Ambassador Geoffrey R. Pyatt in Conversation with journalist Alexia Tasouli

Ambassador Geoffrey R. Pyatt in Conversation  with journalist Alexia Tasouli
Thessaloniki Summit; Hyatt Hotel
November 14, 2019

Ms. Tasouli:  It’s an honor for me to share in a discussion with the United States Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, who has proved his continued engagement with Thessaloniki not only with TIF last year, 2018, but in many other cases, he has set a new tempo for our bilateral relations. Welcome, Mr. Ambassador, again to the Thessaloniki Summit.

Ambassador Pyatt: Thank you.

Ms. Tasouli: Let me start by showing the audience two pictures from your recent visit in Alexandroupoli.  We can see you with the Minister of Defense and other partners from Hellenic Armed Forces.  And I would like to ask you first what’s the future of this important maritime asset.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Thank you, Alexia.  Let me start by saying what a thrill it is to be back at the Thessaloniki Summit.  This is my third participation.  So Thanos, I don’t know if I get a gold card or something now, but congratulations to you and Simeon for what this forum has become.

I also want to say, Alexia, in response to your question, more than three years ago in my very first meeting with Prime Minister Mitsotakis, at the end of our conversation he said to me, Ambassador, you Americans need to pay more attention to Northern Greece.  And I think if there’s one thing that everybody can agree on, it’s that the Americans have a much more visible presence in Northern Greece today than we did a few years ago.  And that reflects a strategic decision and priorities that the U.S. government has set from top to bottom.

Alexandroupoli is an important piece of that.  When I first went to Alexandroupoli in 2017, I found a city adrift.  The privatization of the port was uncertain.  The Chamber of Commerce had just signed a Memorandum of Cooperation with the illegal Russian-occupation government in Crimea.  And there was generally a sense of people not really understanding where they fit, but there was also a sense that they had a big neighbor very close to the east.

So we have made a strategic focus on Alexandroupoli.  There are three big elements of that focus.  One of the real bright spots of U.S.-Greece relations over the past few years has been our cooperation on energy issues.  Greece, I would argue, has done more than any other EU member state perhaps with the exception of Poland to advance the transatlantic agenda of European energy security over the past three years.  A lot of that success is focused around Macedonia and Thrace.  So you’ve got the TAP pipeline, and one of the great privileges that I had as U.S. Ambassador a few years ago was to get the TAP pipeline under construction.  You can’t see it anymore because it’s all buried and everything is restored, but it was a fabulously impressive undertaking — the largest single foreign investment of the crisis decade.  And it is a piece of infrastructure which next year will transform the European energy market because it will be the first new infrastructure to come on-line in Europe specifically to bring non-Russian gas to European consumers.  So a very, very big deal.

You add that to two other big projects.  One is the IGB pipeline. I think it’s very important that Prime Minister Borissov will be here in Thessaloniki tonight.  I have a terrific new counterpart in Sofia, and Ambassador Mustafa was with Borissov just a few days ago at the launch of the construction of the IGB pipeline, and he made very clear that Bulgaria’s intention is to break free of the dependence on Gazprom that that country has today.  So IGB is a big part of this energy map.

And then the third piece, which we the United States and our European partners are working very hard to advance, is the floating regassification unit in Alexandroupoli which will be a critical piece of infrastructure, again, to bring LNG to consumers across the Balkan energy island. So energy’s one big piece.

Another piece is the defense story, and that’s reflected in the two pictures you had, the visit I was able to make with Minister Panagiotopoulos.  The U.S. military made an investment to bring up the sunken dredger, the Olga, and to restore the full capacity of that port with the expectation that we will begin to use Alexandroupoli as a strategic asset for the deployment of U.S. military and NATO forces into the Black Sea and Balkan regions.

So you will see a much more frequent rotation of U.S. forces through Alexandroupoli as we conduct our exercises with Bulgaria, with Romania; demonstrate our resolve as NATO allies and our commitment to uphold the security guarantees that are part of NATO in the context of the militarization of the Black Sea.

And then the final piece is the commercial piece, and that remains to be written.  But Minister Georgiadis and Minister Karamanlis and I, and Minister Panagiotopoulos and I have had extensive discussions about the government’s intention to privatize the Port of Alexandroupoli.  We have at least one credible American investor group that is very interested in this project, looking to unlock the potential of Alexandroupolis to become a major transit port for moving goods into and out of the Black Sea region, essentially competing with the Bosporus and through investment not just in the port but in related infrastructure: the Ring Road, the electrification of the rail line up to Bulgaria, and creating an alternative channel for moving containers and bulk cargo from the Aegean into the Black Sea region and vice versa.

So there’s a lot going on in Alexandroupoli.  I think it’s going to be good for the economy of that region.  But from the American standpoint, there’s a clear strategic rationale to this.

