Ambassador Pyatt’s Interview to Thraki Net


September 13, 2019

Thraki Net:  Mr. Pyatt, welcome to Thraki Net.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Thank you.

Thraki Net:  We’re glad to have you here today.  We can start our interview with the first topic about port and investment in it.

So why did the U.S. embassy fund the hoisting of the Olga dredger from the Port of Alexandroupolis?  Is this a donation without any strings attached?

Ambassador Pyatt:  It’s a reflection of our commitment to our alliance with Greece.  The funding, $2.3 million for the removal of the sunken dredger, is being provided by the U.S. Army in Europe.  It reflects our desire to continue cooperating very closely with our Greek military counterparts to take advantage of Alexandroupolis as a location to facilitate the transit of U.S. military goods and equipment between Greece and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe.

It reflects the strategic location of your port.  But it also reflects the excellent status of our cooperation with Greece.  And importantly, this investment by the U.S. Army will raise the value of the port, because our presence is going to be infrequent but it makes the port much more capable in terms of its commercial capacity and its attractiveness to a potential investor.

Thraki Net:  It is well known by now that there is investment interested by the United States for the Port of Alexandroupolis, but this is being said in very general terms.  Is there a specific proposal?  Are there specific investors who are interested in specific things?  If yes, who and which of those?

Ambassador Pyatt:  That depends.  American investors are waiting to see what are the conditions that the government will use, how will they choose to structure the privatization process.  The previous government had one idea.  The government of Prime Minister Mitsotakis looks to be interested in developing a more market-oriented approach.

We’ve had excellent conversations.  I’ve had excellent conversations with all the concerned ministers.  Minister Georgiadis, of course, is leading this effort, but it also has implications for the Ministry of Shipping and Maritime Affairs, and for another minister for this region, Kostas Karamanlis, the Ministry of Infrastructure.

So I’ve talked with all of them.  It’s very clear that they recognize the strategic importance of this decision.  They want to see the port go to an investor who will make it as productive as possible.

I’ve come to Alexandroupolis a lot over the past three years.  I remember the first time I visited the port, it was very clear to me this was an underutilized asset with a lot of value waiting to be unlocked.  And that’s what we hope will happen with the privatization process.  And if it goes to an American investor, even better.

Thraki Net:  We hope so.

Mr. Ambassador, now the [Greek] planning included the development of the Port of Alexandroupolis by the process of [concession].  Now the possibility of full privatization is possible.  Will that influence the United States [investors]?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I think you’re exactly right.  The prospect of a cleaner privatization makes this transaction more attractive, especially to companies which operate based on American or European principles.  You’ve had two big privatizations recently.  One went to China with the Port of Piraeus.  One went to Russian associated interests with the Port of Thessaloniki.  But I think Alexandroupolis, if done right, has the potential to become a very important transit hub and with unique logistical connections to the energy infrastructure, the floating regassification plant which we hope will be built here in Alexandroupolis, to the Egnatia Highway, to the IGB Pipeline with Bulgaria, and to the rail links that eventually we hope will go all the way up to Varna.

So there’s a lot of potential here and it’s waiting for the right investor with the technology, the capital and the know-how to help exploit and develop that.

Thraki Net:  Let’s move on to port and military cooperation.  The United States has used the port for military purposes, rotation of the military and vehicles with NATO.  Will we see this happening again in the future?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I certainly hope so.  That’s part of the reason that the U.S. Army has invested all this money in helping to increase the capacity of the port.

I should start by saying that our military relationship is at an all-time high.  There is great appreciation in the United States for the professionalism of our Hellenic Armed Forces colleagues, but also for the positive signals which were so apparent, for instance, today in the comments of Minister Panagiotopoulos who has been a fantastic champion of our military to military relationship.

This is good for the United States, it’s good for our alliance, but it also helps to build the security of Greece.  I’ve been very encouraged.  I remember when we had our first helicopter rotation through Alexandroupolis.  The very positive feedback that I received from our military colleagues who were working with their counterparts here in Alexandroupolis, but also the positive signal that this sent including to some of your neighbors.  The atmosphere of confidence that that presence helped to create.

