Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Palmer Roundtable

On the record

November 6, 2019

DAS Palmer:  I’ll start maybe with just a few thoughts up front.  It’s a real pleasure and a privilege to be back here in Athens.  The U.S.-Greek relationship is phenomenally strong.  It’s the strongest in my memory.  I think it’s the strongest in the memory of anyone who’s working on the U.S.-Greece relationship, no matter how old they are.

There is always room for growth and we’d like to explore with the Mitsotakis government ways that we can build on the already excellent relationship to further deepen and strengthen cooperation.

We’re looking at the Eastern Mediterranean as a strategic space, as an arena of competition between and amongst great powers.  The United States is here in spades.  We value the partnership with Greece.  We value the mechanisms for regional cooperation including the 3+1.  We look to Greece to be a leader in the Western Balkans.  We are deeply appreciative of the progress that has been made in the relationship with a country that is now North Macedonia.  The Prespes agreement is, I would think, inarguably the single most significant purely diplomatic achievement in the region since the Dayton Accords.

The inability of the European Council to reach consensus on the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania is deeply unfortunate.  It undercuts the progress that the Prespes agreement represents.  It sends a profoundly negative signal to the region.  Not just to the two countries in question but also, for example, to  Serbia and Kosovo who we are trying to encourage to go back to the dialogue table to negotiate an agreement on the full normalization of their relationship, something we feel would contribute significantly to regional stability, peace, security and prosperity.

We will work with our European partners to restore a European perspective for the Western Balkans.  This has been the foundation of American engagement in the region for 20 years.  Our goal is to support and facilitate the integration of the countries of the Western Balkans into European and EuroAtlantic institutions.  But in order for that to be a viable strategy the door to Europe needs to be open.  I think that’s something that is well understood here in Athens.  We have welcomed Greek leadership on this issue, and certainly the Western Balkans has been a significant topic of discussion for me with my Greek interlocutors while I’ve been here.

We’ve also, of course, talked at length about Turkey.  This is an especially challenging relationship, not just for Greece but a challenging relationship for the United States as well.  We’re doing everything that we can to work through that problem set, come out in a better place, and keep Turkey anchored in the West including, in particular, through the important alliance relationship as represented in NATO.

I’ll stop there, open it up, and I am happy to talk about anything that is of interest to y’all, whether that’s regional, global, my interest in skiing or French food.  Really, I’m easy, so we can talk about a bunch of different things.  Pina Coladas.   [Laughter].

Question:  I think you said in Serbia about the United States will —

DAS Palmer:  You did homework?

Question:  Yes.

DAS Palmer:  Uh-oh.  [Laughter].

Question:  I hear that you speak Greek.

DAS Palmer:  I spent 44 weeks learning Attic Greek, right?  That’s what they told me.  The classic stuff.  Then I’m off to Cyprus and I get off the plane and I speak in Greek and I’m understood and the response came back…and I thought, “What the hell was that?”  [Laughter].  Plus it took me a really long time to find anybody who was patient enough to speak in Greek, because they’d all been educated in London and New York and it’s like talking to you guys.  Like I’m going to do that in Greek?  That was not really your question though, was it?  [Laughter].

Question:  You said that the United States will do everything in its power to start the, to push the European Union to start the accession for the West Balkans and especially North Macedonia and Albania.

DAS Palmer:  Yes.

Question:  What will you do?

DAS Palmer:  Well, there is a deep and a rich relationship between the United States and the European Union.  There’s constant conversation about really every issue on the face of planet earth.  But the particular focus that I have on the Western Balkans is an ongoing engagement back and forth with European partners.  We do it at multiple levels.  We do it in Brussels with the EU as an institution.  We do it in capital cities with member states.  And what we want to do is to underscore with our friends and partners the strategic cost of not opening accession negotiations, and to work on encouraging our European friends, partners and allies to find a path forward to opening the accession negotiations with both Skopje and Tirana well in advance of the May meeting in Zagreb.  That was the time identified by the European Council itself.

The best time to do that would probably be the meeting in March, would be the ideal target.  We think it’s important that the European Union move forward quickly.  We understand France and to a certain extent the Netherlands have concerns about the enlargement process, that they want to see addressed.  Okay.  Address those.  Find a way to meet French concerns that makes it possible to open up the accession process for these two aspirants who merit the beginning of the accession process, but don’t take too much time.  Time is costly in the strategic sense.

