Interview of H.E. the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to the Hellenic Republic Andrey M. Maslov to Greek Diplomatic Life magazine (March 2017)
For centuries Russia and Greece have been connected not only by strong spiritual and historical bonds, but also by economic and cultural cooperation. What mechanisms have to be implemented in order to achieve a closer collaboration in a variety of fields?
As it was summed up by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin during his visit to Athens in May 2016, it is the common civilizational values, the Orthodox culture and sincere mutual sympathy that form a stable foundation for our partnership, which today continues to progressively develop.
Many years of cooperation have helped to accumulate successful and mutually beneficial experience in trade, economy, science, technology, cultural, humanitarian and other fields, also creating efficient mechanisms for the further promotion of our bilateral relations.
Key elements constitute a rich and intensive Russian – Greek political dialogue, together with a developed legal and contractual basis of cooperation, with more than fifty agreements in force. Our interaction got an additional strong impetus after the Russian – Greek Summit in May 2016 and a number of contacts at Governmental, Presidents of the Parliaments, Heads of State bodies and agencies level. The contractual basis of our relations keeps on developing, with the adoption at the highest level in 2016 of the Russian – Greek Political Declaration and the signing of the Intergovernmental Joint Declaration of Partnership for Modernisation and the Intergovernmental Agreement on Cooperation in Science, Technology and Innovation.
The Joint Russian – Greek Commission for Economic, Industrial, Scientific and Technical cooperation has been successfully functioning already for 20 years; now under the chairmanship of Russian Minister of Transport Maxim Sokolov and Greek Alternate Minister of Foreign Affairs George Katrougalos. In November 2016, Athens hosted the 10th session of the Commission, with the 11th session planned for 2017 in Russia. To prepare for it, the Commission’s Working Groups on tourism, energy, agriculture, science and technology and interregional cooperation will speed up their activities.
We also look forward to setting up a Joint Commission on cooperation in the prevention and liquidation of emergencies, as it was agreed upon in the Arrangement signed in Athens between the Russian EMERCOM and the Greek Ministry of Interior in November 2016, and count on further joint work within the Commission on military and technical cooperation, whose 12th meeting was held in July 2016.
There is no doubt that Russia and Greece highly appreciate the centuries-old traditions of friendship linking the two nations and we are capable, through a common effort, to create favourable conditions in order to enhance our bilateral cooperation and to launch new long-term investment projects aimed at bringing mutual benefits.
How is the pace of political dialogue between Russia and Greece and what are the next steps within 2017?
We can say with certainty that the current political dialogue between our countries is characterised by an unprecedented intensity, which fully reflects the stepping up of the bilateral cooperation in various fields.
President Vladimir Putin's visit to Greece on 27th-28th May 2016 has become the central event in our relations in recent years. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras travelled to Russia twice in 2015; he also met with Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Medvedev, in Egypt on the sidelines of the New Suez Canal inauguration ceremony. President of the Hellenic Republic, Prokopios Pavlopoulos, visited Moscow in January 2016 to announce, together with President Vladimir Putin, the opening of the Russia – Greece Cross Year.
Only in the course of 2016, Greece welcomed visits of Chairman of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation Sergey Naryshkin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Deputy Prime Ministers Sergey Prikhodko and Arkady Dvorkovich, Minister of Transport Maxim Sokolov, Minister of Education and Science Olga Vasilyeva and EMERCOM Minister Vladimir Puchkov. Likewise, President of the Hellenic Parliament Nikolaos Voutsis, Minister of Culture and Sports Aristides Baltas and his successor Lydia Koniordou, Minister of Tourism Elena Kountoura, Deputy Foreign Minister Dimitris Mardas, First Vice-President of the Parliament and Chairman of the Greece – Russia Parliamentary Friendship Group Anastasios Kourakis, Deputy Minister of Economy, Development and Tourism Theodora Tzakri and other officials travelled to Russia.