I want to underline: we will never build another Souda Bay in Alexandroupolis.  That is not the intention.  But we certainly hope that we will continue to see from time to time temporary rotational opportunities like what we did earlier this year and like what we did with the helicopters in 2017.

Thraki Net:  It is understandable that Greece is putting faith in NATO, bring some obligations to serve the operational needs of the alliance like the rotations through the port.  But is there a case that the military cooperation with the United States in Alexandroupolis will change characteristics?

Ambassador Pyatt:  Let me put it this way.  The crown jewel of our military cooperation is and will remain Souda Bay.  That’s where our forces work together every single day, and we are incredibly grateful for the unique facilities that Souda provides.  It’s very encouraging to me that we are developing new opportunities for cooperation: our helicopters that have rotated through Stefanovikio; the use of Alexandroupolis for the transit of materiel into Bulgaria and onward into Eastern Europe; the fantastic Air Force exercises which we’ve done at Andravida in the Peloponnese; the presence of our unarmed UAVs in Larisa.

All of these activities are based on the principle of shared interests, shared value, and our common defense.  I think we’re going to continue to do that.  I think the pace of that cooperation will be determined as a sovereign decision of the Greek state.  But I’m very optimistic, based on the conversations that we’ve had with Prime Minister Mitsotakis and his government that we’re going to be able to continue to build on what is already a very strong foundation of military cooperation between our two countries.

Thraki Net:  The next thing we’re going to discuss is about Greek-American, American-Turkish, and Greek-Turkish relations.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Those are a couple of very big topics.

Thraki Net:  In the past you had expressed your satisfaction from the cooperation with the previous Greek government.  The new government has been in power for only two months, but do you think that the ground is fertile for continuing the cooperation?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I’ll make a couple of points.  Remember, I was nominated as Ambassador here by President Obama.  I have served to the best of my ability under two very different presidential administrations in the United States.  That reflects the fact that in the United States support for the relationship with Greece, our alliance with Greece is something that transcends Republican or Democratic politics.

I think we’re at the same moment now in Greece, where we built a strong relationship under a SYRIZA government and under Prime Minister Mitsotakis we see an opportunity to take what is already a very solid relationship and raise it up to the next level.  I think there’s strong agreement between Washington and Athens with the priority that Prime Minister Mitsotakis has set which is to see us do as well on the trade and investment side as we have done in recent years on the defense and security side.  That’s clearly the job for the next few years.

Again, that’s why all of these investment climate issues are so important.  We hear a very clear message from the Prime Minister that that’s his number one priority.  I think you saw the visit that we had with our Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, who was here a few weeks ago with a very strong green light to American investors encouraging them to take a look at the opportunities here in Greece.  You saw our strong presence at the Thessaloniki International Fair this week which reflects our continued effort to develop these entrepreneurial and startup ties between our two countries.

So I’m incredibly bullish.  As I said in Thessaloniki, the time to invest in Greece is now.  That’s the view of the U.S. government.  And we’re going to, as I said, use that as the leading edge of our agenda to develop and even stronger and more beneficial relationship for both of our countries.

Thraki Net:  We all know that Greece is a strategic point from which it is always called to face the Turkish provocation, something that recently the U.S. has been called to deal with.  Do you think that Turkey is a factor of destabilization in the Eastern Mediterranean?  Do you think that Greece and the United States should have the common stand towards Turkey?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I think we already have a common stance towards Turkey.  Both Greece and the United States have a strong interest in working through our differences with Ankara and seeing to it that Turkey remains anchored in the West, remains part of NATO, continues to move on the path towards European institutions as part of our EuroAtlantic community.

We have spoken, the United States has spoken very clearly regarding our concern about some of the destabilizing activities that Ankara has engaged in.  In particular, its illegal drilling in the waters off of Cyprus.  We see this as unnecessary and unhelpfully provocative.

I should also note that in Washington there is great appreciation for the approach that Prime Minister Mitsotakis and the Greek state has taken to engagement with Turkey.  It’s a hopeful sign that the first phone call that the Prime Minister had with a foreign leader after his election was with Erdogan.  It’s a hopeful sign that the two leaders will be meeting in New York.  But we recognize that this is hard work, because we’re doing the same thing.  But I think for Greece and the United States, we just have to keep the clear channels that we enjoy today between the two capitals, between Athens and Washington.  This was very much part of the message when Foreign Minister Dendias had his very successful visit to Washington in July, just a week or two after he took office.  There was a lot of conversation there about the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, Greek concerns about provocative activities, and a very clear signal from my boss, Secretary of State Pompeo, that his phone is always available for Foreign Minister Dendias and we’re going to continue to work together on these issues.

