Ambassador Pyatt’s Interview with Vassilis Nedos of “Kathimerini”

Ambassador Pyatt with Consul General Pfleger at the preparations of U.S. Pavillion for Thessaloniki International Fair 2018.

September 2, 2018

Ambassador Pyatt: Let me start on TIF generally, just to say I’m very excited about this. I was in Thessaloniki yesterday and was really pleased to see both how the American Pavilion is coming together, but also the energy level among everybody, including Governor Tzitzikostas and Mayor Boutaris. People recognize this as a major moment in the U.S.-Greece relationship and U.S. engagement with Northern Greece. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say this is the most significant thing the U.S. government has done in Greece since the Marshall Plan period, just in terms of the scale of our engagement. The scale of our engagement, on the broad array of U.S.-Greece issues. Not just the business-to-business investment areas that we’re highlighting with Secretary Ross, but our people-to-people relations, the Diaspora, our educational ties, our military and security relationship, the fact that we will have the 6th Fleet Flagship, the USS Mt. Whitney in Thessaloniki Harbor during the TIF. We really are trying to highlight everything that is the U.S.-Greece relationship. You saw Governor Tzitzikostas’ press release after our meeting and the emphasis that he placed on the strategic direction.

I think what’s really important is that this comes in the context of a very important year for Greece, and Northern Greece in particular: the end of the bailout, the economic opportunities that that represents; the implementation of the Prespes agreement with all that that means for the economic relationship between Greece and all of your northern neighbors and the role that Greece plays in terms of encouraging the continued progress of the countries of the Western Balkans towards the Euro-Atlantic community; the year of progress on some of the key energy projects like the FSRU in Alexandroupoli, the IGB — and I think we’re enthusiastic about the regional dimension that we’ve inserted into the TIF this year with AmCham’s Energy Conference which involves participation not just from Greek and American companies, but also other regional governments.
We have our Ambassador from Nicosia coming up to be part of the U.S. team at TIF.

So it really highlights the role that we have tried to emphasize of Greece as a regional pillar and the investment that the United States is making in our relationship with Greece and with all the people of Greece at a moment when geopolitics is returning to the Eastern Mediterranean, Balkan, and wider Black Sea region in a big way.

This is a very important week for U.S.-Greece relations, but it’s not the end of the road. It’s the start of a new and ambitious phase of our engagement bilaterally, and especially our engagement with Northern Greece.

Mr. Nedos: Regarding TIF, I wanted to ask if it would be a herald of U.S. investment in Greece and what are your expectations from that area?

Ambassador Pyatt: The good news is very strong U.S. corporate participation. Our Pavilion is fantastic. I was able to walk through it yesterday. We have more than 50 American companies participating. Many are bringing their senior leadership from the United States or from their European headquarters. I think what that reflects is the fact that American companies are looking with fresh eyes at the opportunity that Greece represents, both in terms of this market, 11 million people; but also the role that Thessaloniki and Greece can play as a platform for the wider region.

It’s going to be up to the government. And to answer your question, is there going to be new investment out of this, that’s going to depend on the signals that the government sends. But we have done a lot of work to put Greece back on the radar scope, and the government and the people of Greece, Greek business are going to have a fantastic opportunity.

When I was in Thessaloniki yesterday I had the opportunity to meet with many of the key business association leaders, and I think everybody in the Thessaloniki business community understands that this is an unbeatable opportunity to tell their story and to make a pitch that would otherwise not be possible.

Mr. Nedos: So about the geopolitical role that you say that Greece can actually be playing in this instance, how do you see that? Because Greece has been also suffering for ten years of an almost unprecedented crisis. And of course I’ve been through all your recent speeches about Greece being the epicenter of geopolitical crisis all around the region. But is it a bit too much for such a small country? For the area, the geographic place, the geography. It’s significant. But is this enough for Greece to play a role in the region?

Ambassador Pyatt: I think what’s clear to us, and this is not a policy judgment, this is an analytic judgment. Greece is playing a more ambitious foreign policy role today because it’s able to. For several years, when basic issues were at stake — was Greece going to remain in the Eurozone? Was the Greek financial system boing to stay afloat? When those existential questions were on the horizon it was very hard to think ambitiously about the role that Greece plays in the Eastern Mediterranean, or the relationship that Greece can leverage between Israel, Egypt, Cyprus; how Greece works with the countries of the Western Balkans. But that’s now changing. And the return to economic growth in Greece has enabled the government to think more ambitiously about its regional agenda. And the convenient thing for the United States is that that agenda complements very well our interests and our vision for the wider region, whether in terms of the future of the Western Balkans or the importance of dealing with threats like terrorism, piracy, illegal migration in the Eastern Mediterranean. Or helping to ensure that your big neighbor to the east remains anchored in Europe and European institutions.