So we’ll have these conversations with our European partners.  It’s not our decision.  We’re not members of the European Union.  We don’t have a vote.  But we do have a voice in the sense that the Western Balkans has been a region of important and constructive partnership between the United States and the European Union, and we will express our views and hope to find common ground.

In this, frankly, we will be supported by the vast majority of EU member states who see things very much as we do.

Question:  There is a line of thought within the European Union that if the two cases were separated, Albania and North Macedonia, then it might be easier for North Macedonia to join.  Do you share this way of thinking?  Or you think they should be joined together?

DAS Palmer:  We think it’s important that the candidates be judged on their own merits.  But at the same time, we believe that both North Macedonia and Albania have cleared that bar, that they’ve crossed the threshold, that both countries merit the opening of accession negotiations.

At the same time we see no reason why one candidate’s status should be judged relative to the readiness of another candidate to make the next move.  So if the members of the European Union are ready to agree on North Macedonia, they should move forward.  We think they should do that, but we also believe that Albania deserves the opening of accession talks as well, given everything that they’ve accomplished consistent with the recommendations of the European Commission.

Question:  Do you believe that the new procedure about North Macedonia and Albania should happen before the elections in North Macedonia?  You mentioned March.

DAS Palmer:  The timeline for me is not driven by the politics of North Macedonia.  It’s driven by, at least, my understanding of EU processes and procedures.  In other words, they have this meeting in May, but that meeting in May is not decisional.  There’s no GAC associated with it.  There’s not an opportunity through EU rules, procedures and mechanisms to make a decision on the opening of accession negotiations at the May meeting.  It needs to be made in advance if they’re going to get this concluded by the timeline identified in the Council conclusions.

The best available target consistent with the existing agenda of meetings, the schedule of meetings, is the March meeting.  That’s the opportunity consistent with how the EU does its business, to make that decision.

Did I explain that well?  All right.

Question:  Is the [matter of] accession clear for North Macedonia?  Because as I know, the [protocol] is not ratified by France and the Netherlands.  And according to the Washington Treaty, Article 11, they have to ratify.

DAS Palmer:  You’ve done your homework too.  This is very impressive.

Yes, every member of NATO must ratify the accession protocols before North Macedonia can be invited to join.  The United States has just done that, I believe it was October 22nd.

Question:  You do that as a last country usually or —

DAS Palmer:  We, you may have noticed, are not entirely speedy with this kind of stuff.  We don’t do it on purpose.  We do it because there’s a lot of competition for time on the Senate calendar so it takes a little bit of time to do this.  But the support for North Macedonia acceding to NATO was unambiguously clear in the outcome of that vote, which I believe was 92-2 or some such.

Question:  Yes.

DAS Palmer:  Consistent with the same, similar outcome in the Montenegro vote which was 97 to 2.  There were just a few more people absent the day they took roll call in the Senate.  But it’s a significant step forward for the United States Senate to take that step.  And there are, I believe it’s three countries, still outstanding.

Question:  Four or five.

DAS Palmer:  Is it that many?  Spain, France, Netherlands —

Question:  Iceland.

DAS Palmer:  — and Iceland.  That’s correct.

Turkey is done, but their procedures aren’t entirely finished.  But —

Question:  Their approval is not there.

DAS Palmer:  But it’s moving forward.

Yeah, there are some things to do.  I have no particular reason to believe that there’s an obstacle to North Macedonia’s NATO membership, a political obstacle.  This is procedural.  It takes time for the countries in question to go through their own internal procedures.  And it’s my hope and expectation that this will be done quickly.

The country that’s likely to be the most complicated is Spain, and that again, it’s just a timeline issue. It’s forming the government, it’s forming the parliamentary committee that needs to consider this, and then there’s built-in timelines to the decision process in the Spanish system that likely pushed this sometime into and beyond the end of 2019.  But I’m hopeful that we can have this done over the next couple of months and by sometime this spring, latest at the June leader’s meeting, we would be hoisting the flag of North Macedonia over NATO headquarters.

Question:  [Inaudible] with [inaudible] Cyprus [inaudible]. What do you expect Athens to do?  You know how sensitive given the situation is right now.  Some of the members of the government did not support the basis of the treaty.  Do you expect now the government to support the treaty?  To ratify the NATO treaty?  What do you expect during the next months, we have this awkward and sensitive situation in Skopje?

