Greece isn’t the only European nation with a stake in the uncertain future of Kosovo, but Greek Ambassador Alexandros P. Mallias told The Washington Diplomat that his nation may be the one best equipped to help find a solution.
Mallias, who presented his diplomatic papers in Washington in October 2005, has a full plate of issues to keep him occupied, but Greece’s troubled neighbor to the north remains foremost on his mind.
Mallias stressed the need for a permanent solution in U.N.-operated Kosovo that both Pristina and the Serbian capital of Belgrade can agree upon. Regardless of Kosovo’s ultimate fate, the ambassador said Greece has consistently advocated a governmental solution that provides the best hope for regional peace and stability.
Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, a veteran U.N. troubleshooter, is the special envoy charged with guiding the delicate political negotiations over the ethnically divided Serbian province, the majority of which is made up of Kosovar Albanians who want full independence from Serbia.
On April 3, Ahtisaari presented to the U.N. Security Council his conclusions, including both a detailed set of proposals for Kosovo’s future and a recommendation that Kosovo become independent with assistance from the international community.
Ahtisaari’s suggestions were endorsed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and strongly supported by the United States, and hopes were high that the long-standing issue might finally be resolved. But talks floundered yet again when Russia—which wields veto power on the council—flatly opposed the plan, saying Kosovo cannot gain independence without the consent of Serbia, which would rather offer the province wide-ranging internal autonomy.
Since then, negotiators have tried to appease Russian concerns—so far to no avail. As of July, there was discussion of another draft resolution that would call for the European Union to take over U.N. supervision of Kosovo, sidestepping the question of independence and allowing for another four months of Serb-Kosovo negotiations. Shortly after, Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku said he was prepared to declare independence from Serbia despite Russian opposition—as pressure mounted and patience seemed to be wearing thin on all sides for a solution.
In an interview in July, Mallias said whatever the solution, it needs to be “negotiated” to the satisfaction of all parties, or else it will just lead to more problems down the road. He said the fact that Russia—a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council—opposes the Ahtisaari plan is reason enough to keep working on a new solution, noting that Greece has “a very close and strategic relationship with Russia.”
“As diplomats, we need to give diplomacy a fresh chance,” Mallias said. “In the minds and hearts of many European citizens, some of the events of the 20th century are still very fresh. In this case, the solution of 2007 could become the problems of 2010 and 2012. We appeal to all parties involved to avoid unilateral decisions.”
The conflict over Kosovo—which climaxed with NATO warplanes beating back Serb repression against ethnic Albanians in the province during the Balkan wars—is one of the last remaining issues from the breakup of Yugoslavia. Critics say offering Kosovo full independence will set a dangerous precedent for other breakaway provinces in the region, while advocates say independence is the best way to avoid future violence and is appropriate given Kosovo’s unique nature as a U.N.-mandated province for nearly a decade.
“There is no other EU or NATO country that has such great interest at stake in Southeast Europe—political and economic—as Greece,” Mallias said during a wide-ranging interview in his elegant office in the new Greek Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. “In Kosovo, we advocate a soft landing—a solution that will be, if possible, acceptable to both Pristina and Belgrade, a solution in line with the EU standards,” Mallias explained. “We want a solution that will secure stability in Europe and that will not generate new troubles.
“This should be a solution by which Serbia will not feel humiliated,” he added. “To make things easier, we believe the EU has to provide a clear perspective of the European future.”
The ambassador—an expert on the region who previously served as chairman of the Coordinating Committee for the Greek EU presidency’s program on the Balkans—also stressed that Greece opposes any division of Kosovo along ethnic lines, as some have suggested with the Serb minority in the north of the province.
“The whole exercise in Kosovo was not to replace an authoritarian regime with another,” he said. “The aim was to create a multicultural, multiethnic and multi-religious Kosovo. That is explicitly mentioned in 1244 [the resolution authorizing the U.N. takeover of Kosovo in 1999], and I don’t think that today that aim has been fully fulfilled.”
Mallias said Greece has invested heavily across the region and desires stability in the Balkans to ensure the maximum benefit from those investments for everyone, warning that a “black hole” of governmental and regulatory uncertainty in Kosovo would undermine those efforts.