Mr. Nedos: In that respect I wanted to ask you if you think that the current crisis between the United States and Turkey, if this somehow affects also the relationship of Greece with Turkey as well, and how can, Greece can somehow help in that direction that you just mentioned about anchoring Turkey.

Ambassador Pyatt: I mean it’s very clear, as I said, that Greece and the United States share very similar interests vis-à-vis Turkey. That was apparent, if you remember, when Prime Minister Tsipras was in Washington and he was asked by an American journalist about whether Turkey was still a democracy and whether it should be part of NATO.

He offered a very strong defense of engagement with Turkey, which is similar to the U.S. defense of our engagement.

I think the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship is obviously going through a difficult moment right now, but it has to stand on its own merits. But it certainly helps us, helps the United States, to have Greece as a strong advocate within the European Union of keeping doors open to Turkey, continuing dialogue on things like how to build on the EU Association Agreement and making clear that Europe’s doors remain open to Turkey.

Mr. Nedos: In that respect, I wanted to ask you also if you think that Greece and Cyprus as well, which are also incorporating those trilateral cooperations, can actually be frontier states.

Ambassador Pyatt: As I said, it’s important, it’s significant that we have our Ambassador from Nicosia coming up to Thessaloniki around the TIF. Energy issues, obviously, loom very large and the overall U.S. presence at Thessaloniki, and a lot of those energy issues over the future are going to be focused around East Med, prospects both in Greek waters but also in Cypriot waters.

So we will continue to look to Greece as a major partner as we think about this issue, and here too, we’ve got to figure out what are the next steps in terms of our long-term aspiration for normalization of the situation on Cyprus. I think we certainly have been strongly supportive of initiatives like the Greece-Israel-Cyprus Trilateral, the Greece-Cyprus-Egypt Trilateral. The important thing is that these architectures are not competitive. They are complementary and they help build a larger architecture of stability, economic opportunity, and hopefully over the long term, shared values.

Mr. Nedos: During these last years Washington and Athens have developed a close cooperation also in defense. How can that further evolve?

Ambassador Pyatt: Our defense relationship today is at an all-time high. That’s why we wanted to be sure that defense issues were reflected in our presence at TIF. I mentioned the USS Mt. Whitney. We also have a strong presence from U.S. defense companies led by Lockheed Martin at the American Pavilion. We’re going to have Lockheed Martin simulators for F-16s and F-35s as part of the TIF exhibition.

Our defense and security relations, again, rooted in shared values. Years and years of investment, but also a strong belief on the part of the United States that a stable and secure Greece helps to advance U.S. interests in wider regional stability. You know how important Souda Bay is in terms of our overall regional operations, but we’ve made significant progress over the recent months with, for instance, our MQ9 deployments at Larissa, the expansion and increasingly ambitious Iniohos exercises. The rotations that we’ve done of American helicopters through Thessaloniki, through Alexandroupoli. I expect those kind of operations to continue.

The important thing is, we do so with the strong support and partnership with our Greek allies and our Greek military counterparts. We’re very grateful for the fact that we have exceptionally strong relations these days between Admiral Apostolakis and the Greek Service Chiefs with their American counterparts. We’re going to continue to invest in that.

We’re also taking advantage of the large U.S. presence that we’ll have at TIF. Among the visitors will be Senator Ron Johnson, who’s the Chairman of the Senate Europe Subcommittee. He came to see me last year at Souda Bay. This year he’s going to be at TIF. I’m very glad that we’re going to get him to NRDC which is not as well known, but has taken over the NATO LandCom responsibility, and he’ll get an opportunity to see what Greece is doing as a regional and as a NATO ally not just in the Eastern Med and Southern Aegean, which is what you focus on from Souda Bay, but also to the north. Increasing cooperation with our NATO allies in Bulgaria, longstanding Greek involvement in the Black Sea region, the fact that Greece has been a participant every year, for instance in the Sea Breeze exercises out of Odessa.