DAS Palmer:  We’re hopeful that our Greek partners will make clear to other NATO allies that it’s important to move forward on the NATO path for North Macedonia, particularly given the disappointment coming out of the European Council meeting.  We hope that Greece will continue to help mentor North Macedonia, to help them be the best NATO ally and partner that they can be.  We welcome the commitment to air policing in partnership with North Macedonia, and would look to support opportunities for Greece to engage with North Macedonia, with the military of North Macedonia in support of growing and developing the capacity and capability that will make them valuable NATO allies and partners.

Question:  Actually two questions.  One on the Balkans.  You have been in Skopje recently.

DAS Palmer:  I was there a couple of days ago.  Last week.

Question:  I was wondering what did you [find] from the domestic situation there?  Did you see disappointment?  [Inaudible]?

DAS Palmer:  I see every kind of disappointment.

Question:  And did you think that the kind of government will actually face the consequences as they approach the elections?

And connected to that, in case there is decoupling and North Macedonia proceeds, Albania stays behind, how do you think this would actually influence the Serbia/Kosovo normalization?  If [inaudible]?

DAS Palmer:  Let me deal with the first question, if I may.  Remind me what the first question was.

Question:  If you see —

DAS Palmer:  Oh, disappointment.  Profound disappointment.  Right?

Not just at the level of political leadership, but at the level of everyday people.  Everyone that I spoke to feels that North Macedonia had earned the opening of accession negotiations through not just the Prespes Agreement but through a commitment to the reform agenda that stretches back years.  And here I think it’s important to bear in mind that the European Commission has recommended the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia on the merits, stretching back multiple years.

Prespes was especially important in opening up the path and in resolving the dispute with Greece that had made it impossible for the European Union to move forward.  But in terms of the merits, where North Macedonia stood relative to the requirements in the acquis and the conditions that were outlined by the European Commission year after year, they cleared that bar multiple times.

So yes, a sense of disillusionment, a sense of disappointment.  It brought down a government.

So this decision has triggered the disillusion of the government in North Macedonia, and new elections will be held in April.  It will be an opportunity for the public to identify whether or not they want to move forward with the current arrangements, whether or not they want to vote for change.  This is a normal part of democratic practice.  I’m not going to predict the future in terms of what the outcomes of that election are going to be.  That’s really up to the people of North Macedonia to decide.  One of the great things about democracy is people can pick their leaders, they can change their mind.  That’s the way this is supposed to work.

In terms of what the impact on the Serbia/Kosovo dynamic might potentially be, decoupling — I mean frankly, that’s a little bit speculative for me to offer you a firm or clear answer on that.  I do think that if North Macedonia moves forward, Albania does not, there would be deep disappointment on the part of Albania, as there’s deep disappointment now, that in fact Albania’s progress was not recognized by the European Council, by consensus amongst all the members of the European Council.

I think that disappointment would be even deeper if they were in a sense left behind as North Macedonia were to move forward.  And that disappointment would need to be managed.

I don’t know whether or how it might impact the Serbia/Kosovo dynamic or the Serbia/Kosovo dialogue, but it’s very important that all of us do everything that we can.  And here I include Greece as well, to encourage Kosovo and Serbia to find a way back to the dialogue table and work towards an agreement on the full normalization of relations.  And that will do wonders in transforming the nature of the relationships between and amongst the states of the Western Balkans.  It will open up a real European perspective for the region if there’s receptive partners on the part of the EU.

Question:  The Russian Ambassador in the EU invited North Macedonia and Albania to join the —

DAS Palmer:  Eurasian Economic Area.  That’s just snarky and —

Question:  Are you afraid about that?

DAS Palmer:  No.

Question:  Because it looks [inaudible].  When you have problems, we have problems with Bosnia and Herzegovina, you didn’t go there on your last visit in the Balkans —

DAS Palmer:  I’ll go there in December.

Question:  Okay.  That situation, it’s absolutely ready for collapse.

Also Serbia, Kosovo and of course North Macedonia and Albania.  And there’s yet another member of NATO, Romania, has problems also.

DAS Palmer:  I think the Russian offer to those countries in the Western Balkans spurned by the European Council, I think, was sarcastic.  I don’t take it as a serious initiative.  It was meant to score cheap points against the European Union and it was meant to rile up some European elements in these societies.  Albania, North Macedonia – their vision is to become members of the European Union.  That is their goal.  Our goal is to support and facilitate this process.  These countries do not wish to be members of the Eurasian Economic Area or partnered with Russia.  They want to be in the European family.

