Ambassador Pyatt’s Voice of America Interview

September 7, 2018

Question: Relations between the U.S. and Greece seem to be warming rather rapidly. Is this a matter of Turkey’s loss is Greece’s gain

Ambassador Pyatt: Not at all. The U.S.-Greece relationship stands on its own merits. I think a lot of what we’re seeing right now is a reflection of investments that have been made over the past decade in the U.S.-Greece relationship; some appreciation among Greeks for the supportive role that the United States played through the most difficult days of the economic crisis; but also a widespread sense here that we have converging strategic objectives. That we are both struggling with aspects of our relationship with Turkey, that we both want to see Turkey remain anchored in the West, in European institutions, that we have converging interests on some of the big regional security challenges, whether it’s ISIS or immigrant migration, that we have shared interests around the Western Balkans. And then, of course, a very strong people-to-people commitment which is the sort of hidden secret of the U.S.-Greece relationship.

VOA: You mentioned about the Balkans. Do you see a role for Greece, or what kind of role do you see for Greece as you try to push the Western Balkans closer to Europe, democratic institutions? You mentioned this in a speech earlier this year. And are there challenges to that in terms of having Greece do that? After all, smart money a few years ago was Grexit as opposed to [inaudible].

Ambassador Pyatt: Sort of two pieces of that. First of all, on the Greece-EU relationship, I think one thing that’s clear is that there’s a lot of satisfaction at the European level as the fact that Greece finally has emerged from this economic crisis and has remained part of the Eurozone. It’s interesting, if you look at Greek public opinion data, there’s clearly a favorable swing right now in attitudes towards Greece’s status at the forefront of European institutions. Big debates here as elsewhere in Europe on the future of European structures, what is the role of pan-European institutions versus national institutions? But Greece is firmly part of the West, part of Europe. And as I said, I think at a Brussels level there’s justified satisfaction that Greece has been helped to navigate this very difficult crisis.

On the question of the Balkans, I think especially sitting here in Thessaloniki, you’ve got a good feel for deep historic ties that Greece has to all of these countries. Strong bilateral relations across the board. Very important progress with Bulgaria on energy cooperation. The IGB pipeline will be an important breakthrough, taking a country such as Bulgaria which is currently 100 percent dependent on Russian gas and creating options for energy diversification. Greece has a strong historic relationship with Serbia and has been an important partner in helping to move that country towards European institutions. Of course, we strongly support the [inaudible] and the breakthrough that represents in relations between Athens and Skopje.

So Greece, because it lives in the neighborhood, because it has these ancient historic ties, because of their very strong trade and investment links, very strong people-to-people links, is an obvious partner. And as I said, Greece has been very clear publicly in stating a position similar to that of the United States. All the countries of the Western Balkans should continue to move towards European standards, European institutions, European reforms, and if their citizens choose for its membership in NATO as well.

VOA: Do you see the U.S. geostrategic rivalry with Turkey, Russia, even China in the Balkans? I think there’s a lot of external [flares] now focusing on the Balkans.

Ambassador Pyatt: You named a couple of different countries with very different statuses. Turkey’s a NATO ally. It’s very clear as I pointed out, as Assistant Secretary Mitchell has pointed out, as [inaudible] has pointed out, that geopolitical competition has returned to Southeastern Europe in a big way. We are very sensitive to the role that Russia continues to play across this region, illustrated in the coup attempt in Montenegro, illustrated in Russia’s attempts to derail the Prespes agreement between Athens and Skopje illustrated in the use of energy as a political weapon.

China’s of a different quality but is a rising factor. We feel that here in Greece, of course, in the Piraeus port investment. You see it up and down the Western Balkans.

So part of what we’re trying to do with the very large American presence this year at the Thessaloniki International Fair is to make clear that the Americans are back. That we are going to be engaged here, including engaged in northern Greece, and we will do so with a broad spectrum of our engagement in terms of trade and investment, in terms of our military and security cooperation, in terms of our educational people to people and cultural ties.

VOA: We just had General Dunford here wrapping up a two-day visit. He talked about increasing the U.S. military presence in Greece, but do you see that there will be an extension of the base, naval base down in, the use of the naval base down in Crete? Is there a possibility [inaudible] the base? And is there any fear that the U.S. may lose access or use of the base in Southern Turkey?

Ambassador Pyatt: I would say first of all, our military operations in Turkey, military presence in Greece, apples and oranges. One is not linked to the other.

Souda Bay is very busy. It’s a reflection of the high tempo of U.S. military operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, the counter-ISIS battle in Syria, operations against terrorism and instability in the Magreb, North Africa. So Souda is very, very busy. If you talk to Admiral Franchetti, Admiral Foggo, they will tell you that we are moving more personnel, more material through the ports and air base, the unique asset that Souda represents than ever before.

We are very grateful for the fact that we’ve been able to expand the aperture for our military cooperation. So now we have MQ9s operating out of the Larissa Air Base. We’ve moved helicopters through Thessaloniki here, through Alexandroupoli. We have increasingly ambitious cooperation and exercises with the Hellenic Air Force hosts ever year, multinational exercises at Andravida in the Peloponnese.

So it’s not so much a matter of saying we’re going to build another Souda Bay. Souda is a unique asset which reflects its geographic location. It’s an extraordinary port. The only place between Newport in Virginia and the Middle East where you can bring an aircraft carrier pier-side, next to an airstrip. So it’s a really unique national asset for Greece and we’re grateful for the cooperation. But we’re certainly looking, as General Dunford laid out, to expand the scope of our cooperation, and I think we were very gratified by the clear message that General Dunford received from Admiral Apostolakis and the Greek military leadership about their enthusiasm to continue working in that direction.

