Ambassador Pyatt’s Conversation with Alexia Tasouli Thessaloniki Summit

Ambassador Pyatt's Interview with journalist Alexia Tasouli

Thursday, November 5, 2020, 4:00 p.m.

Alexia Tasouli: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. The Ambassador and I were supposed to be in Thessaloniki today, but because of COVID restrictions, we will join the summit online, and we hope to have an interesting discussion. Mr. Ambassador, thank you for participating in the Thessaloniki Summit this year, too.

Ambassador Pyatt: Well thank you for the opportunity to continue our conversation. Like you, I’m really sorry not to be in Thessaloniki today. I’m very proud of everything that we’ve done in Northern Greece. And, of course, I was up there just a couple of weeks ago with my boss Secretary Pompeo for a really historic and successful visit, so we can talk a little bit about that later on.

Alexia Tasouli: Allow me first to ask you about the U.S. elections because we follow them closely here in Greece.

Ambassador Pyatt: I noticed.

Alexia Tasouli: Although the results are not final yet, may I please ask you what implications do you believe the post-election day has for U.S.-Greece relations?

Ambassador Pyatt: Well, thanks for asking, and I’ve certainly heard from every friend in Greece. People are following our elections with incredible attention. I find that heartening. We have to be very careful, the votes haven’t all been counted yet, and that’s part of our democracy. The first thing I would emphasize—and I hope everybody has recognized this—we’ve seen an extraordinary exercise of democracy in the United States over the past few days. The most widely contested election in American history, it’s proceeded fairly. The votes have been orderly, the elections have taken place without any significant speed bumps.

And now that the counting process has begun, for me, it’s really impressive to see how hundreds of election officers around the United States are doing their jobs professionally, properly, and as the law provides. And at the end of this process, we’re going to have a president. And until that happens, everybody just needs to be patient.

The good thing for me as the American Ambassador in Greece is that I know that no matter what happens, no matter what the American people choose, we’re going to be in a very good place in terms of U.S.-Greece relations because there’s a strong bipartisan consensus in the United States to reinforce what we’ve been doing here.

That’s reflected in the East Med Act, it was reflected in the fantastically warm reception that Prime Minister Mitsotakis received in January when he was in Washington D.C. from Republicans and Democrats in Congress, in the Executive Branch. It’s also great to see that so many of our key partners in Congress, in our local legislatures who have been involved in Hellenic issues, our Greek-American community, they’ve almost all been reelected, and I know that they will remain especially focused on what we’re doing out here. So I feel very good, very proud of what Americans have demonstrated through our democratic process, and very, very confident about the work that lies ahead in 2021.

Alexia Tasouli: I had the privilege last year to discuss with you in the Thessaloniki Summit the potential of the cooperation of the two countries. Last year, you clearly identified that it was your strategic interest to strengthen Greece’s economy so as to secure security and stability in the area. Has the mission been accomplished, or were there projects that failed to be implemented last year?

Ambassador Pyatt: I’m enormously proud of what we’ve accomplished. Of course, none of us last November in Thessaloniki were talking about COVID or a global pandemic. This was something we couldn’t foresee. But even with that huge disruption, we’ve seen fantastic progress in terms of our economic and investment cooperation.

Secretary Pompeo talked about that a lot when he was in Thessaloniki in the context of energy. Our energy cooperation has been one of the real bright spots, but it’s much more than that. We’re also extremely proud of what’s happened on the technology side in Thessaloniki, with Cisco and Pfizer and Deloitte, but also flagship American investments like the enormous Microsoft announcement here, the announcement that Minister Georgiadis trumpeted yesterday of Digital Realty, another American company, making a major investment in the technology space. Progress with clean energy companies like Blink Charging, our clean energy options on the wind power side from GE Wind.

So you see, what we talked about a year ago, which is the value propositon that Greece represents and the positive signals of economic reform and openness that the Mitsotakis government has been sending so clearly have been demonstrated again and again, and I think we’re delivering real results that I hope will help to reinforce what’s already a very strong relationship between our two countries, and meet the challenge that Prime Minister Mitsotakis presented when he was in Washington in January, which is how to get our economic and investment relationship up to the same level as our very strong defense and security ties.

Alexia Tasouli: You mentioned the investments. Let me take you now to Alexandroupoli.

Ambassador Pyatt: Sure.

Alexia Tasouli: The Prime Minister visited this city last month, and he said that the investment will boost economy not just in Alexandroupoli, but generally in Thrace. What are your expectations on the privatization process?

Ambassador Pyatt: So thank you for raising it. As you know, Alexandroupoli has been a special priority for me. I’ve been there more than any American Ambassador. I’m also very grateful to have visited a number of times with Minister of Defense Panagiotopoulos, and that reflects the multi-layered aspect of our engagement.

On the economic side, of course we’re focused on the port privatization. It’s great news that you have two strong American coalitions that are focused on this transaction and have expressed interest. We also have an expression of interest from the U.S. Development Finance Corporation, looking at how our official finance agencies can get involved in supporting the American presence there. We want to see this strategic asset remain in Western hands.