Question:  And you mentioned [inaudible].

DAS Palmer:  Yeah.

Question:  Taking into consideration Macron’s [inaudible] in North Macedonia were a disappointment, as you said, in North Macedonia.  Is there any risk for the Prespes agreement?

DAS Palmer:  The Prespes Agreement implementation is key to the process of EU accession.  So ultimately full implementation of the Prespes agreement requires that North Macedonia get put on this track and moves forward.  That will drive implementation.

The United States strongly supports the agreement.  We support its full implementation.  The consensus in North Macedonia is there to maintain support for this agreement.  We’ve made clear not just to the government but to the leaders of the opposition our expectation that they would respect the Prespes agreement, and we will work to ensure that that’s so.

Question:  You mean in North Macedonia.

DAS Palmer:  Yes.

Question:  Have you sensed sort of, this is a follow-up.  Have you sensed that maybe [inaudible]?

DAS Palmer:  You know, the leadership of VMRO-DPMNE has been publicly, sharply critical of the agreement.  It’s important I think to remember that that agreement was put in place with two-thirds majority of the parliament.  It can only be changed with a two-thirds vote in parliament.  That is not, frankly, anybody’s expectation going to these elections in April that that will be a viable option.

No matter what, we will make clear to the next government in North Macedonia, whether that’s led by SDSM or whether it’s led by VMRO-DPMNE or whether it’s some other constellation I don’t, again, want to prejudge the outcome of the balloting although those are the two most likely outcomes.  To whomever emerges in position to form a government in North Macedonia following the April elections, we will make clear our expectation that they will respect the Prespes agreement and work to advance its implementation consistent with North Macedonia’s obligations derived from the beginning of the EU accession process.

Question:  Are you concerned that maybe Moscow try to influence the situation in the next couple of months to elections?

DAS Palmer:  We’re always concerned about Russia’s role in the Western Balkans.  We believe that Russia’s intentions in the Western Balkans are fundamentally at odds with our goals and ambitions, and frankly, fundamentally at odds with the goals and ambitions of the countries of the Western Balkans themselves.

We see a European and a EuroAtlantic future for the countries of the Western Balkans, and Russia does not.  And what we saw in the run-up to the implementation of the Prespes agreement in North Macedonia, what we saw in the run-up to the referendum on that agreement was a concerted effort on the part of Russia to undermine support for Prespes as a path forward to promote alternatives and to make it harder for the Zaev government to deliver on this agreement with Athens.  I don’t expect the Russians to back down.  I expect them to continue to make trouble in the Western Balkans as they did in 2016 in Montenegro by supporting an attempted coup.

Question:  What’s your main concern?

DAS Palmer:  In the Western Balkans?

Question:  Yeah.

DAS Palmer:  My main concern, frankly, is that the countries of the Western Balkans will lose interest in the European path.  That if the European Union does not make clear that there is a legitimate, achievable, viable European perspective for the countries of the Western Balkans, I’m afraid that that will undermine the push for the kinds of reforms that we support and the kind of reforms that are fundamental to a region that is peaceful, stable and prosperous, and here I’m thinking of a transparent and accountable media environment, good governance, rule of law.  But all of the things that are fundamental to the countries of the region qualifying for membership under the terms of the acquis.  We need that perspective in order to drive that process, and that process is fundamental to securing our goals.

Question:  Two questions from the Western Balkans to [inaudible].  First one is you spoke about normalization of relationships within Serbia and Kosovo.  What are the assurances given that we have a new government in Kosovo and we have a guy in charge about whom we are not sure.  He is ultra-nationalist in the past, and we are not sure he will continue the path that came up between [Inaudible] and [Inaudible].

The second thing I wanted to ask you, there as a statement by the Serbian Prime Minister [Inaudible] two weeks ago in an interview in [the Standard].  And there he said that there will be no recognition of the Kosovo in these borders.  The new thing is in this border.  He said it for the first time, as I found out.

Can you comment on those two things?

DAS Palmer:  Sure.

Question:  Are we going to have a change of borders in the Balkans?