Thraki Net:  Finally, Mr. Pyatt, I would like us to talk about the immigration crisis.  It’s a very important issue.  Is the immigration refugee crisis that Greece is called upon to manage something, but that the United States follows?  If yes, how?

Ambassador Pyatt:  It’s of course an issue we follow very closely, and I should start by saying how much admiration and respect there is in the United States for the real generosity that the Greek people and Greek state have shown towards the refugee communities clearly since the beginning of the crisis in 2015.

We strongly support the efforts that my friend, Migration Minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos has been making, both to better manage the situation on the hot spot islands, but also to ensure the full implementation of the EU-Turkey Agreement, and that includes the obligation for other EU member states to share their, to take their share of the refugee burden.

This is an issue for all 27 members of the European Union. It’s not an issue that Greece or Italy or Spain can manage alone.

I think it is at its root a humanitarian problem.  It’s also a problem that is not going away.  So for that reason it’s important to take the kind of steps that Minister Koumoutsakos has been advocating in terms of more efficient processing at asylum points, full implementation of all aspects of the EU-Turkey Agreement, in order to minimize the amount of suffering which is a result of the crisis that these people have found themselves thrust into.

But to answer the question you asked at the beginning, of course we follow it very closely.  My team in Athens, but also our consulate in Thessaloniki.  And our team is aware that here in Thrace it’s also very much an everyday reality.

Thraki Net:  Especially about the Port or Alexandroupolis, there are [continuous] arrivals of undocumented migrants and refugees we use as a [inaudible].  Does the situation have an affect maybe [inaudible] in attracting investors?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I don’t think so.  I think they are really separate issues.  Investors are going to be interested in the commercial conditions, the terms of the privatization — will they be able to have operational oversight of the facilities?  Those are the issues that investors ask about.

I think the refugee problem is a separate one, and as I said, we believe that Mr. Koumoutsakos and the rest of the government have been following a prudent approach to dealing with it.

I should also note the Ministry of Citizens Protection more generally, Minister  Chrysochoidis and the rest of the team, are very important counterparts for us because Greece and the United States share a strong interest in our cooperation on homeland security issues.  And every single day I and my colleagues with the FBI, for Homeland Security, for DEA, are working with our Greek counterparts to help pursue our shared agenda of security for our citizens and upholding the values that we hold in common.

Thraki Net:  Mr. Pyatt, last July the U.S. Department of State Religious Freedom Report was released.  There is a positive reference in the report about the construction of the Holocaust Memorial in Alexandroupolis for the Jewish community, and about the meetings you had with Metropolitan Anthimos.  Would you say your opinion about those references?

Ambassador Pyatt:  I had the opportunity to see Metropolitan Anthimos again this morning.  I really cherish our time together.  I was especially glad to be able to visit with him at the new Holocaust Memorial in Alexandroupolis.  One of the sad realities of Greece and especially Northern Greece is that it had a terrible experience during the war.  A terrible experience with the Holocaust that almost eliminated completely what was at one time a really thriving Jewish community which in cities like Thessaloniki was a key part of the culture, of the fabric and what makes that city so unique.  So I have a lot of respect for the efforts that Metropolitan Anthimos has made to help educate future generations about that experience, but also to send a very strong message of religious tolerance and understanding.  These are values we hold in common and they’re ones where Thrace I think in particular sets an example because of its unique mix of religion and cultures.

So the statements which were reported in the State Department’s annual Human Rights Report are a reflection of the very high regard that this region has held because of the way it has approached these issues which are difficult in many parts of the world.  So it’s one other success story for your region and for the Metropolitan as well.

Thraki Net:  Mr. Ambassador, you have given us some interesting answers to think about.  We hope to see you again in Alexandroupolis and Thraki Net.  Thank you for your time.

Ambassador Pyatt:  Thank you very much.  I’m sure I’ll be back.


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