by Sarantis Michalopoulos
The West has underestimated China’s rise, and the centre of gravity has switched from the Atlantic to the Pacific, where Europe has no role, Greece’s former Foreign Affairs Minister Nikos Kotzias, one of Europe’s most experienced China analysts, warned in an exclusive interview.
“I believe the pandemic and the crisis of the US democracy as we have experienced the last few days, shows that we are in a period where if the West does not democratically renew itself, history will read it as the transition from American hegemony to at least a binary US-China hegemony, and Chinese hegemony in the long run.”
He told EURACTIV that Greece could be a bridge between West and East, rather than bow to Western pressure to reduce its special relationship with China.
“Greece is criticised for Cosco’s investments in the port of Piraeus, when Greece has 0.2% of Chinese investments, while Germany and the UK have 22% and 21%, i.e. 100 times more.”
“The Germans have 6,500 companies in China. What the big powers want is for them to decide when to have good or bad relations and for smaller countries to follow suit. So, to be without a role, to be followers. Greece must not do that,” Kotzias said.
Lessons from North Macedonia talks
Kotzias, the diplomacy chief in the cabinet of Alexis Tsipras, was the architect of the crucial 2018 North Macedonia name change deal that ended a long-standing dispute between Balkan neighbours.
Greece and North Macedonia reached the deal because they managed to build trust via direct contacts, with only a limited presence of mediators, and this should be a lesson for the talks between Athens and Ankara, Kotzias said.
“The presence of the mediator in certain moments when he knows the subject well is necessary, but not throughout the duration of a negotiation,” he said, adding that the “extremely noble and efficient” UN mediator Matthew Nimetz was not present in two-thirds of the negotiation.
“The mediator sometimes makes things more difficult,” he said, explaining that when two sides negotiate through a third party, both are constantly trying to convince the mediator, thereby only cementing their respective positions.
On the other hand, he said, when two negotiate directly, they are more specific: “The two sides highlight their main issues and then explore if they can put them in a positive package for both”.
“When you always have the mediator in front of you, the conditions of trust are not formed. You do not see the other, you do not talk casually at night,” he said.
The night in Vienna
Kotzias said the attacks against his family, his own life, and partly the attacks on his counterpart in North Macedonia, Nikola Dimitrov, helped both sides realise what was happening. Both in Greece and in the former Yugoslav republic, there were many opponents to any type of bilateral agreement.
“One night in Vienna we sat down to talk about those who were attacking us. We realised that the issue is not North Macedonians versus Greeks, but an issue between those who did not want a solution, the so-called professionals of non-solution, and those who tried to move towards the logic of a good solution,” he said.
The veteran Greek diplomat has published a book entitled “The logic of solution”, where he said that in a negotiation one should not fight, but prove to the other side that there is a common interest in a productive and creative solution.
Bulgaria: ‘Hercules without muscles’
Referring to Bulgaria’s recent blocking of North Macedonia’s EU path, he said the tone in Sofia is set by the far-right VMRO party of the coalition government under the Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov.
He said Athens had warned the European Council that Karakachanov was pursuing a policy outside the EU framework after the Bulgarian EU Presidency placed a statue of a lion in the garden of the National Palace of Culture, which was holding a shield with the map of San Stefano reflecting the “Greater Bulgaria”.
“Bulgaria has not realised that there has been the birth of a new nation in North Macedonia, which has its own language. Instead of respecting and contributing to the peace and friendship of the peoples of the region, Bulgaria acts in a destabilising way, pretending to be a Hercules without muscles,” Kotzias said.
The case of Turkey and Germany
Referring to Turkey, Kotzias said it was not good to negotiate through a third party that has his own interests and perception.
During last year’s escalating crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean between Athens and Ankara, Germany stepped in as a mediator to help ease tensions. But for Kotzias, this is a mistake.
“Instead of trying to understand and solve a problem with Turkey, you end up trying to influence Berlin or convince it not to be pro-Turkish. In short, the negotiation goes elsewhere.”
Europe has been reluctant so far to impose sanctions against Turkey due to divisions among EU member states. For Kotzias, sanctions should not affect only a state, but also the personnel and institutions that help Turkey carry out illegal actions.
He said that in the case of Turkey, a part of the European financial system, including in Switzerland and Norway, provided Turkey with logistical infrastructure.
“We had to start with sanctions against these companies. Because these companies have 14-15 big jobs in the EU market. So the sanctions against them would have a very significant impact on their economies, would lead them to withdraw and it would be easier to put pressure on Turkey.”
He cited as a successful example of sanctions the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, where the US first sanctioned the company that manages the port of Lubeck in Germany, the endpoint of the Russian pipeline.
“This company has too many ports in the western world, and any sanctions for its actions with the Russians in Germany will have a negative impact on its overall funding and operation throughout the western world. That’s why they stopped.”
Greece, he added, should have worked closer with those favoring sanctions against Ankara, such as the European Parliament and some German parties, while a campaign should have also taken place in the German press.
In Berlin, the Greens, the Liberals and the Left [Die Linke] have openly backed sanctions while the socialists and the conservatives are partly in favour. In the EU, Italy, Spain and Bulgaria reportedly opposed sanctions.
In the case of Spain, he said: “We should remind Spain that it has too many serious issues that depend on the attitude of its partners, such as the issue of Catalonia or Gibraltar, or the activities of its over-exposed EU banks.”
“I understand for Spain the issue of Catalonia is a matter of life and death and I would certainly never play with this issue. But they must understand that for Greece, too, the Aegean, the Cyprus issue, Thrace, is a fundamental vital issue.”
He backed the sanctions against Belarus but at the same time said he could not understand why in terms of human rights it was normal for Turkey to imprison the leadership of its third-largest democratic party, as well as dozens of mayors of the Kurdish community.
‘Erdogan knew we would sink the Turkish vessel’
Kotzias criticised the Greek government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis (EPP) saying Athens has not delivered Turkey the message that there will be costs if it continues its harassment.
In 2020, Turkey sent the Oruc Reis vessel several times in Greek waters for gas exploration.
“The first time I met Mevlut Cavusoglu and Erdogan in Ankara, they both hinted that their vessel would reach the south of Crete. And I told them laughingly: ‘We will sink you; you will never reach it’. They repeated the same to Mitsotakis, and he did not answer at all.”
Kotzias said Ankara always invokes the International Law, even if its moves clearly violate it, and always looks for an opportune timing, as was the case last year when “the US under Trump was paralysed in the run-up to the election, the UK was dealing with Brexit, and Israel did not have a stable government.”
“Turkey has been trying to push forward its claims for 30 years. Unfortunately, with the Mitsotakis government, it did it within a few months,” he said.
*first published in: www.euractiv.com