Russian – Greek high-level contacts continue to develop this year. Greek Minister of Infrastructure and Transport Christos Spirtzis paid a visit to Russia in January, whilst Minister of Interior Panos Skourletis and other Greek ministers and heads of state bodies and agencies are expected to come to Moscow upon the relevant invitations already extended to them.
The “synchronization of watches” between the foreign ministries of our countries plays an important role in the bilateral dialogue. An intensive exchange of views on key issues of the international agenda is scheduled on the basis of the Plan of consultations between the Russian and Greek Foreign Ministries for 2017-2019, signed by the two Foreign Ministers in Athens in November 2016. The annual ministerial political consultations between Deputy Minister Aleksey Meshkov and Secretary General of the Greek Foreign Ministry Dimitrios Paraskevopoulos are to be held in Moscow.
As I have already mentioned, we will continue our work within the framework of the Joint Russian – Greek Commission on Economic, Industrial, Scientific and Technical Cooperation to prepare its 11th session.
There are positive prerequisites for parliamentary contacts at the level of standing committees and friendship groups of the two assemblies.
The impressive Russia – Greece cross-cultural year 2016 under the patronage of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has helped bring the countries closer together. What is the outcome of this initiative for the future of both peoples?
The Years of Russia in Greece and Greece in Russia conducted in 2016 under the patronage of President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister of the Hellenic Republic Alexis Tsipras gave a substantial impetus to the bilateral relations in all key areas of cooperation – economy, tourism, culture, education, science, athletics and humanitarian spheres. Within the framework of the rich Cross Year programme, more than two hundred events were organised both at the governmental level and with participation of the two countries’ regional authorities.
All of them were aimed to help Russians and Greeks get better acquainted with the life of each other, to establish important public and business contacts and to realise promising joint initiatives, with the Cross Year having a really significant practical outcome.
The Cross Year project, unique in our relations, highlighted one more time how close the two peoples are in terms of the common civilizational and spiritual roots. In this sense it is particularly symbolic that the millennium of the Russian monastic presence on the Holy Mount Athos was marked also in 2016. The jubilee celebrations were arranged in Athos with the participation of Presidents Vladimir Putin and Prokopios Pavlopoulos and Minister of the Foreign Affairs Nikos Kotzias.
It is remarkable that the Cross Year events are still taking place. The Byzantine and Christian Museum of Athens recently hosted an impressive exhibition of the Treasures fr om the Collections of the State Hermitage Museum, while an exposition of Byzantine masterpieces, which opened in the Moscow Tretyakov Gallery, is attracting a great number of visitors, and President Vladimir Putin himself visited it.
Our countries intend to build on the useful Cross Year experience in the future when organising a new series of thematic events in a variety of fields such as tourism, language and literature, science, technologies and others.
Due to the deterioration of relations between Russia and the EU, especially after the implementation of sanctions on your country, we noticed a huge drop in the trade balance between Greece and Russia. What efforts should be undertaken in order to alleviate this situation?
The bilateral trade in monetary terms continued to fall for the two consecutive years, dropping by 40% in 2014 and by 34% in 2015. The reasons are well-known and include a decline in prices for energy resources, fluctuation of currency rates, the EU-imposed anti-Russian sanctions and our response measures which had to be taken.
Russian – Greek contacts, and primarily the visit of President Vladimir Putin to Greece, helped to outline practical steps in order to overcome negative trends in the bilateral trade. Business communities of our countries are seeking ways to widen trade in those products which are not placed under restriction.
As a result, according to Russian customs statistics, in 2016 the bilateral trade increased by 4.4% year-on-year and reached 2.87 billion US dollars. The rise is mainly due to the 5.5% climb of Russian exports to Greece that totalled 2.66 billion US dollars. The imports fr om Greece to Russia in monetary terms are still diminishing, with a fall by 6.9% in 2016 down to 213 million US dollars.
Mutual trade flows and investments are to be significantly moved forward by strengthened ties between various regions of Russia and Greece. Result-oriented activities of the recently formed Working Group on Interregional Cooperation will contribute to this. Its first meeting will take place in the coming months.