“Greece has a tremendous economic presence in south Europe,” he said. “We have invested over billion in the region and we want to see a smooth process. There can be no black holes in Europe.”
Once stability is achieved, Greece stands ready to spread more of its considerable wealth around, according the ambassador, who noted that his country has already relaxed its visa procedures and invited Serb and Albanian children from Kosovo to Greece for “confidence-building exercises.”
Mallias said the United States has demonstrated respect for its perspectives regarding Kosovo. “They are very carefully listening to our views,” he said. “I think they appreciate our views because they know that we know the region very well.”
As for Serbia, Mallias urged the country to align itself with the EU in the future. During a discussion at the Hudson Institute, he advised Serbs to “speed up the process to form a pro-European, reform-oriented government, which can be the only government that would be able to face the very important challenges that are lying ahead.”
Turning his attention to Greece’s oft-tense relations with Turkey, Mallias said his country also supports EU membership for Turkey and is helping to lead a charge for Turkish-EU integration because it could “secure fundamental reforms in Turkey, which are indispensable conditions for Turkey to meet EU standards and criteria … and to adopt a code of behavior with the EU’s standards,” he said. “Greece is leading Turkey’s engagement into the EU, but Turkey has to realize there can be no double standards and Turkey also has to speed up reforms to make Turkey’s candidacy easier.”
He said a good place to start would be more tolerance for the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, which provides spiritual leadership for hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians throughout the world. (Greece has repeatedly accused Turkey of initiating assaults against Greek expatriate Christians.) “I hope the Turkish leadership will realize this can become a very important asset for Turkey’s credentials to Europe and the international community at large and not be perceived as a liability,” Mallias said.
He also urged Turkey to remove some 40,000 troops it has stationed in Cyprus. “These are two issues where we expect Turkey to move,” the ambassador said. “What is the threat level in Cyprus for Turkey to have 40,000 occupation troops?”
However, despite the sometimes tough rhetoric and difficult past, Mallias expressed optimism about the state of Greek-Turkish relations. “Greece and Turkey are doing pretty well,” he said. “There is a very positive climate in business relations—something the Greek government encourages and also Turkish government encourages. There are thousands of tourists and also we are increasingly becoming energy partners.”
In late 2003, Turkey and Greece signed an agreement to build a natural gas pipeline connecting the two countries. The pipeline serves not only as another important economic link between Greece and Turkey, but also as a new source of natural gas for Greece, with the prospect of connecting to markets in the heart of Europe. Up to 11 billion cubic meters annually of natural gas is targeted for transport to Turkey, Greece and Europe in the second phase of the project.
“This is to my sense one of the most important energy projects in Europe,” Mallias said. “This will allow natural gas from the Caspian Basin to be shipped to Europe.
He added that Greek investment in Turkey has nearly doubled over the past three years. “There is certainly no automatic pilot in our relations…. These positive trends are indicative of the will of our government.”
Another area of investment that has paid off for Greece is the billions of dollars it poured into the 2004 Olympics in Athens—most of it in infrastructure improvements either directly or indirectly linked with the games. Four years later, the ambassador said his country is still reaping the benefits of the highly successful summer games, and he advised Beijing, host country of the 2008 summer games, to make all the investments necessary to pull off another successful Olympics.
“Any economic sacrifice is worth it,” Mallias said. “The investments [Greece made prior to the games] right now are having great effects.”
He noted that the Olympics seemed to especially bolster tourism and probably even foreign investment. Before the games, flights from Washington to Greece, for example, were quite limited. Now more airlines than ever are opening routes to Greece, Mallias said. “Greece’s name was replanted during and after the Olympics.”
Mallias said his country is exceptionally well-positioned to remain a regional and global leader in the years to come, especially pertaining to its shipping.
Greek companies currently own about 3,000 merchant vessels—more than any other country in the world and about 18 percent of the global fleet. The Greeks have an ancient tradition as maritime traders, and they’ve been the pre-eminent shipping power since the end of World War II, when the United States began selling off some of the ships in its fleet.
“Greece has a genuine interest in the securing of sea lanes throughout the world,” Mallias said, describing the Greek shipping infrastructure as a floating pipeline. “We are extremely interested in global trading and global energy, and the importance of the Greek shipping industry at the global level is duly recognized.”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.