So TIF is a good opportunity to put a positive spotlight on what I see as one of the most dynamic and strongest pillars of our overall cooperation today, which is the way that our military and security institutions are able to work together.

Mr. Nedos: You already talked about Souda and of course the MQ-9s in Larissa. There is a very clear indication that there is some kind, if I could use that term, transfer of U.S. military capacities and bases around this. Would you see that somehow being enhanced?

Ambassador Pyatt: I think it’s really up to the Greek government. That’s a sovereign Greek decision. Certainly, from the United States side, we are grateful for the support that we have received and the fact that we continue to get a green light from the Greek government, for instance, with the extension for the MQ9 presence at Larissa.

It’s obviously good for our security. It helps to advance our shared NATO missions. We think it’s also good for Greece. We’re committed to being good allies, good partners.

Importantly, all of these deployments create opportunities for Greece as well. So when we have our Naval Special Forces in Souda Bay, that creates opportunities to exercise with Hellenic Special Forces, helping to develop their capacity. We have a pretty significant program of equipping also for the Coast Guard’s MIO units to enhance the capacity of the Coast Guard in things like maritime interdiction and boarding. I think we’re going to continue to do that.

The helicopter deployments through Alexandroupoli and through Thessaloniki have been important and successful. It demonstrates the capacity, the flexibility that’s inherent to our NATO relationship and NATO capacity across Europe.

Mr. Nedos: You mentioned the East MED and of course that responsibility of Greece creates also bigger needs in terms of equipment also. There have been, of course, the F-16 upgrade deal between the Air Force and Lockheed Martin. The agreement about the Kiowas and Chinooks a few months before that. There are strong voices or at least discourse within the Greek military that maybe we should have some other closer cooperation in terms of defense and in terms of strengthening the Greek military with equipment.

I’ve read that, of course, that it cannot happen through an agreement like the one that exists with Israel or Egypt, but I understand that there is a will from the American side to help Greece increase its capabilities in terms of equipment as well. And I wanted to ask you if you have something on that.

Ambassador Pyatt: Absolutely. A great example is the Kiowa program, which will come to Greece on very generous terms. We’re still in the final congressional notification process, but if you look at the overall value of the equipment, the spares, the simulators, everything that’s coming as part of the Kiowa package, this is a very generous one which will provide real value in terms of Greek military capabilities.

We continue to look at ways to expand our cooperation in areas like maritime domain awareness and ASW, anti-submarine warfare. There is an appreciation that Greece is an important maritime power in a strategically significant stretch of water. The Aegean through the centuries, if you read Robert Kaplan and The Return of Marc Polo’s World. Part of Marco Polo’s world is those straits from the Bosporus down through the straits around Crete. This has always been a geostrategic choke point. So the capacity that the Greek military has for domain awareness, for maritime security, for boarding, all of that is critically important to our shared security interests, and I’m very confident that the United States will continue to invest in that and look for ways we can be supportive, because a strong Greece is a natural partner for the United States. The essence of our alliance relationship is how we share burdens. Greece has been a strong partner in terms of demonstrating its willingness and ability to carry its load and that’s greatly appreciated.

Mr. Nedos: We talked about Turkey, and the East Mediterranean. I wanted to move a bit further to the north right now, and speak about the Western Balkans. You spoke, of course, about the role that Greece plays in that region as well. There is the Prespes agreement, we’ll see how it will evolve from now on, in FYROM in one month. I wanted to ask you if you think that Greece can actually play a role of stabilizing the Balkans since there are hundreds of conflicts. Not only name dispute FYROM but also the Kosovo issue, the probable, what is going to happen there, an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo about their dispute. A very big discussion about what’s going on in Bosnia with the Dayton Agreement that it looks like it needs to be refreshed for a better governance of that country and
it seems that sometimes Greek, European, U.S. and third parties’ interest in the region is in conflict. How can Greece play a positive role in all that?

Ambassador Pyatt: Greece is a preferred partner for the United States in our engagement with the countries of the Western Balkans. You have tremendous influence. You have a very large economic footprint already with capacity for that footprint to grow even more. It’s one of the reasons why the Prespes Agreement is so important, because it unlocks that immediate northern relationship. I was impressed that, as I said yesterday in Thessaloniki, there was very strong consensus among business people. Even if they didn’t like the Prespes agreement, they agreed that if it’s implemented it will create significant new economic opportunities.

