March 21, 2018
News247: Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for this interview.
Ambassador Pyatt: I’m happy to see you.
News247: Thank you.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell, visited Greece and Cyprus and the broader EU region last week. Can you characterize the discussions he had and let us know what the main results of these meetings were?
Ambassador Pyatt: Sure. The most important mission that Assistant Secretary Mitchell had here in Athens was to build on Prime Minister Tsipras’ visit to Washington in October. Assistant Secretary Mitchell came here meeting with key players in the Greek government, also in the political opposition, to both reiterate the messages that President Trump underlined in the Rose Garden back in October, but also to talk about how we move forward, how we build on this extraordinarily positive moment in U.S.-Greece relations, to advance a broad range of issues from trade and investment as we’ll do around the Thessaloniki Summit in September; defense and security which is so important to both of our countries, and it was convenient that this happened just before the big exercise in Andravida; but also energy where we have a strong convergence of interests and very strong Washington interests in thinking about how we capitalize on our similar perspectives; and then the neighborhood.
I think it was very useful that Assistant Secretary Mitchell’s visit to Athens came with these bookends. First, the very intensive program in the Western Balkans where he was focused on how we, the United States, can work with our European partners to see that all of these countries remain on the European path, continue to move towards Euro Atlantic institutions and continue to advance the project of reform, and then also of course to Cyprus where we are interested in seeing the process there get back on track if at all possible, and also focusing on some of the critical regional energy issues that have been in the headlines recently.
News247: The fate of the two Greek soldiers detained in Turkey is still unknown. Can you comment on media report that Mr. Mitchell told the Greek Minister of Defense that Greece and Turkey should solve their issue on their own?
Ambassador Pyatt: I was surprised by those reports because they really didn’t reflect the nature of U.S. engagement. As I pointed out yesterday in Andravida, Washington has been strongly engaged on this issue from the first hours. We are supportive of the approach that Prime Minister Tsipras has taken with the focus on maintaining channels of communication to Ankara, maintaining channels of communication between the Prime Minister and other Greek leaders and their Turkish counterparts, and hopefully achieving the speedy return home of these two officers.
So nothing could be further from the truth than to suggest that somehow the United States was washing its hands of this issue. To the contrary, these are two NATO allies and we are keenly interested in seeing this issue resolved.
News247: You mentioned NATO, but there has been discussion that NATO is only seeking equal distance from Greece and Turkey, and having this position doesn’t help bring the Greek soldiers home.
Ambassador Pyatt: I have a different perspective on it. The most important thing to remember here is that Greece and the United States have a very similar interest vis-à-vis Turkey, and that was made clear when Prime Minister Tsipras was in Washington and he was asked by one of your American counterparts something along the lines of should Turkey be a NATO member? Is it a democracy? And the Prime Minister there in Washington made very clear Greece’s strong interest, which is the same as our interest, in seeing Turkey remain anchored in the West. Anchored in NATO, focused on Euro Atlantic, European institutions.
I think as we look forward, we have a lot to gain from maintaining very close communications between each other, between Greece and the United States, as we develop our respective agendas vis-à-vis Turkey. That is very much part of the discussions that Assistant Secretary Mitchell had, for instance, with Foreign Minister Kotzias, with Secretary General Paraskevopoulos.
So I see this as one more facet of the strategic cooperation between Greece and the United States.
I should also note, and I’ve made this point before, one of the things that has really impressed me in my year and a half here in Greece is the significant soft power influence that Greece has on Turkey. When I traveled in the Eastern Aegean, when I was in Chios, Lesbos, Rhodes, all of the harbors are full of yachts with Turkish flags. The restaurants all have their menus in Turkish. Tourism from Turkey is very important to some of those islands. Just as investment from Turkey has grown substantially, whether in real estate here in Athens or big projects in Thessaloniki.
So those are the aspects of the relationship which I hope over the long term will shape the contours of the relationship between Ankara and Athens. These are issues that the Greek government has to manage. The United States is not the referee. We don’t have a yellow card that we can pull out at a moment’s notice. But we clearly support the efforts that Prime Minister Tsipras has made with his historic invitation to President Erdogan last December and everything since then to try to keep reaching out, to keep engaging, because as hard as that is for you and as hard as it is for us, there’s no good alternative.
