment? Was there a moment in which you felt that the negotiations were doomed ‘we’ve come to a deadlock’?

There were two difficulties in the negotiations. The first one emerged before the administration of Zaev and Dimitrov. It was a time when (ex-foreign minister Nikola) Poposki was willing to talk, in his own frameworks of course, but (ex-PM Nikola) Gruevski was reluctant. It was a time when I was open, discussing – as I’m doing it now – both with the Albanian political factor in FYROM and with the then opposition led by Zaev. I have to tell you that it bothered the then US administration. They wanted to convince me that I shouldn’t talk to everyone in your country, that I should only talk to the foreign minister. And I pushed them aside. I think that it bothered them, but I’m not interested. I am deeply confident that negotiations should be held directly between the two countries. The more sides get involved, the harder it gets, because those that are interfering have other criteria, other views and other goals. So, it was difficult to push aside those who wanted to meddle.

The second difficulty, I think in the beginning, when the other side – North Macedonia – wasn’t sure if I meant everything that I had said – if I’m truly willing to go till the end, to make a compromise, because there was a feeling that if they begin making compromises that I would hang them out to dry, which would put them in a difficult position. This has a point, but it had nothing to do with my intentions.

The third difficulty we faced was when we were about to reach a compromise. I think that once again the other side was thinking it through, changing its mind and I wondered if we were going to make it or not, but we were meant to succeed.

You also attended the Davos meetings. The two prime ministers met there for the first time and no one knew what was going to happen. In fact, it was the starting point of the negotiations…

In September in Thessaloniki, Nikola Dimitrov and I had reached this basic agreement of what we wanted to do. We had discussed basic things, such as ways to open the door for North Macedonia to become a member of the Adriatic-Ionian Initiative, to open the second stage of your country’s process to join the EU, to rename the airport, etc. We had already discussed these things back in September.

September 2017?

Yes, in Thessaloniki. What remained open wasn’t the good will and the agreement, it was to find a way how to proceed. Back then, there was a suggestion that I should prepare an initial text for which we all agreed. Then, your side, North Macedonia, wrote a second text and we made a progress in the negotiations. This was the point over which a decision was supposed to be made in Davos – are we going to make a compromise and who will draft the text, because it was important, too. Not the UN, not third parties, but us, the two countries negotiating.

During the crisis in Greece, I had studied the great conference about Germany’s WWI reparations in the 1920s, more precisely about the Young Plan. I wanted to study what was the problem in these major negotiations. You only need to read the texts of German negotiators saying ‘Oh, they want to bring in this other country, if they bring another country, we will never finish. And we want to finish, because the others will influence with their interest, their views.’ This has affected me very much apart from my experience because I had been in many negotiations and I had realized that third parties are unnecessary. It was a good thing to make use of the UN, but we needed to talk with each other, Nikola and myself, Zoran and Alexis, in order to make a personal connection and to reduce prejudice and stereotypes and to make sure the agreement became easier. I am a firm believer that negotiations should be held between two sides, there is no need for others to interfere.

 In Sounio? Did you hit a deadlock? Or did we get the impression that something like that was happening…

No. In Sounio we agreed the methodology to implement the agreement. The name was something that was left open, there were different views and it was left to your side to send us proposals.

I believe Sounio was the decisive moment when we agreed on the main things.

And then we waited for the telephone call between the two prime ministers…

Yes. And the approval of the two prime ministers. Because no matter how everything was negotiated between the two foreign ministers – and I believe we had done our best – these things should be verified and some details should be explained by the political leaders.

Aside from the name negotiations, I guess that you and Nikola Dimitrov have become friends. You spent a lot of time together…

Nikola spent more time with me than with his family.

You became friends, are you still in touch?

Yes.

You share the same name…

Yes, the name is very common in your country. If I had known that, I would have chosen to be born there. The previous one was also Nikola, the former PM is Nikola and many other people that I had met are also called Nikola.