DAS Palmer:  The first question is, how do we get the parties back to the negotiating table?  Kosovo has had an election.  They don’t have a government yet.  They’re in the process of government formation.  It looks like the most likely outcome to that process is a government that will be led by Vetevendosje in partnership with LBK.  The public in Kosovo clearly voted for change.  That’s the way I would read this election.  Vetevendosje has never been in government before.  Albin Kurti has never had a significant position in government before and he’s going to start as Prime Minister.  There is a lot of responsibility that comes with that position.  I don’t think anybody knows how Mr. Kurti will respond to that challenge.  It is our hope that he will accept the responsibilities that come with that position, that authority.  That he will see the importance of leading Kosovo forward towards a European future.  And here again, this is all predicated on there being a clear European perspective for all the countries of the Western Balkans including Kosovo.  And that he will understand the importance of building on the strong partnership between the United States and Kosovo by integrating into his own thinking our strategic priorities which include helping Kosovo move forward on this path towards normalization.

He’s made clear that his first order of business is domestic.  He wants to clean up the government.  He wants to battle cronyism and corruption.  He wants to fight organized crime.  And we support that agenda.  We want to partner with him in pursuit of that goal.

We think Kosovo can do more than one thing at one time, that they can pursue this domestic agenda and get back to the dialogue table with Serbia, including by suspending the tariffs that have been an obstacle to progress.

In terms of the border question, what President Vučić has laid out on recognition, for the United States, ideally, normalization of the relationship would have mutual recognition at the center.  Belgrade has made clear its desire to negotiate the borders as part of that.  Any comprehensive deal on normalization is multi-dimensional.  There will be a political component to it, an economic and trade component, a security component, a cultural component as we look at the status of the Serbian Orthodox Church properties in Kosovo.

Kosovo and Serbia will also need to agree on their borders.  That’s a normal thing.  If there are going to be significant changes to those borders, that’s something that could only come out of negotiations between the two sides.  They would be within their rights as independent sovereign nation states to negotiate a change in borders.  We are aware that there are concerns about the possible impact of that throughout the region, and that’s something that if the parties were to go down that road we would seek to manage.

However, the Kosovo side has made clear that it doesn’t wish to pursue this as the basis for negotiation, that it wants to talk about other things.  And that’s within Kosovo’s rights.  Kosovo is well within its rights to determine for itself the parameters of its negotiating team and how it wants to engage with Serbia.

The first step is to get the parties back to the table.  Once the parties are back at the table, then they can put forward their ideas for how they want to move ahead on normalization and the United States will support them in this and support that process.

I’m not going to, we’re not going to up front put anything in play ourselves or take anything out of play.  It’s really for the parties to determine the path forward that meets Serbia’s needs and Kosovo’s needs, and that both can identify as a win.

Question:  You mentioned earlier that you were concerned about the Russians in Western Balkans.  Are you also concerned about the Chinese?

DAS Palmer:  Yes.  The Chinese are increasingly visible and active in the Western Balkans.  They’re primarily interested in infrastructure projects, but they’re also interested in selling telecommunications technology including 5G technology that is almost by definition a significant vulnerability for the countries of the Western Balkans, a security risk.  It’s particularly true for those countries that ultimately see themselves as NATO members, but really I think for all countries in the Western Balkans to be aware that when you’re doing business with these Chinese companies you’re also doing business with the Chinese state.

China comes in for these infrastructure projects with up-front pricing that looks very attractive to these countries in question, but they can find themselves very easily saddled with heavy debt burdens that are difficult to manage fiscally.

The Chinese have a history of renegotiating contracts halfway through the project where you know, you get half the road built and now all of a sudden the terms change.  Oh, you want to have an exit?  That’s going to cost you.

So we hope that those countries in the Western Balkans who choose to do business with Chinese firms do so with a very, clear-eyed understanding of what the real costs of the project are.  Not just the up-front number that can be very seductive but the cost of completing the project, the cost of maintenance and the cost of managing the debt load that is often Chinese financed.

Question:  I know that nobody is interested about that, but can you share your view about Turkey, what’s happening in the EEZ of Cyprus, what’s happening in the Aegean, invasion in Northern Syria, increased refugee flows?  That’s the actual elephant in the room right now.

And of course if I can make a bridge on that, about their influence in the Western Balkans as well.