News247: Yes, but since Erdogan’s visit last December there has been serious tension in the Aegean coast of Turkey and especially in Cyprus and the exclusive economic zone. Do you see the increasing tension affecting Exxon Mobile, to have an effect on its research and drilling program?
Ambassador Pyatt: I’ll say two things, Alexia. First, I’ve learned in my diplomatic life not to try to be a fortune teller, because when I predict the future I usually get it wrong. So I will leave hypotheticals to the future off to the side.
What I will say on the question of Cyprus and energy resources, the United States has been very clear in terms of our view about the right of the people of Cyprus to develop the resources of that country’s EEZ. We’ve made this point in Washington. My friend and colleague, Ambassador Doherty, in Nicosia has spoken very clearly on this. And of course it was part of the conversation when Assistant Secretary Mitchell went to Cyprus right after his discussions here in Athens.
I should add, by the way, it was extremely useful, I think, to Assistant Secretary Mitchell that he was able to have intensive discussions with the Foreign Minister, with the Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry, with the Prime Minister’s office, and with key leaders of the opposition before he went to have his conversations in Cyprus.
News247: Now Minister of Foreign Affairs is flying to Skopje to discuss his proposal. At the same time, protests against a solution that includes the term Macedonia are taking place, many are in Northern Greece, a bullet was sent to Mr. Kotzias’ office, and official lawmakers are receiving death threats. How do you see this situation to be developed?
Ambassador Pyatt: I’ll say two things. One, this was, of course, an important part of the conversations that Assistant Secretary Mitchell had when he was here in Athens. He was able to share some of his impressions from his discussions in Skopje.
I said before and I’ll say again on the question of the diplomacy, the North Star for U.S. policy is Ambassador Nimetz and the efforts that he is leading as the UN negotiator. We want to do everything we can to support his efforts. We are obviously interested in seeing the two sides take advantage of this window of opportunity which has opened and I think it’s very clear to the United States, and it was certainly clear to Assistant Secretary Mitchell when he was speaking with Foreign Minister Kotzias, that the Greek government would like to find a solution. Our experts in Skopje have a similar assessment of the politics there.
But the best way we can support Nimetz, that we can support the diplomacy right now is by not speaking out or speculating about how the negotiations are going to play out, but rather by underlining America’s view that now is the window of opportunity to put this issue behind in a way that’s good for Greece, good for people in Skopje, but also good for the wider region.
And it’s really interesting to me, and I heard this and saw this when I was in Ioannina for the first time last week, I’ve seen this through my many visits to Thessaloniki over the past year and a half. Northern Greece especially has this historic link to the countries of the Western Balkans. At different times in history there have been artificial barriers that were constructed there. One barrier, of course, was the Cold War during which time there was a geopolitical blockage. But now with progress on issues around relations between Athens and Skopje, with progress on the issues with Albania, there’s a real opportunity for Greece to open up the channels of communication, economic cooperation. It was fascinating for me in Ioannina, first of all, to discover how close Tirana is and to see how much tourism and cultural exchange and commercial exchange goes on.
So resolving the name issue is the key that unlocks a broader process of cooperation, but ultimately as Assistant Secretary Mitchell said when he was in Skopje, this is a matter that’s going to have to be solved. If it’s to be durable, this is a matter that’s going to have to be solved between the leaders of the two countries.
News247: Do you feel the political and economic environment is getting better in order to attract foreign investors? Or there are still things to be done from the Greek side in order to persuade that Greece is trustworthy place to invest in?
Ambassador Pyatt: Both. In the sense that clearly the economic story in Greece is improving. You see that now in four quarters of economic growth, you see it in the unemployment figures. But I’ve been living here in Athens long enough to appreciate the deep economic challenges that Greece faces after eight years of depression, after eight years of economic crisis.
I am very hopeful that 2018 will be the year when Greece puts that crisis behind it, and I am particularly encouraged by what I see happening with American investors. There is clear interest now, including on some big projects. We’ve got, on my radar scope we’ve got Hellenikon, interest from Caesars International in a large entertainment complex that could represent investment on the order of a billion dollars. We’ve got the Syros shipyard. We’ve got the Port of Alexandroupolis. We’ve got significant new investments from big American players in the tourism sector. Companies like Marriott and Avis that are expanding their footprints here because they recognize the economic driver that that industry has become.