My department for international and European studies is organizing a conference in March to mark its 20th anniversary. It is the largest department for international and European studies in south Europe and in the Mediterranean. We invited him to come on March 15-16 to take part in the final debate on the future of the Balkans. The department has good experts on the Balkans, we will also invite some Slavic scholars from Thessaloniki. I hope he will come.

On March 15-16?

Yes, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Do you expect the processes to be completed by then and he will be officially the foreign minister of North Macedonia?

Nikola, in my heart, is the minister of North Macedonia, I believe it is a good compromise, a difficult one.

I meant if all the procedures would be completed by then?

In your country they will be, in mine I hope so. It is not up to me to say.

Are you still an optimist that the Prespa Agreement is going to be ratified in the Greek Parliament?

You mean the parliamentary majority? Yes, yes. There is no doubt. This majority has been created, I would say found, back in 2017. Those are people who besides their opinion of the government, they want to see the concrete issue closed and they believe that the agreement is a good compromise.

In the past almost 10 years, all Greek parties, except from Independent Greeks, Golden Dawn, LAOS, Union of Centrists, have been supportive of a red line involving a complex name with a geographical qualified, erga omnes. What happened now? What do you think, why are they now against the Prespa Agreement. Maybe, in some way, it is a reaction because the agreement was reached by SYRIZA and Nikos Kotzias?

I’ve told them in Parliament that they all want the agreement to be approved, but that they also reserve the right to curse at me. They want to do all of this, let them do it, but we have to finish.

But, why are they reacting? Isn’t the deal within the frameworks of the red line they once had and supported?

I believe New Democracy reacted mostly because it has problems with unity inside the party, secondly because we are close to elections and it wants to score points, and thirdly because it has shifted a little bit toward the far right, and fourthly, because it badly affected the Independent Greek’s position on the junior coalition partner. It was a bad influence, because as you have seen, the party’s vice president had said there would be an incident to prevent the Prespa Agreement. People are cheaters. They view this issue with a far-right perception and they attack both the Prespa Agreement and the government and Alexis Tsipras.

What’s behind the reaction in the two societies, it is the same in my country and here. Perhaps the Greek people weren’t aware enough about the name issue? As if though it had been swept under the rug for so long…

I’ll tell you something interesting. Greek Macedonians don’t react as much as Pontic Greeks in Macedonia. It is a matter of identity, which is not the same as a geo-strategic issue. The state bears the responsibility in geo-strategic issues. Turkey and Greece have geo-strategic, geo-political issues. We don’t have geo-strategic issues with North Macedonia and Albania, what we are dealing with is an identity issue. These matters don’t fall into state policies, it’s a matter of the awareness of the people. I think there are fears, insecurity and prejudice that aren’t true, in fact there is this crazy thing. What is it? Someone who sells Tsimiski merchandise to a citizen of your country before they go out to protest. Others who wait and host tourists from your country during the summer and come autumn they want to protest. This is the craziness in all of us, in all the nations in the Balkans. And that’s why I say that history should be a classroom, not a prison cell – and we are all a bit trapped in history. There are also the usual lies and some even profit from nationalism as you may know. One such lie is when a lady came up to me in the street and told me: Why have you sold Thessaloniki? I tell her ‘where did you get that idea from?’ She says: ‘We gave up on Thessaloniki with the Prespa Agreement.’ It’s absurd. I think it is a matter of interests and it is also a spontaneous concern and fear that something will happen with their identity. The church in all of this also has played an unfavorable role… These are the so called cultural wars.

During your tenure as minister, you organized a conference about the Prespa Agreement at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Has it helped?

It has. But you know what, we were supposed to do much more as I had already agreed with the other members of the government, but… there was no mood in the government for a campaign about the deal because of Mr. Kammenos. And I think it’s a bad thing that they gave up on this.