DAS Palmer:  Sure.  We’re concerned about Turkish behavior, and we see the relationship between the United States and Turkey as deeply challenged.  We have made clear our concerns about Turkish drilling operations off the coast of Cyprus.  That includes drilling in areas that Cyprus claims as part of its EEZ and it also includes in particular drilling within the 12 nautical mile limit off the coast of Famagusta that the United States has described openly as unlawful, inconsistent with the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea and customary international law, as reflected in UNCLOS.  We’ve made that clear to Turkey.

We consider those drilling operations to be provocative.  We consider them to be destructive of trust and undermining the prospects for a Cyprus settlement.  We have expressed concern to Turkey about the possibility of Turkey broadening those activities, including potentially into areas that Greece claims as part of its continental shelf or into the Greek EEZ, and have made clear to Turkey that we would consider that a damaging and provocative action, and we’re discouraging —

Question:  Excuse me.  Could you repeat please the last part about, the last sentence you said?

DAS Palmer:  That we have expressed to Turkey our concern about the expansion of drilling operation into other areas including into the Aegean.  It would be deeply provocative.  And we are working to dissuade Turkey from taking any such actions.

Question:  I’d like to ask about the Jihadist, ISIS fighters that Turkey said will be driven back to the countries in Europe.  Also, so many of them are from Balkans.  Can you [inaudible] about that?  Do you have any plan how to protect these countries who are unstable?

DAS Palmer:  We would like the countries whose citizens have gone to fight for ISIS to take them back and to accept responsibility for them, and accept responsibility for assuring that they do not become security threats.

So there have been any number of folks from the Western Balkans that have gone to fight in wars in the Middle East including as part of ISIS.  Those that survive that experience and return to their countries are security risks.  They’re a threat.  Those who are captured need to be managed to ensure that they do not become a security risk going forward, and we would expect those states from whom they are citizens to accept that responsibility.  We will work with them to ensure that they have the capabilities to deal with that threat.  We have a number of programs in place aimed at supporting deradicalization in prison populations, for example.  But it’s not sustainable to maintain these people outside of their home countries indefinitely.

Question:  Do you think Greece has the capability to deal with the situation?   With maybe Jihadists or Islamists coming to Greece from Turkey?

DAS Palmer:  We’re confident that Greece has the capabilities necessary to manage these risks, and we will partner closely with them in sharing information and ensuring that all necessary and appropriate steps have been taken to provide for the safekeeping of American citizens, of Greek citizens, and innocent civilians everywhere.

Question:  You describe two priorities.  One, to keep Turkey anchored in the West, and the other to make Turkey behave in the Aegean and the Cyprus Exclusive Economic Zone.  How do you scale those two?

DAS Palmer:  I didn’t say this was easy.  There’s a significant agenda that the United States has with Turkey.  It is a broad agenda.  We have concerns about drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean.  We have concerns about Turkish activities and behavior in Syria.  We have concerns about the acquisition of Russian military equipment such as the S400.  We have concerns about Turkey’s relationship with Venezuela, about Iran.  There’s a long litany of concerns.

We want to identify a positive path forward with Turkey.  We want to navigate through the current challenges.  As we have our concerns and complaints, Turkey has its concerns and complaints as well.  It also ha a long list of things that the United States has done or said that Turkey takes issue with.  We need to work through that problem set, get to a better place that recognizes, protects and preserves the fundamental importance of this relationship.  It’s a difficult relationship but it is a consequential relationship.  And we want to make sure that when we come through this on the back side that Turkey sees itself as a partner and an ally of the United States, anchored in the Western community of nations.

Question:  Can I rephrase a little bit my question to make it more straightforward?

DAS Palmer:  Sure.

Question:  There is concern in Greece that in order to keep Turkey anchored in the West we might turn our eyes away, blind eyes to what they are doing in the Aegean, to what they are doing in the Cyprus Economic Zone.

DAS Palmer:  Except I think that’s empirically untrue, right?  We have highlighted those issues.  We have made them, integrated them into the agenda.  We have pressed Turkey on this point firmly and clearly.  So I understand that anxiety.  I understand that concern, but I don’t think that the evidence supports it.

Question:  To be honest on that, you express the views of the [inaudible] bureaucracy, but there are some people in Athens that are concerned and express this anxiety about the way, let’s say, the President, President Trump thinks about certain things about the way of doing business with Erdogán.  So there are two different things, some people think. Okay?  The bureaucracy maybe versus Turkey and Ankara, but we’re not confident and we’re not, let’s say, sure that we have a reliable partner in Washington.