That’s just scratching the surface in terms of the areas where we see renewed interest. Energy, tourism, food, agriculture. These are all sectors where there is renewed interest from American investors. Where I have American companies coming to me asking about the opportunities in Greece.
We’re going to do everything we can to support Greece in this effort, and the flagship in that regard is our participation as the Honored Country of the Thessaloniki International Fair in September. That has two objectives. One is, as President Trump put it, to put a positive spotlight on the best of American technology, innovation, entrepreneurship. I will share with you when I was in Ioannina, one of the best parts of that visit for me was going to the university, going to the technology park. We had an entrepreneurship competition run by an NGO called Mind Space. So these were young Greek recent university graduates who put together and were pitching different startup ideas. Every time I have one of these kind of conversations I think to myself Greece is going to be all right because you have tremendous human capital in unlikely places. Who knew? I had no idea Ioannina had a startup culture or had a technology park.
So we want to do everything we can to support that part of the Greek economic recovery story.
But the other goal with TIF, with the Thessaloniki Fair, is to help educate the American audience about what’s happening in Greece, about the government’s positive attitude towards foreign investment, about the tremendous human capital resources that this country enjoys, about the opportunities in sectors where we see revived interest and revived growth.
TIF is also a fantastic platform for the government to get its story out about the opportunity, the value proposition that Greece represents.
So we’re going to do all that we can to be helpful, but ultimately the hard work of changing the narrative around Greece, that’s something that can only be accomplished by the government.
News247: And my last question, your visit to Andravida on Tuesday before the Iniohos exercise, regarding F-16 deal, and the reported agreement on 1.1 billion dollars by the Greek government. What’s the U.S. reaction to this?
Ambassador Pyatt: So let me break that up into two questions. First on Andravida. My congratulations to the Ministry of Defense, to General Christodoulou and the Air Force, it was a fantastic exercise and I think the breadth of participation there was a really great illustration of the point that we keep making about Greece’s role as a regional pillar of stability. As a builder of bridges. The ability to bring in key partners — Israel, UAE, Egypt, Italy, the UK, the U.S., Greece, Cyprus. This is something that there are very few players in this neighborhood could accomplish, and it was an exercise which was conducted at a very high level.
I know talking to our own pilots, the American F-15 pilots who came from the UK to participate in this, that they were very impressed by the arrangements, the training opportunities that INIOHOS provided. So again, kudos to everybody who was involved in that. It was a fantastic, fantastic exercise.
On the question of the F-16s, this is an issue that was front and center when Prime Minister Tsipras went to Washington in October. Since then, there have been intensive negotiations with the U.S. Air Force, the Ministry of Defense, Lockheed Martin, to try to develop a package that fits within the political framework that the Prime Minister defined. As the Greek press has reported, we now have delivered a package that meets those requirements, so we’re very hopeful that this now will open the door to finalizing the deal.
I had the opportunity yesterday to talk to the Minister of Defense, to Admiral Apostolakis, to General Christodoulou. It’s very clear, everybody wants to get this done, certainly on the U.S. government side. We’re strongly committed to finalizing the deal. So I’m optimistic. But ultimately, the customer is the government of the Hellenic Republic, so it’s Greece that’s going to have to decide when they are satisfied this all can be made to fit within the strategic and financial envelopes that you have.
But what I would underline, and something which General Christodoulou emphasized to me as well, this is an important strategic decision for Greece. It reflects a commitment on the part of the Air Force to moving to the next level in terms of the capacities of your Air Force and your pilots; and it also helps to deepen a very longstanding and successful partnership between Lockheed Martin and Hellenic Aerospace.
I was reminded yesterday, the Hellenic Air Force was good enough to give a lot of us a ride back and forth from Athens out to Andravida for the exercise. That C-130, like every single C-130 in the world, is a Lockheed Martin product, but the middle of the airframe comes from here Greece. It’s manufactured by Hellenic Aerospace. There are very few people who know that, and it’s an illustration of how over many years Lockheed Martin has worked very hard to help develop the capacity of the Greek aerospace industry, the skills of Greek engineers, and using Hellenic Aerospace as the vehicle to accomplish that. And of course the extension of the F-16 program as we are trying to bring fruition to this project will deepen and sustain that partnership.
News247: Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for this interview.
Ambassador Pyatt: It’s great to see you. Thank you.
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