From what I can see here, in Greece, the Greeks don’t know a lot about the name issue in general, not only about the name deal…

And they don’t know about the positive sides of the agreement. They also don’t know other things. For example, when you tell them about the 1913 Bucharest Agreement, under which the geographical region of Macedonia had been divided into four parts, they think it had been divided into three, they don’t know that Albania also got something. They don’t know this. They don’t know that we got our Macedonia thanks to an agreement, that if you dispute the outcome of the agreement, you are disputing yourself. But, it is a matter of knowledge, concern, of identity and prejudice. Of course, the position of Independent Greeks and New Democracy overlapped, which was bad. What is also impressive is how many lies the parties are saying today. I have been asking myself many times if it was the right thing to unveil some other things, but they could have negatively impacted the case. To unveil things about what had PASOK and New Democracy really said and done.

You mean classified documents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs…

Yes, involving the negotiations. Because they are lying. This is a different story, different from the spontaneous concern of the ordinary citizen who doesn’t know what could happen. They know all too well and they are spreading political speculation. They say, Kotzias will do everything himself.

Only because you took an initiative, you were the subject of threats. Bullets, dirt with blood…

I have received bullets, dirt with blood, bags with blood, letters, phone calls…

Even now, when you are no longer minister of foreign affairs?!

Yes, the day before yesterday someone told me I would be executed right here in the street.

Do you have any regrets?

None whatsoever. I’m someone who at 17 years old wasn’t scared to be tried by the military courts of the junta. Nothing the junta supporters are saying can scare me now. Our lives are worthless unless we use it for what we believe in. If you give up because of fear, then you have no reason to live.

Do you have any clue as to who it might be?

Yes, I have come to a conclusion.

Can I ask who is it?

No. If you read carefully my statements and the statements of Pratto, you might also find out who I’m referring to.

What is Nikos Kotzias now up to since he is no longer foreign minister?

I’m a member of Parliament, elected at national level, and for the first time I’m only MP. At 65, I run for MP for the first time. I teach at the university and I’m involved with the political movement Pratto. I have too many invitations from abroad. And now I will start responding to them. I published a collection of my texts about the Cyprus issue, which will be promoted in February alongside the former and the current foreign ministers of Cyprus. I’m also organizing the international conference I mentioned before. Also, I plan on writing eight books on foreign policy. I hope everything will be fine with my health…

I suppose you’ll dedicate one book to the Prespa Agreement…

I plan on writing one volume about FYROM, i.e. North Macedonia. From FYROM to North Macedonia. You know the first self-sarcastic joke I said after resigning. I said I wanted to change the name of the former only to become former.

What was the feeling when you were signing the Prespa Agreement?

Feeling of great joy. I like it when I finish something that I consider to be the right thing. I think it was one of the happier days of my life. And I think everyone was happy. Also, I thought it was a beautiful thing that we had crossed on the other side of Prespa. I had never been there, I had only visited Ohird before. Lake Ohrid is beautiful, but I think Prespa Lake is more beautiful. Maybe the weather was nice, there was bright sunshine. The people were warm. The prime ministers were both in the mood.

Also, as you might know, I have a plan that has been accepted by the Commission. We agreed with Albania and North Macedonia to apply for EU funds to develop Prespa into a region of joint prosperity that will convince everyone about how useful the Prespa Agreement is.

You mentioned Ohrid. You visited both Ohrid and Skopje. Would you go there again as a tourist? Or in some other city?

I refuse to die before once again visiting your country. And I have the right. I think that your country is beautiful. I have to say that I like Skopje better covered in snow.

It was very cold in Skopje when you came for a visit…

And there was also a lot of snow. But, it was a beautiful, clean snow. After a couple of years, once everyone realizes that life is changed only in a positive sense with this agreement, that we are not taking Skopje away from you and no one is taking Thessaloniki from us, I want to be a smiling man walking on the streets of Skopje. If I were younger and if I had more money, I would have bought a land in Prespa to build a house there.

In Prespa, instead of Ohrid?

I like Prespa more. I don’t know why. Maybe because the day was so nice.

What message would you want to send to the neighboring nation?

I believe that the future lies in our friendship. Only a joint development of our countries will stabilize the whole region and enable the dreams of the people to prosper.

Sanja Ristovska

Photo: Yannis Kolesidis

Translated by Bisera Altiparmakova

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