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Question and Answer Session with Costas Simitis

Presider: Matthew Nimetz, Partner, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison
Speaker: Costas Simitis, Prime Minister, Greece
April 21, 1999
Council on Foreign Relations

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Ambassador MATTHEW NIMETZ: We’ll have questions. Remember, they’re on the record. Please stand when I call on you. State your name and affiliation. Make the questions real short.

QUESTIONER: I notice a certain pattern in which the Orthodox Christians are not helping NATO or participating in the effort. How important is religion in this?

Prime Minister COSTAS SIMITIS (Greece): I think that in the West they give much more attention to religion than religion really has in the region. Naturally, Greek Orthodox feel more sympathetic to other Orthodox people. And the Greek Church is very sympathetic to the Serbian Church. But, as you know, the Greek public opinion is very negative toward intervention. In the last Gallup, 96 percent were negative. It’s the immense majority.

And these are not all people that decide on the base of religion. I would say in Greece there is a minority who thinks that we should be with those and not with the others because they are Orthodox. What’s very decisive, I think, for this position of public opinion in Greece is the experience they had in the 40 or 50 years after the World War, all the World Wars.

We had a civil war, and this civil war was the result that the Communist Party in Greece tried to seize power with the help of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and Bulgaria. The civil war was won because the non-communists—or in reality, of course, it was a fight between communists and the conservatives, and the middle of the political strata was completely lost. The conservatives were helped by the United States and England.

Greek people do not like interventions. In 1967, there was a dictatorship in Greece. Rightly or wrongly, Greek people believe that this dictatorship was the result of a CIA intervention. I say, rightly or wrongly. But we feel like that. And this is also a reason that they don’t like interventions. Yugoslav people were living for nearly 20 years or nearly 25 years with the fear of Soviet intervention, and this fear is a fear that all Balkan countries have: the big powers coming to us and deciding what will happen with us. It’s a mentality, a very deep existing mentality in Greeks, and I would say, also, in people in the other regions that don’t want other people to mix in this truth.

Amb. NIMETZ: Another question? Yes, sir.

QUESTIONER: Many people feel that Milosevic’s replication of autonomy in Kosovo in 1989 was illegal and that, therefore, he has no claim to the future of Kosovo. You have outlined that borders should be inviable, there be no intervention. Does Greece believe that Yugoslavia or Serbia or Milosevic have an unquestionable sovereign right over Kosovo, which rules out any solution such as independence?

Prime Min. SIMITIS: Now Greece has declared when Milosevic undertook these steps, that these steps are in the wrong direction. We have always said that Kosovo must have a large autonomy, and we were against—I want to stress this—when the partition or the change in Yugoslavia began, we were always against a change of the status of Yugoslavia.

We said when the first discussion about Croatia began that Yugoslavia should remain as it is because if there’s a first change, there will be other changes as well. And we were right. If there was not the first change with Croatia and Slovenia, then maybe the situation now would be different. Now you ask me—or you say it was illegal what he did. Naturally it was illegal. But anybody can say the action of any government is not legal, and that’s why you do not have the right to do this or not the right to do that.

A change of borders means that Albanians in Firam can also ask for a change of borders. It can also mean that Turkey can ask for a change of border because of the Muslim minority in Greece. It means that Bulgaria, or those speaking for Macedonians who think that they are speaking Bulgarian, can ask for a change of borders in Skopje and so on and so on. This policy is wrong. There will be no end to a policy that says we have to create new states or a new Albania. This should not be done.

Amb. NIMETZ: Anything else?

QUESTIONER: No.

QUESTIONER: Our secretary of state has been described as having, among her main responsibilities since the bombing began, to keep wavering capitals in the NATO alliance on board, specifically Rome and Athens. And I wonder if, at least from your perspective, perhaps from those other NATO allies that may have been uncertain about the desirability of using military force here, at what point, if the bombing continues and Milosevic succeeds, as he evidentially has largely already done in crushing the KLA and in depopulating Kosovo of its Albanians, folks reduce the bar for a settlement in order to end the war as opposed to going all the way and adding ground troops?

And in that vein you had used the phrase “broad international force with clear legitimacy,” which implies going to the United Nations. And this is something about which Washington is somewhat allergic. What do you see as ultimately the kind of force that would be broadly acceptable, meeting your criterion?

Prime Min. SIMITIS: You said at the beginning that there are some wavering governments, the Italian and the Greek governments. I would not accept this description for our position, but I think it’s necessary to ask some questions about the implications of the bombing first and then to try to find a solution because I really don’t believe that the final solution can be only a military solution. There was never—only Second World War when there was a complete destruction of Germany—there was never a sole military solution.

So if there should be a political solution, this political solution must be prepared. There must be discussions, there must be an effort to find out what is to be done and I come to this question of the international force. What do we want? We want that the Kosovars come back. Why must the Kosovars come back with an international force only of Greeks, only of NATO, only of Americans, only of Germans? They can come back also with an international force and United Nations, of an international force where Russia takes place, or we could find another way of solving this problem. The main thing is that the refugees come back.

So how we achieve this should be open. And we can try to find solutions. And I’ll point out, because you spoke about many of the difficulties in this issue, on the question of ground forces and implications, the participation of the Kosovo Liberation Army. As far as I know, the Kosovo Liberation Army that had begun to be active months, year ago or so has the position that the Kosovo must... If I remember well, there are about—I read in the papers, I don’t know—20,000, 30,000. So you have 30,000 armed people fighting, being killed, and killing Serbs and they want independence. We come to a moment where there is a cease-fire. What will these 30,000 people say? “We fought up to now for independence, and now we stop and we want to be part of Yugoslavia.” They won’t say it. They will continue. And I’m asking myself, “How will you...(unintelligible) them to stop?” It’s a difficult job.