But it’s not just about the port privatization. You also have the FSRU. There was great news yesterday as DEFSA signed the contract for its 20% share of the Gastrade project for the Floating Regassification Unit, another strategic priority of the United States. And it’s great to see how that is helping to leverage Greece’s relationship with its Balkan neighbors.

So you have Bulgaria investing, you have North Macedonia expressing interest in investing, you have Serbia committing to outtake. So Alexandroupoli is being transformed into a hub of energy cooperation. There’s also the prospect of a new gas-fired electricity power plant in Alexandroupoli which will help Greece to meet the Prime Minister’s very welcome goal of eliminating lignite power by 2028, and that power station will be supported by GE turbine technology. So you have a lot of good stuff that’s coming together in Alexandroupoli, a region of Greece that, when I first visited, felt very distant from Athens is suddenly emerging as a strategic crossroads.

Alexia Tasouli: The United States has also expressed interest in Greece’s shipyards. Do you have any updates on the American investment in Elefsina or Skaramangas or anywhere else? What should we expect?

Ambassador Pyatt: So there are a couple pieces of this. The first, of course, is the great success in Syros, which we’ve talked about before, and it’s fantastic to see that serving as a catalyst for the rebirth of a sector that is so important to Greece’s national identity.

You have been a maritime, seafaring peoples for thousands of years, but the shipbuilding and ship repair industry really deteriorated during the crisis. That’s now changing. The next target, of course, is Elefsina. That has also been a focus for ONEX and for the U.S. Development Finance Corporation. We hope very much that the initial foundation that’s been laid there, the revival of the shipyard to produce the torpedo boats, can provide a bridge to a long-term commercial reactivation of that facility. And then the biggest one, of course, is Skaramangas. That’s a separate transaction. There are a number of bidders there.

Our key consideration is to see these assets, like Alexandroupoli, stay in Western hands because they’re all strategic assets, and they shouldn’t go to our adversaries. I think how this unfolds in the weeks and months ahead is going to depend in part on the markets. It’s going to depend on how the Greek state shapes the transactions. But I’ve been very grateful for the terrific partnership, not just with Minister Georgiadis, but also with the Defense Minister Panagiotopoulos in support of these transactions.

And then a related and very important aspect of this is what we’ve all been reading about in the press, which is the prospect of a very competitive American offer for the new frigates for the Hellenic Navy, a transaction that the United States supports because it will help to enhance the capacity of the Hellenic Navy to be a critical partner for the U.S. Navy in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean. And we expect a very competitive American offer once the Greek request is presented, which would involve the local production of three frigates based on a proven design where the first ship would be produced in the United States and then that know-how and design expertise would be transferred to Greece. So we’re very excited about all of this.

Alexia Tasouli: Great. You mentioned the visit of Pompeo at the beginning of the interview. His visit highlighted U.S.-Greece defense relationship as one of America’s strongest in Europe. What can you say about the two countries’ collaboration in the defense relationship?

Ambassador Pyatt: So there are a couple of different aspects of this. First of all, we’re NATO Allies. We work together every single day. I’m very proud of how we’ve continued to expand the basis of our operational cooperation through the MDCA. The amendment to the MDCA that was signed by Secretary Pompeo and Minister Dendias a year ago is critically important. We’re proving the utility of that every single day at Stefanovikio, at Larissa, at Alexandroupoli, and at Souda Bay.

And both governments have now committed to further expand that cooperation, which sends a strong signal to all of your neighbors and also enhances America’s capacity to project power in a critically important southeastern flank of NATO. So that’s first and foremost.

We’re also very grateful for the fact that Greece continues consistently to meet its NATO Wales pledge of 2% of GDP, which is an important target for all of us, and the fact that Greece has chosen American vendors and American technology for a lot of these transactions — whether it’s the Sikorsky helicopters, the Romeos, the F-16 Viper upgrade, and a lot of other transactions that we have in the pipeline. The P-3s. So we’re going to continue to develop that aspect of our cooperation as well.

But we also look to Greece not just inside your immediate territory, but in the wider region. So Greece is a partner with NATO and with the United States to bring stability to the Balkans, to the Black Sea, to the Eastern Mediterranean. These are all regions where you have a critical value-added function, which is of great value to the United States, but great value also to NATO.

Alexia Tasouli: You mentioned security, you mentioned energy, you mentioned stability. All this plays a crucial role in the area. Therefore, Greece and the State Department have condemned Erdogan’s aggressive policy in the Eastern Mediterranean. Do you think Turkey crossed the red lines in Greece, and is the United States willing to take an initiative in the confidence-building measures between the Ministers of Defense in order to have agreement and de-escalation in the area?

