Yorgos Diacofotakis: An Excellent and long-standing bilateral relations

Greece’s stance on Kosovo is well-known and remains unchanged

We talked to H.E. Yorgos Diacofotakis, Ambassador of Greece to Serbia, about the Open Balkans initiative and Greek-Serbian cooperation based on the 2019 Declaration of Strategic Partnership signed by the two countries. 

Photo: H.E. Yorgos Diacofotakis, Ambassador of Greece to Serbia

The Open Balkans initiative brings together countries in the region so that Greece will be invited to next year’s summit in Tirana. What is your view on this initiative, and how do you see its future?

The Open Balkans is an important initiative because it has regional ownership. It can improve mobility, trade and cooperation among the countries of the region. It is important that it remain in line with the EU acquis.

Is the Open Balkans initiative a consolation prize for countries still far from full EU membership?

I believe that it is wrong to talk about a consolation prize or even a substitute for full EU membership. There is no substitute for EU membership.

Initiatives such as the Open Balkans reflect a regional ownership and bring closer the countries involved. We expect that their fruitful cooperation be in line with the EU acquis and further pave the way to EU membership.

What is Greece’s official position regarding the European integration of Serbia and the countries of the Western Balkans?

Since the Thessaloniki Agenda (2003), Greece has been a staunch supporter of Southern Europe’s EU aspirations. As the oldest member of NATO and the EU in the region, Greece has invested a lot of effort to bring its neighbours closer to Europe and its values. Greece has led initiatives to advance regional cooperation and promote connectivity and synergies among the countries of the region. Take as a recent example our initiative to provide energy security to the Balkans and beyond through the port of Alexandroupolis. We believe in and firmly support the European perspective of all Western Balkan countries.

We believe in and firmly support the European perspective of all Western Balkan countries

As the first Balkan country to join the EU and benefit from its European integration, Greece is constantly trying to assist its neighbouring countries in following this same path and is continuously working on ensuring that the Western Balkans remain at the top of the EU agenda. We want to welcome Serbia, as well as the other countries of the region, as members of the European family. Reforms and patience are needed in order to reach the EU acquis. However, based on our own experience, I must say that these long-term efforts are worthy, as they can ensure stability, prosperity and security for Serbia and the entire region. 

You recently stated that Greece is not changing its position on Kosovo and that there is no pressure on your country to recognise Kosovo. Why do you think Serbia is afraid that Greece might still recognise Kosovo? How do you see the solution to the Kosovo dispute?

I think that the first part of your question should be addressed to others, not me.

Greece’s stance on Kosovo is well known and remains unchanged. We firmly believe that issues of this nature must be resolved through dialogue, with mutually accepted solutions.

Greece fully supports the EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. Together with the other EU Member States, we fully support the effort undertaken by Mr. M. Lajcak and commend his valuable work. We are looking forward to a comprehensive agreement between Belgrade and Pristina, as provided for by the EU Council Conclusions, in line with the EU acquis.

How much did the crash of a Ukrainian plane with Serbian weapons near Kavala in Greece threaten the otherwise excellent relations between the two countries? What was the biggest problem for Greece in this incident and how was it resolved with the Serbian side?

Regarding this tragic accident, which occurred last July and claimed the lives of the crew, it is needless to point out that the crash could have taken place in nearby villages and inhabited areas. It is a miracle that this did not happen. Since the aircraft took off from Serbia and its dangerous cargo was loaded in Serbia, we consider that the Serbian authorities should have informed in advance Greece’s competent authorities, in accordance with the international regulations in force. We requested information and clarifications from the Serbian side. The whole matter was dealt in good faith between the two Governments. 

How do you see the future of Serbian-Greek cooperation on the political, economic and cultural levels?

The Joint Declaration on the Strategic Partnership between our countries, which was signed in Athens in December 2019 outlines our bilateral cooperation in various fields and is solid proof of our excellent, long-standing bilateral relations. Within this framework, we are determined to enhance our cooperation.

We also pay special attention to the exchange of high-level visits and try to expand our cooperation through regional multilateral, trilateral and quadrilateral formats.

What is the economic cooperation between Serbia and Greece today, considering the pandemic, the Ukrainian crisis, sanctions against Russia and the impending energy crisis? Where are our two countries in all this? Greece is one of the largest and most important investors in Serbia. Are you satisfied with the scope of economic cooperation, and where do you see opportunities for improvement?

As you mentioned, Greece is one of the first and big investors in Serbia, and one important trade partner of Serbia. Of course, there is plenty of room for our bilateral cooperation to be strengthened and expanded.

Over the past two decades, the Greek private sector has invested approximately 2.5 billion Euros and created around 25.000 jobs. Serbia is an important business partner and many Greek companies are active in various fields of the Serbian economy, such as construction, building materials, fuels, energy, food and beverage, etc.

Over the past two years, both countries have faced the consequences of the pandemic, and recently the Ukraine war, and its impact on the global economy and energy market. Both countries are faced with many challenges, especially in the field of energy, the need to secure stable prices in the market. It is time now to reaffirm that Greece and Serbia are two countries that are connected not only by geography and history, culture and religion, but also by our common vision towards sustainable development and prosperity in our region.

Serbia has demonstrated an impressive resilience during the pandemic, while Greece has recovered rapidly, attaining important growth rates.

In recent years the annual volume of bilateral trade amounted to 500 million euros while the exchange of services is also estimated around 500 million. I am confident that both figures can increase dramatically in the future. It is noteworthy that, only the first six months of 2022, bilateral trade has reached the amount of 400 million euros, according to the Hellenic Statistical Authority’s data.

Until the end of 2022 we are expecting to welcome around 900,000 Serbian tourists, approaching the pre-pandemic levels. Serbia has also been advancing as a tourism destination for Greek people.

Greece is one of the first and big investors in Serbia, and one important trade partner of Serbia

We are ready to support investments in your country. Areas in which we can further boost our bilateral economic cooperation and which can also reflect the future presence of Greek investments in Serbia are energy, transport, infrastructure, recycling, wastewater treatment, information and communication technologies, the IT sector, tourism, food and beverage trade, agriculture, construction, etc.

Our Prime Minister, Mr. Mitsotakis, has underlined that the modernisation of the Piraeus-Thessaloniki-Skopje-Belgrade railway axis is of strategic importance, as it will contribute to an improved trade and transport network and enhanced connectivity. It will also promote effectively sustainable mobility and development in South East Europe and further cooperation with Serbia and the countries of the Western Balkans, as a means of ensuring stability and welfare in the wider region.

Greece also supports the construction of the Interconnection Bulgaria – Serbia, and its connection with TAP, through the Interconnector Greece-Bulgaria, that will strengthen Serbia’s energy diversification. And of course, the port of Alexandroupolis, as a gateway for LNG is something that interests not only Greece, but also South Eastern Europe as a whole. Our ultimate objective is energy security, affordable prices and diversification of the energy sources, taking into account the new landscape after the war in Ukraine.

Interview with the Ambassador of Greece to Serbia, H.E. Yorgos Diacofotakis
by Dragan Nikolić
Originally published in the NEW OCTOBER 2022 EDITION of Diplomacy&Commerce magazine

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