VOA: Because of U.S. investments coming to Greece, where do you see the main focus? Would it be in the energy sector or another area?

Ambassador Pyatt: One of the interesting things is because of the decade-long economic crisis, there has been a long period of under-investment. I think one of the big messages behind the Thessaloniki International Fair and the strong U.S. business presence here is that American companies are taking another look. They seek Greek economic recovery. They recognize that Greece, Thessaloniki is not just about a market of 11 million people, but about a market of 30 million in Southeastern Europe where Greece is an ideal gateway. And they see that the major uncertainties of the past few years about Brexit, about Greece’s status in the Eurozone, about the stability of the banking system, about the commitment to stick to difficult fiscal and economic reforms, that those have been resolved.

We’re seeing a lot of growth right now in the tourism sector. Tourism is one of the most buoyant aspects of the Greek economy. Energy has enormous potential. Exxon-Mobil is one of our major sponsors for AmCham’s programs here in Thessaloniki this weekend. That reflects their interest in the energy sector. GE Wind has come back to Greece in the renewables area.

Also in terms of entrepreneurship and startups, there are really interesting things happening in Greece in the technology area. The fact that Tesla has opened their first international research and development laboratory in Athens. The fact that you have small Greek technology companies that are beginning to develop partnerships with Silicon Valley.

We’re never going to see another Silicon Valley in Greece, but what you have here is very strong human capital, highly qualified individuals, a natural tie to the United States, and a recognition that Greece is a good place to operate in Europe because of the cost factor. This is the Eurozone with a price point thanks to eight years of internal deflation that it’s significantly lower than what you would find, for instance, in Italy or France or Germany or someplace else in the Eurozone.

VOA: Name change. Macedonia. Will it come off? And have you or the United States been involved in trying to negotiate between Athens and Skopje.

Ambassador Pyatt: The leader of this process has been UN Envoy Matt Nimitz. Matt deserve enormous credit for the patience and the sticktoitiveness that he showed throughout this process. As President Trump made clear in his statement on National Day, yesterday, we are very strong supporters of the Prespes agreement. We give a lot of credit to the Foreign Ministers of both countries for the creativity that they demonstrated through some very difficult negotiations. And to the leaders, to the way that Prime Minister Tsipras and Zaev have recognized the historic importance of this opportunity. As Matt Nimitz said recently, an opportunity like this is not going to come along again. We see this as an important breakthrough for the region. Good for Greece, good for Northern Greece and Thessaloniki in particular, and as I talked with members of the Thessaloniki business community I’ve been encouraged to see how they see the potential to grow the Greek economic partnership to the north.

I can’t make any predictions about what’s going to happen in the referendum at the end of September or what’s going to happen through the parliamentary processes in both countries, but I know we’re going to work as hard as we can to support the governments of the region, working with our European partners. And significantly you had Stoltenberg in Skopje yesterday and Athens last night. There is a parade of senior EU leaders who are planning to go to Skopje later this month in the run-up to the referendum. And if I wasn’t an optimist I wouldn’t be in this business.

So if you ask me, is this going to come together? My bet is yes.

VOA: A last question on Kosovo and Serbia. They seem to be talking about a land swap. Traditionally the U.S. position has been there should be no changes in [inaudible] borders. But we had some kind of indication from National Security Advisor Bolton that maybe Washington would entertain that.

Is that correct? Do you think there’s more openness to the possibility of a land swap?

Ambassador Pyatt: The Trump administration policy has been consistent. There are no blank checks. What we’ve been very clear on is this process needs to be locally owned, locally driven. We are supporting the European Union’s efforts to see progress, and we’re going to stick to it in that regard.

VOA: Some questions I threw out because you’ve already answered them.

Ambassador Pyatt: Good. I hope that gives you what you need.

VOA: Absolutely. It’s the biggest presence of the U.S. at this fair.

Ambassador Pyatt: This is pretty much the biggest thing that we’ve done in Northern Greece probably since the Marshall Plan era, and it reflects a sense on the U.S. government side that this is the moment where we want to do everything possible to help support Greece’s return to economic growth. We see Greece as an important strategic partner, a pillar of regional stability, but it can’t fulfill that role unless the economic situation is stabilized.

VOA: How many U.S. companies are involved?

Ambassador Pyatt: We have over 50 companies, some of whom have been longstanding participants in the Greek economy, others of which are new. One of our sponsors is Caesars International, which is very interested in an integrated resort facility at the Ellinikon Airport site in Athens which could become one of the biggest property redevelopment deals in Europe. A potential U.S. investment of over $1 billion.

So we’ve got a fantastic opportunity here, both to highlight the best of U.S. technology, U.S. innovation. Companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Pfizer. But also to get the message out to the American business audience beyond Athens, beyond Greece that the Greek economy offers opportunities and that growth has returned.

VOA: Would [inaudible] persuade U.S. companies to come, or was there an enthusiasm?

Ambassador Pyatt: We’ve had fantastic support from our American Chamber of Commerce. When we started talking about making the United States the Honored Country and filling up this big pavilion, people were skeptical. But I’m very proud of how strongly the U.S. business community has responded. It’s an important signal to all of Greece that the Americans are back, that we are committed to a strong business presence here. But it is also a reminder of the very long historic links that the United States has had with Greece. We played a critical role during the Marshall Plan period, but also as we talked about earlier, its very strong people-to-people ties over the generations that are a powerful multiplier in our bilateral relationship.

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More Information: Voice of America