And if you allow me a general comment, there’s a difference of mentality in some of the peoples or part of the peoples of the Balkans. They have lived another way with other traditions. That’s not only in the Balkans. I shall bring the example of Corsica. You know, in Corsica there’s the vendetta. A family kills. Somebody’s killed from a family, the family must take revenge. This is a phenomenon in Albania. This exists also in Kosovo, this exists also in Serbia. So these people do not feel like, say, Western Europeans or Americans, “We have fought the fight and it’s finished. The war is over.”

They feel it far more personally. “They kill us, we kill them.” And that’s why I was speaking about hatred. That’s why I was speaking of the difficulty of overcoming this situation, of putting the two communities that are killing now each other. I don’t go on the subject who is responsible. The Serbs begun, they are responsible. But in any case they are killing each other, together to cooperate. It will be extremely difficult. And that’s why somebody’s—there’s the idea of partition. There’s the idea of independence. But I’m asking myself, “Have all these matters been thought over?” I hope yes.

Amb. NIMETZ: I’ll take a couple more questions. Yes, ma’am. Yeah. Microphone?

QUESTIONER: Information about Serb atrocities in Kosovo have received far less media attention in Greece than in other countries around the world where a government does not control the press. What can you do as prime minister to ensure that Greek public opinion is better informed? You mentioned that 96 percent don’t like intervention—are 96 percent seeing the whole story of what the Serbs have done in Kosovo?

Prime Min. SIMITIS: We have a free press in Greece. You know, the press likes to bring the stories people like, and people want to see in the press what they want. So it’s very difficult to have an objective presentation of facts one way or the other. As I repeat, the television channels and the newspapers decide what they bring. I think that Greeks have a good picture of the situation. They know that there is ethnic cleansing. They know that the ethnic cleansing has result in thousands of refugees. They think that bombing has a result that the ethnic cleansing became worse and have brought more refugees. But their position is that interventions in the Balkans should not take place. That’s...

Amb. NIMETZ: Any more questions? We have time for one. Go.

QUESTIONER: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you very much for this description of how Greece is handling a very, very difficult situation. Someday I hope to assure you that the 1967 incident on this date was not of American source. My question today is what is your sense of the role of Russia in this resolution of the problem? Do you think it can be effective? And if so, how?

Prime Min. SIMITIS: If you put the question this way, I don’t know how to answer. But if I can put it another way, if there is a good relation between Russia and Yugoslavia when this situation becomes so bad the crisis upon which Yugoslavia thinks that they must try a way out, they will use Russia. So this means that they must have good relations with Russia and NATO must have good relations with Russia and pressure Russia to persuade the Yugoslavians.

In this situation, I want to repeat what I said in my speech. It is necessary to try to have peace, not peace on any conditions—I don’t say this; on the conditions we have agreed. But an effort must be made for peace because I’m afraid, and I stress this at the summit in the European Union, that if we do not make an effort for peace, then when we come to a solution it will be too late to find the solution that will be acceptable. And I don’t think that it will be good for anybody if we need police forces, if we need military forces that we have to stay in the region for years and years—10 years, 15 years, and so on. This would be something very negative.

So my point is that we have take decisions in NATO. These decisions are applied. We are fighting in order that the refugees—that the ethnic cleansing stops, the Serb troops leave Kosovo, the refugees come back. But on the same time, we should try, with diplomatic means, with political means, to achieve this result. The fact that war goes on is not the reason to stop the diplomatic and political effort.

Amb. NIMETZ: We have time for one more question. Yes, sir.

QUESTIONER: May I just add a personal note. I think you should be commended, again, given the numbers, the 96 percent that you would refer to earlier. I believe that you have maintained a steadfast commitment to your alliance to NATO and I think again you should be commended. But aside from the Kosovo incident and what’s going on, given the recent elections in Turkey, do you see any positive developments vis-a-vis Greece’s relations with Turkey? I might also add, can you comment on the relationships between Greece, Turkey, and in Cyprus, how it would affect Cyprus as well?

Amb. NIMETZ: That’s only in two minutes.

Prime Min. SIMITIS: There were elections in Turkey last Sunday, and the Nationalistic Party of the late Mr. Tukish gained 17 percent, I think, or 18 percent, a 132 membership parliament. They were not in the previous parliament. And the result of this election means that the nationalistic feeling in Turkey is very strong now. So we in Greece said always that we must try to find solutions with Turkey, and we have to try to find solutions with every Turkish government. If there is a government who is elected by the new assembly, we will have, as we had with this government, contacts. We’ll present our views. Our views are known, and we hope that there would be a response on their part.

It’s not up to us to decide if Turkish people voted rightly or wrongly. I only noticed the trend, and I declare that we are ready to have the contacts we should have in order to try to overcome the existing difficulties. This concerns also the problem of Cyrpus.

As far as Cyprus is concerned, I want to stress that in the end of last year, Mr. Clerides, the president of Cyprus, presented his opinion on his use of demilitarization of the island. This some think necessary. The north of Cyprus or part of Cyprus is the most heavily armed place in the world and this should not continue like that.

The Turkish troops in the northern part of the island and the Greek troops in the southern part of the island, it’s not the same number. It’s a big difference in numbers, but in any case, the troops should begin to leave, the armaments should be reduced and we should proceed with a peace process in the island. This would help to solve also the political problem.

Amb. NIMETZ: This is a tough audience and a lot of tough issues, and we’re very grateful to you for coming. Thank you, sir.

Prime Min. SIMITIS: Thank you, too.

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