DAS Palmer:  I understand that.

I think one of the things that we should also factor into our thinking about this is that through it all, through all of these difficulties, fundamentally the President of the United States and the President of Turkey have a constructive relationship.  They have a good relationship.  And that’s one that we will work to build on in trying to put the U.S.-Turkey relationship overall on a more positive footing.  But that can only happen if Turkey is ready, willing and able to address some of the fundamental U.S. concerns.

Question:  I was going to ask about Serbians.  They said we always ask Serbians to change things.  To go to negotiations with Kosovo.  We didn’t ask anything from the Kosovars.

DAS Palmer:  I was just in Pristina a couple of days ago and I asked them to suspend the tariffs.  That was not such an easy thing to do.  I mean it was easy to ask but it’s not such an easy thing for the Kosovars to do because it’s so politically popular.

I can assure you that we ask things of Kosovo quite regularly.

Question:  Did you ask about the taxes?

DAS Palmer:  Yes. The tariffs, that I just said.  We asked our partners and our friends in Pristina to suspend the tariffs or the taxes so that we can remove the obstacles in the dialogue and get back to the negotiating table.  We have asked that of them and we will continue to pressure them to take that step because we see these tariffs as an obstacle to progress and unhelpful in setting the right tone.

Question:  Could you speak a little bit about energy and the dynamics of it?

DAS Palmer:  I love energy.  I love talking about energy.

Gazprom has a hammerlock on gas supplies through much of the Western Balkans.  This is a significant source of leverage that Russia is inclined to abuse and misuse.  In the relationship with Serbia, the two most significant sources of Russian leverage are Russia’s support for Serbia’s position on Kosovo and Gazprom’s complete ownership of the gas infrastructure and gas supplies.

We would like to see the Western Balkans diversify their source of energy supply as a source of security and as a mechanism for reducing Russian influence, Russian leverage, over these countries.  The Krk Island project in Croatia is an important and significant project.  The interconnector between Greece and Bulgaria is another tremendously important project.  We would like to see the growth and development of the gas network in the Western Balkans that provides for alternative sources of supply.  Certainly what you see in Greece with the development of LNG infrastructure puts Greece in a position to be a leader in this field and that’s something that the United States strongly supports.  We want to work in partnership with Greece to help grow and develop these capabilities and provide a degree of energy security for the Western Balkans.

Question:  Last question for Cyprus, maybe.  Do you think Turkey would like to discuss a solution based on bizonal [inaudible] or maybe have [inaudible] towards [inaudible] type of solution?

DAS Palmer:  I think the frame for the negotiations on Cyprus has been set and it’s been set by the United Nations and it has been memorialized in multiple UN Security Council resolutions and that is the search for a bizonal/bicommunal federal settlement.  That’s the United States’ vision for Cyprus.  It is the vision of the leadership on both the Turkish Cypriot and the Greek Cypriot side.  We’d like to see an agreement on terms of reference sufficient to justify making another run at this, because a resolution of the Cyprus dispute would significantly contribute to peace and security not just on the island of Cyprus but in the wider region.

Question:  How do you assess the developing relationship between Greece and China after the Prime Minister —

DAS Palmer:  Sure.

Question:  And a comment on Russia, if you can do that, since we have this meeting today.

DAS Palmer:  It’s normal that Greece is going to have a relationship with Russia and China, including business relationships.  What we would hope is that our Greek partners are clear-eyed about the nature of these investments.  Those that are in Greece’s interests and those that are really only in China’s interest.

China is not an ally and a partner of Greece the way the United States is.  Russia is not an ally and a partner of Greece the way the United States is.  This is not to say that Greece needs to keep these countries at arm’s length.  That’s not true.  But just to be cautious about the kinds of investments that will serve Greece’s long-term interests and not provide sources of leverage for either Beijing or Moscow that could be detrimental to Greece’s long-term strategic political and economic interests.

Question:  Such as?  What kind of investments are we talking about?

DAS Palmer:  Well, for example, the 5G issue, which is an area where we think there are significant security concerns that make this other than strictly an economic choice.  And this is the kind of area where we would hope Greece would have the broadest definition of its national interests.

Moderator:  Thank you, everyone.

DAS Palmer:  Thank you.  I appreciate it.  Those were excellent questions.

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