Ms. Tasouli:  Yes, I agree.  Alexandroupoli is a very crucial link for European energy security.  You mentioned IGB pipeline.  You mentioned TAP pipeline.  You mentioned [inaudible] construction.  But people wonder if there is going to be a tradeoff between Greek and American partnership.  I don’t like this phrase, but I would like to ask you if it’s definitely a win/win partnership.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Countries behave on the basis of their interests.  What the United States does, we do because it’s in our interests.  What Greece does, it does because it’s in its interests.  I think Foreign Minister Dendias has been very eloquent about how our interests have come together today.  We both are interested in seeing that all the countries of the Western Balkans continue to move towards European institutions.  We both are concerned about the militarization of the Black Sea.  We both are concerned about Turkey’s drift away from EuroAtlantic institutions and the importance of keeping Turkey anchored in the West.

So this is a joint venture.  It’s a win/win.  It’s something which both governments have pursued with their eyes open.  And I think significantly, especially since the elections in July we’ve seen a clear signal from the Greek government, from Prime Minister Mitsotakis of his intention to take what was already a very strong relationship under Prime Minister Tsipras and really raise it up to a new level.  And what we did when Secretary Pompeo was here, concluding our Defense Cooperation Agreement, is a piece of that.

Ms. Tasouli:  Since we are in Northern Greece and there will be a meeting between Prime Minister Mitsotakis and Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Zoran Zaev — you have to applauded many times Greece for its admirable foresight in the recent Prespes agreement.  But unfortunately, the European Union didn’t give the green light for North Macedonia.  So the negotiations haven’t started.  So what’s the future regarding the enlargement of the Western Balkans?

Ambassador Pyatt:  So I think, first of all, we believe that it was a historic mistake for the European Union not to move ahead with North Macedonia and Albania last month.

That said, we have to deal with the world as it is.  I think on the question of what comes next, first of all there’s a very high degree of convergence between Athens and Washington on the desirability of seeing all of these countries continue to move towards a EuroAtlantic trajectory.  There is nothing that would be better for Thessaloniki, for Northern Greece, for Greek security than to see all of your neighbors be stabilized through the combination of EU and NATO membership, assuming that that’s what they all choose.

It’s important that Prime Minister Zaev is going to be here tonight.  It’s important Foreign Minister Dendias is in Belgrade today.  The United States is extremely enthusiastic about the return of Greece as a major factor of stability in the Western Balkans, and we expect that we will continue to work together very closely in order to help these countries make the difficult reforms that are necessary to be part of the European family and not to lose faith.

I have a very skilled and intelligent new French counterpart in Athens.  I will let him speak for the French government, but speaking for the United States, we think it’s very important to put this process back on track as quickly as possible and we look forward to working closely with the Greek government to do so.

Ms. Tasouli:  North Macedonia is going to be a NATO member soon. We have the summit in London this December.  But there has been a criticism about NATO’s role.  Some people say that it is brain dead, as has been said, and since we all read the statement yesterday between President Trump and President Erdogan in Washington, what does that mean for the Greek-Turkish relationship and for the region?

Ambassador Pyatt:  Let me start on the question of whether or not NATO is brain dead or not.  And I’ll say from an American perspective NATO is the most successful security alliance in the history of the world.  We stopped the Soviet Union.  We built a zone of peace and prosperity across Europe and allowed Europe to enjoy a period of really unprecedented peace, stability and improvement in standards of living.  We stand by our security guarantees to our NATO allies.  Those security guarantees are ironclad and non-negotiable.  So that you can take to the bank.

On the question of what happens with Turkey, I’ll say a couple of things.

First of all, I think there are no two countries which are more closely aligned on the question of Turkey than the United States and Greece, because both of us feel very strongly that for all of the frustration and the challenges that come with dealing with Ankara today, we both have to figure out how we work with this government and how do we keep Turkey anchored in the West.

I think Greece is one of the bright spots, and there aren’t a lot of them, but one of the bright spots in Turkey’s relationship with Europe right now is the fact that there is in fact a conversation between Athens and Ankara.  The first phone call that Prime Minister Mitsotakis took after his election was with President Erdogan.  Defense minister Panagiotopoulos has met with Minister Akar.  The two sides have agreed to a dialogue on military confidence building measures.

And frankly, the fact that every time I travel in the Eastern Aegean islands, every restaurant and yacht harbor I visit is filled with Turkish people — it’s a reminder that there are very deep and longstanding ties between these two countries, that you have a lot of experience, you have 200 years of experience dealing with Turkey as a neighbor.  And we’re going to continue to work together very closely on that.  It was one of the themes that my boss, Secretary of State Pompeo, emphasized in his meeting last month with Prime Minister Mitsotakis, with Foreign Minister Dendias, with Defense Minister Panagiotopoulos, that we see Greece as part of the solution; that we respect greatly the sophistication that Greece has brought to its approach to Turkey; and that we share perspectives on some of the issues of greatest sensitivity, like illegal Turkish drilling activities in the waters off of Cyprus.