Ambassador Pyatt: So we strongly support Prime Minister Mitsotakis and the Greek government’s focus on getting back to diplomacy. Secretary Pompeo spoke very clearly on this when he was here. The answer is not provocative, exploratory activities. The answer is not military confrontation. The answer is diplomacy and talks, including the revival of the exploratory talks, which is a top priority for the United States, also for Germany, and frankly all of Greece’s European Union partners. So we’re working very hard to support the Prime Minister in that regard.

As you alluded to, we expressed to President Erdogan our great concern, including about the activities of the Oruc Reis, and the provocative and unhelpful character of those activities. We want to keep the focus on diplomacy, and we want to work together with Greece. Because as I said—and I think we had exactly this conversation a year ago—I don’t think there are any two NATO Allies who are more strongly aligned than Greece and the United States on the principle that no matter what, we have to keep Turkey anchored in the West. We have to find a way to reach out to the Turkish government and Turkish society to build opportunities for collaboration and to work together as NATO Allies.

Alexia Tasouli: Yes, Greece and Turkey are NATO Allies, but the international community seems that it is not in the position to act effectively on Erdogan’s policy. The European Council cannot impose sanctions, and NATO, as you mentioned, despite Mr. Stoltenberg’s efforts, has not managed to reach an agreement of these NATO Allies. Do you share the criticism that has been doing both of the European Union and of NATO?

Ambassador Pyatt: These are hard issues. Certainly, the United States’ agenda with Turkey is difficult. It’s gotten longer recently. We’ve spoken out very critically of the Turkish role in Nagorno-Karabakh, for instance, and we had Secretary Pompeo personally engage to try to see in Nagorno-Karabakh as well, that the differences between Azerbaijan and Armenia get off the battlefield and back to the diplomats.

These are difficult issues, and again, this is where we appreciate the clear signals from Prime Minister Mitsotakis, from Foreign Minster Dendias, the willingness to engage, to work through the difficult issues and to identify areas of potential cooperation, including, for instance, on energy, where Greece has been very clear. Minister Hatzidakis has spoken consistently. We support Greece’s role in the East Med Gas Forum. We support everything that Greece has been doing with Egypt, with Israel, with Cyprus, on energy cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean.

But we also welcome the prospect that Turkey, if it’s willing to behave on the basis of international law, should be another one of those cooperative partners. But you can’t do that unilaterally. You have to do that with the involvement of all the stakeholders.

Alexia Tasouli: The Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Lavrov visited Greece last week.

Ambassador Pyatt: I noted.

Alexia Tasouli: Moscow, possibly, would like to play a role as a mediator between Athens and Ankara. How do you see the role of Russia in this area?

Ambassador Pyatt: Skeptically. I’ve spent a lot time over the past few years here and in Ukraine seeing Russia’s efforts to sow division inside of NATO, to sow division between the United States and Europe. You only have to look at Russia’s activities, the role of the GRU in Bulgaria, in the UK, the coup attempt in Montenegro, efforts to undermine the government of North Macedonia and the Prespes Agreement. So forgive me if I’m skeptical in this regard.

I think it’s perfectly normal that Foreign Minister Lavrov should come here and engage with Foreign Minister Dendias. Greece has a longstanding relationship with Russia. But Greece also has itself firmly planted in the West, so we know that Greece is committed to the same things that we are in terms of, for instance, energy security, in terms of building stability in the region. I don’t see activities like Russia delivering the S-400 missile system to Turkey as helping stability. In fact, I see it as a huge threat to Greece and regional stability.

Alexia Tasouli: Our last question regards the pandemic, Coronavirus. A little while ago, the Prime Minister announced some new measures in Greece. So lockdowns have returned, Greece is getting ready for a new lockdown all over the country. How do you estimate the situation will evolve this winter?

Ambassador Pyatt: This is a tough one. Let me start by saying how much I admire the careful and scientifically based approach that Prime Minister Mitsotakis, Minister Kikilias, and Dr. Tsiodras have taken to this issue. This is a global crisis created by a virus which was allowed to escape from Wuhan, which has changed the world as we know it. The only way we’re going to get through this is working together.

I’ve been very fortunate in this job to get to know the CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, and of course I worked closely with Albert in support of Pfizer’s investment in Thessaloniki. He tells me that Pfizer remains very optimistic about the prospects for their vaccine, and we have a number of other American companies that are working very hard to find a vaccine and to bring that to market as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, we all have to respect the advice that comes from people like Dr. Fauci and Dr. Tsiodras. Wear our masks, wash our hands, observe social distancing. I’m confident we’ll get through this, and I’m confident that we’re going to get through it working together as part of a wider community in the West and in the transatlantic community.

But we’re going to have to make some sacrifices along the way. We all have, I know the Greek people certainly have, certainly my family in America has. But we’ll get through this, and there will be a better future.

Alexia Tasouli: I hope so. Thank you very much, Mr. Ambassador, for having this wonderful conversation at the Thessaloniki Summit this year.

Ambassador Pyatt: Thank you very much, and look forward to doing it really in Thessaloniki next time.