Russian investors keep a considerable interest in the Greek market and we look forward to implementing the joint projects in energy, transport, agriculture and tourism and to launching new ones in the areas of infrastructure and industry.
This embargo also severely affected tourism between the two countries, with Greece traditionally being a favoured holiday destination for Russians. What is 2017 forecasting for the tourism industry?
This is true. The number of Russians visiting Greece was growing continuously to peak at 1.3 million people in 2013. Yet in 2014-2015 one could see a decline of the tourist flow from Russia to Greece.
Today we can say that the situation is improving, with the figures rising again, and this is also, to a large extent, a result of the successful Russia – Greece Cross Year. Russian statistics show that during the first nine months of 2016 the number of Russian visitors rose by 20% to climb to 723,000. There were also 10% more Greeks coming to Russia.
Tourist exchanges are called to promote events within the Russia – Greece Year of Tourism that will take place, as agreed, in 2017-2018. An opening ceremony is planned in Moscow this autumn. Details will be discussed in Moscow in March on the margins of the international tourist exhibitions «Intourmarket-2017» and MITT wh ere Greece is annually represented by a high-level delegation.
The Greek leadership has a consistent policy for the diversification of transit routes of energy resources to the European market. What are the prospects for reinforcing Russian – Greek cooperation in the energy sector?
There are good prerequisites to expand the Russian – Greek energy cooperation. For over 20 years now, Russia has been a reliable supplier of energy resources to the Greek market, covering around 60% of the country’s demand for natural gas and 15% for oil. The existing contract with the DEPA state corporation has been prolonged till 2026 on favourable conditions for Greek consumers. Our country is ready to meet the growing needs of the Greek market in energy resources.
In February Russia completed the internal procedures necessary for the entering into force of the Intergovernmental agreement with Turkey, signed in October 2016, on the “Turkish Stream” gas pipeline construction. It envisages, among other things, the building of two pipelines with throughput capacity of 15.75 bcm each, with the first one to provide gas to Turkish consumers and the second to ensure gas supplies via Greece to Europe. Russia’s Gazprom, DEPA and Italy’s Edison are working on preliminary studies for the project having as a basis the Memorandum of Understanding on natural gas deliveries across the Black Sea from Russia via third countries to Greece and from Greece to Italy. However, taking into account the experience of the “South Stream” project that was earlier wrecked by the European partners, it is clear that a gas pipeline construction on the territory of Europe is impossible without official guarantees from the European Commission to support it.
There are prospects for development of bilateral cooperation on renewable energy sources (RES) and energy saving. During the visit of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to Athens in May 2016, the Russian Energy Agency and Greece’s Centre for Renewable Energy Sources and Saving signed a memorandum. Within this context, last September saw the first bilateral forum on RES taking place within the framework of Russia’s participation as the guest of honour in the 81st Thessaloniki International Fair.
What initiatives have been taken toward a closer collaboration and development of the scientific and educational sectors between two countries?
Russia and Greece are developing dynamic scientific and educational relations. A number of joint initiatives in these areas were launched in 2016 within the framework of the Russia – Greece Cross Year.
Russian Minister of Education and Science Olga Vasilyeva came to Greece in November 2016 on a working visit to hold detailed talks with Greek Minister of Education, Research and Religion Kostas Gavroglou. After the meeting, the Intergovernmental Agreement on Cooperation in Science, Technology and Innovation was signed.
On November 11, 2016 the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens hosted a grand opening ceremony, with the participation of President of the Republic, Prokopios Pavlopoulos, to inaugurate the Department of Russian Language and Literature and Slavic Studies. From that moment and onwards, the Greek higher education system will include, as it was never the case before, a separate “Russian language and literature” qualification which will be specified in the graduates’ state diploma. The first students have already started studies for this specialisation in the current academic year of 2016/2017. I am confident that in a few years the Department can become alma mater for highly-educated personnel that are so needed for the further development of mutually beneficial cooperation of our two countries.
We expect that following relevant understandings reached at the highest level, a project of teaching Russian as a second foreign language in Greek public schools could be resumed, building on its successful implementation in 2008-2011.