As you say, this isn’t just a question of Skopje, but it also goes to the historic relationship that Greece has enjoyed with all the countries of the Western Balkans. The fact that Greece strongly shares the U.S. view that all these countries should be able to continue to move towards European membership, continue to move towards NATO membership if their people so choose. We both believe in the open door.

So Greece is a very important partner, and that will be part of the U.S. political message around the TIF.

It’s one of the reasons we’re very glad we have a new Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Matt Palmer, who is responsible for Greece, Turkey, Cyprus and the countries of the Western Balkans. He will be in Thessaloniki at TIF precisely to keep a positive spotlight on this role that we see Greece playing in long-term U.S. strategy towards the wider region. It’s a role which you uniquely are able to play, because you have historic relationships. You share our outlook on the key European issue. And because you’re directly affected, because these countries are all your neighbors and to the extent they all are stable and moving towards a European trajectory, it’s obviously good for the Greek economy, it’s good for business, especially in Northern Greece.

Mr. Nedos: One thing I also wanted to ask in that respect is what are the American priorities in the region right at this point and how Greece is involved in all that?

Ambassador Pyatt: Our number one priority in Greece is to help support Greek economic recovery, because our strategy of relying on Greece as a pillar of stability depends on the successful Greek exit from economic crisis and the restoration of economic growth. We see that as more possible today than it’s been in many years.

We are obviously very concerned about malign actors in this region. The issues around the role that Russia continues to play in the wider region. Also the question of China, and how we all navigate around the emergence of China as an important and inevitable economic and investment player in the wider Central and Eastern European region.

But obviously the number one issue has to be the economy. We’re very focused on our counterterrorism/law enforcement relationship. Greece is a very strong partner. We understand that Greece occupies a particularly challenging geography. You are Europe’s back door, and so all of the issues of foreign fighters, of ensuring that the defeat of the ISIS caliphate doesn’t result in terrorism and radical ideology migrating back into Europe. The work that is done every single day by the Hellenic police by Greek law enforcement authorities is vitally important in that regard, and we’re very proud of the strong relationship that we have in that regard.

But as you see with the TIF, we’re also committed to continuing to invest in our long term people-to-people ties. One of the reasons we have such a positive relationship today is because of the investment that we’ve made over the years in programs like Fulbright which helped to build Greek human capacity but also the human relations, people to people relations between our two countries. There’s a lot more that we can do in that area. It’s a reason I’m very glad we have our new Assistant Secretary for Education and Cultural Affairs, Marie Royce, will also be coming to TIF. It’s the reason why we’ve invested in so many programs around the TIF in areas like entrepreneurship, digital information. These are programs, these are long-term investments in the people to people ties that help to stabilize the relationship and move it forward.

Mr. Nedos: I think I’m finished with my list. If you want to add anything —

Ambassador Pyatt: I guess what I would emphasize out of my visit yesterday was how impressive it was to see how we’ve moved the needle in terms of perception of the United States in Northern Greece. I’ve said publicly in the past, you know, when I first went to Thessaloniki two years ago, Governor Tzitzikostas and a couple of other people I talked with at the time said to me, Ambassador, where are the Americans? How come we don’t see you guys up here anymore? And I don’t think anybody’s ever going to say that again. Not for a while. The Americans are back in a really big way. And what’s heartening to me as American Ambassador is that there’s such a positive reaction to that. This is an initiative which I think has really sparked a lot of positive sentiment, especially among the people of Northern Greece, which is a region that was particularly hard hit by the economic crisis because you saw so much de-industrialization. Now there’s a sense of real possibility. This is, we are putting, we’re bringing our best game. This is as good as it gets. We’re doing it with strong support of the Greek government but also with the opposition political forces, and we’re trying to do so in a way that captures imaginations, but as I said, also builds a foundation for our long-term engagement and continued partnership.

Mr. Nedos: If I may, you talked about cooperation on counterterrorism. Of course I’ve read the State Department statements about – the fourth furlough on Koufodinas but it looks like though the relationship is spotless, there is that little spot.

Ambassador Pyatt: We have a difference of opinion on this. You’ve seen our spokesperson’s statement that it doesn’t take away from our excellent operational cooperation. But we have a different perspective on the question of Mr.Koufodinas.

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