So we’re going to continue to work on this.  We’re going to try to keep an open channel of communications, recognizing, again, that we have very similar interests on these issues and we’re going to find ways to collaborate and bring our forces together.

Ms. Tasouli:  Greece and the European Union in general is facing an issue that is the refugee crisis.  Do you think that’s the biggest challenge that Greece is facing in the Aegean at the moment?  And the truth is that the cooperation between Greece and Turkey in the refugee crisis doesn’t work properly.

Ambassador Pyatt:  This is a problem for Europe, it’s not a problem for Greece.  I always remind people of that.  This is a European issue that has to be dealt with by Europe at the level of the 27.

So we are very sympathetic to the approach that Minister Koumoutsakos has taken to these issues.  He will be in Washington next week at a meeting with officials from our government, including on the sensitive issues of homeland security and screening because we in the United States, we understand that European security begins in Mytilini, and the security of the European continent against terrorists and those who would do us harm begins at Greece’s frontiers.  So it’s really important to build the strongest possible network on these issues.

We also recognize that Greece is carrying more than its share of the European burden, that it is not realistic for Greece, one of 27 or 28 for now of the EU member states to be receiving the vast majority of migrant arrivals.  And European institutions need to find a way to work this through.  We’ve been quite frank on that.

I would also note that the United States remains by far the largest contributor to UN organizations like UNHCR that are helping to assist with the humanitarian aspects of this issue, and certainly one thing that has always impressed me, and I’ve visited the hot spot islands, I’ve visited camps in Chios and Lesvos.  One of the things that always comes back to me is, first, the extraordinary generosity of the Greek people, Greek civil society, the Greek Church, but also the professionalism — whether it’s the prosecutors, the police, the people that Greece has trying to manage this humanitarian problem deal with it with a really impressive level of human decency.  And I think that also needs to be recognized.

Ms. Tasouli:  Thank you very much, Mr. Ambassador, for all the answers. I hope we had a very interesting and newsworthy conversation. Thank you all very much. We’re going to have a twenty minute break and then we’ll come back for the next panel.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Thank you very much.

Ambassador Pyatt’s Press Availability immediately following conversation

Ambassador Pyatt: Let me start by saying what a real pleasure it is to be back at the Thessaloniki Summit and to see how this event has grown as an opportunity to highlight the economic potential of Northern Greece and the linkages within Europe. There has been fantastic progress over the past year in terms of American engagement in northern Greece, and I talked about that with Alexia in terms of Alexandroupoli, but also in terms of the economic story.

I was delighted this morning to visit Deloitte and see the new technology center that they’ve established. I’ve been really proud to see what’s happened with Cisco, with Pfizer. You see American business coming to northern Greece because of the universities, the strong human capital, but also because of the linkages with the western Balkans, with your northern neighbors, so it’s really important that we have Prime Minister Zaev and Prime Minister Borissov also, and I really want to applaud the leadership that the Greek government—Prime Minister Mitsotakis, Foreign Minister Dendias especially, and also Minister Georgiadis as you heard in his comments—the leadership that all of them have shown in unlocking the economic potential of this relationship with your neighbors. And from an American standpoint, Greece’s role as a pillar of stability is more important than ever before, especially as we look out from Thessaloniki to the north.

Journalist: One comment about the discussions between Mr. Mitsotakis and Mr. Zaev today here.

Ambassador Pyatt: So we strongly welcome the commitment that Prime Minister Mitsotakis and his government have demonstrated to moving ahead with the full implementation of the Prespes Agreement, but also to unlocking the fantastic potential for Greek investment, for Greek business, for Greek exports. We see this as a catalyst for reform, for modernization, in the western Balkans. So Greece is a force multiplier in terms of bringing stability to the wider neighborhood.

Journalist: Mr. Ambassador, is there any reason for Greece to be worried about the collaboration between Mr. President Trump and President Erdogan?

Ambassador Pyatt: To the contrary, I think it’s actually very positive for Greece that the United States is working to keep Turkey anchored in the West, and as I said in my remarks today, the United States and Greece are emphatically agreed on the importance of working with Turkey, working through the difficulties—and we have a long list of them right now in Northern Syria and elsewhere, issues like the S-400, which is not resolved—but we share a strategic interest in seeing Turkey anchored in the West, and we are committed to full transparency with our Greek allies in that regard. That was very much part of my conversation yesterday when I sat down with Foreign Minister Dendias, and it’s going to remain a high priority in our bilateral U.S.-Greece conversation.

Journalist: What about the military and the economic measures that President Trump said that there will be upon Turkey? Now we learn that probably there will be a solution about F-35 and the other strategic weapons. What is the up-to-date status?

Ambassador Pyatt: So I’m not going to speculate on any of those issues, but the United States has spoken very clearly about the incompatibility of the S-400 system with the S-35, and that has not changed.

Journalist: Okay. Thank you very much.