In 2016, the first joint seminar on quantum technologies took place in Athens (April) and the 7th bilateral conference on bio-nanomaterial was organised in Crete (May). A joint Russian – Greek research competition in quantum technologies is in progress as of December 2016. The best projects will be selected and co-financed on a parity basis. There are also active direct contacts between Russian and Greek research agencies in the fields of aviation, space research, laser technology and others.
How does Russia see Greece’s stance in the current state of relations between Russia and the EU and Russia and NATO?
Unfortunately one has to acknowledge that the Russia – EU and Russia – NATO relations are going through an uneasy period of time. This is not our choice. Our cooperation with EU member-states, including Greece, remains in fact hostage to the illegal and short-sighted sanctions regime, imposed and regularly prolonged by the European Union. It is European business representatives and citizens who are first and foremost victims of the anti-Russian policy, chosen by our partners.
We are fully open to initiatives meant to bring our relations back to the path of multidimensional partnership on the principles of equality and mutual respect. We know that there are quite a few voices in Europe renouncing “Cold war” stereotypes and the vicious policy of Russia’s “containment”.
We expect that our Greek partners will support within the EU and NATO such a sober and pragmatic approach towards relations with Russia.
In the current difficult international situation, civil societies try to play an increasing role in maintaining an atmosphere of trust and mutual understanding; in many cases they succeed, in others not. How active is the Russian – Greek civil society and how successful is it promoting both countries interests?
Russian and Greek civil societies make a considerable contribution to the strengthening of friendly relations between our countries.
Holding a large-scale Russian – Greek Forum of Civil Societies has become a good tradition. The 4th Forum of this kind took place in Athens on October 31 – November 2, 2016 and constituted one of the most significant events of the Russia – Greece Cross Year, with the two Foreign Ministers, Sergey Lavrov and Nikos Kotzias, participated in the Forum’s concluding part. This event triggered a broad interest from the general public, as well as from political and business circles, journalists and the church, allowing thus a comprehensive discussion on the current state of play and prospects of Russian – Greek relations.
The Russian community in Greece and the Greek diaspora in Russia took the most active part in the implementation of the Cross Year programme. A Russian – Greek Forum of interregional and inter-municipal humanitarian cooperation was successfully organised in Athens in October 2016. Thanks to grass-roots initiatives, new interregional cooperation agreements were concluded, for example between the towns of Anapa and Larisa, and useful joint projects were implemented by municipal authorities with the participation of civil societies. One of the most remarkable of them was last year’s opening ceremony of the commemorative marble plaque at the residence of the first Governor of independent Greece Ioannis Kapodistrias on the island of Poros to commemorate the establishment of Russian – Greek diplomatic relations there on September 17, 1828.
On a more personal note, Your Excellency. You speak fluent Greek. What inspired you to study this language and in what way does it help you in carrying out your duties and in understanding the Greek way of life?
I studied Greek for five years in the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University) before graduating from it in 1977. At that time, as it is now, the same system was applied to distribute first-year students among language specialisations. It happened to be the Greek language in my case, and I was very pleased.
Upon graduating from the MGIMO I joined the diplomatic service in 1977 in my first post in the USSR Embassy in Nicosia wh ere I went on to improve my language skills and explore in depth the realities of the Hellenic world.
It was largely thanks to the Greek language that back in 2010, when appointed Director of the Russian MFA 4th European Directorate (relations with South East European countries), I managed to quickly get into the swing of the work also in terms of Greek and Cyprus issues.
It certainly keeps helping me now. In recent years, as I have already told you, there has been a remarkable intensification of Russian – Greek cooperation in different sectors. I am constantly in contact with my Greek colleagues and I can tell you with confidence that despite all possible difficulties there is a keen interest, both in Russia and Greece, to promote our bilateral cooperation and there are many practical initiatives and endeavours that the Embassy is seeking to support. And it is indeed very good that as a rule, while working on common projects, we, Russians and Greeks, speak one language, share the same values, cultural heritage and our common history.