Greek Ambassador to Russia Danai-Magdalini Koumanakou: Refugees will not disturb tourists on Greek islands
Greek Ambassador to Russia Danai-Magdalini Koumanakou has given an interview to Interfax in which she speaks about prospects for cancelling EU sanctions against Russia, Athens‘s position of the South Stream project, the EU-Turkey agreement on refugees and her expectations fr om the upcoming tourist season and Russia-Greece Cross Year.Question: Ms. Danai-Magdalini Koumanakou, as we know, 2016 is a cross year of Russia and Greece. What are your expectations with regard to this year? What are main events that will take place within it?
Answer: First of all, it is important to witness that Greece and Russia are holding a cross year per se means that bilateral relations have reached a very developed level. As far as the events, I would somehow categorize them into those that are being organized on the official level, which is the main exhibition that Greece will organize both in Hermitage and in Historic Museum in Moscow, but there are other events being organized by NGOs or on the grassroots level and it includes not only cultural events but economic and educational events. For instance, the University of Kuban in April is organizing a symposium for the Greek language, and this is being organized on the international level so Hellenists will come fr om various parts of Europe to participate. Besides that in those areas wh ere we have a concentration of Greek descent people there will be cultural and economic events. What is also important is that Russia will be the honored country in the Thessaloniki international fair in September and both sides are promoting cooperation on a regional level. We have formed a working group that will sit together to find the appropriate ways of promoting regional cooperation in economic, touristic, cultural and educational sectors. This group is being formed by officials from relevant ministries from Athens and Moscow. And they will meet pretty soon, preliminary contacts have already been initiated. There is going to be a meeting of joint economic commission in 2016.
Q.: As you have said previously, the flow of Russian tourists to Greece decreased substantially last year. Do you think this year Greece could become the main destination for those tourists who are not able to go to Turkey and Egypt now? How is Athens going to use this opportunity and attract more visitors from Russia?
A.: Last year has been a year that a general trend has been witnessed. Russians didn‘t travel abroad as much as before and of course it resulted in less satisfying results to Greek tourism as well, but it touched not only Greece but the usual destinations of Russians outside Russia. This year does seem that there is going to be an increase and it is based on the advance bookings that are being made by tourist operators.
During the tourism exhibition in Moscow we will have an extensive presence and contacts with the tourism industry of Russia. We will discuss the quality of the services that Greek tourism will have to offer to tourists from Russia this summer. As far as being able to service a larger number of visa requests, this is also a part of our preparation, we have increased the effective personnel of consulates general in Moscow, St.Petersburg and Novorossiysk and we have increased visa application centers throughout Russia. So we believe we will be even more present in receiving applications and thus be able to process it in a satisfactory manner. I think that, since Egypt and Turkey are for the time being closed for Russian tourists, I suppose that other destinations will benefit from this. We hope that Greece will be the main beneficiary from this and we are doing everything to do that and we will be able to draw first conclusions in June and at the end of the season but we are working very extensively to satisfy the demands of the Russian market which is one of our important targets of course.
Q.: Head of Federal Tourism Agency Oleg Safonov has said recently that Greece was ready to issue visas in a two-day period. Will you really be able to do so, despite new regulations on biometric data? Will these regulations protract visa issuance process?
A.: We have been issuing visas in 48 hours over the last year. It was the service that we have been able to provide and it was working quite well. Now we have added regulations which provide secure visas and this is one of the reasons we have almost doubled personnel in consulates in order to provide this service to Russians. We have done the necessary preparations. I would like to point out that this is a very secure system, and once you get in the system the things are going very fast. We are confident that this is going to work quite well. We have already started increasing slowly the numbers of passports being processed, so it looks like things are proceeding quite well.
Q.: Is Greece going to make visas less expensive for Russians? Are you considering making trips to Greece cheaper by introducing some special offers?
A.: Package prices are a matter of offer and demand. Ministry of Tourism is monitoring the situation closely but prices are being developed by the private sector. As for the price of a visa we are Shengen members and we cannot have a separate policy. Prices are the same for all members. What we are encouraging and increasing in volume, is multiple visas that we are issuing to those who have visited Greece before and are bona fide travelers. We are going to continue this policy to the extent of our obligations within the Shengen provisions.
Q.: What bilateral visits between Russia and Greece on a high level are planned for this year? Is prime-minister Alexis Tsipras going to participate in the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June?
A.: There are plans for high level visits. The Minister of Tourism is already here to participate in the exhibition, there is going to be more visits since it is a cross year and it is customary that the visits are exchanged on a highest level. The president of Greece visited Moscow at the very beginning of the year. There are more to come and the dates will be announced in a due course. Prime Minister Tsipras has been invited to participate in the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, and we are working on the prospects, but no decision has been taken yet.
Q.: Have Russian President Vladimir Putin or Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov been invited to Greece this year?
A.: As I said there are going to be announcements in due course. But we are confident that we will have exchange of visits on a highest level.
Q.: Some EU countries have said that there would be no automatic prolongation of sanctions against Russia that expire on July 31. Does Greece agree with that? Do you expect them to be lifted after that date?
A.: As we all know, during the last foreign ministers meeting in Brussels there has been a discussion about relations of the European Union and its member states and the Russian Federation wh ere every foreign minister provided their thoughts and contributed to the discussion. Certainly, there is going to be a discussion at the end of June concerning the sanctions. Sanctions is a tool of policy and reasons that had been adopted by the EU have been specified and certainly Greece will positively participate in this discussion when the time comes. So there will be no automatic anything. There needs to be a discussion and Greece would participate in it in a very positive and constructive spirit.
Q.: Will Greece call for lifting sanctions during the EU summit in June? To what extent does Greece feel the negative effect of sanctions against Russia and retaliatory measures against the EU?
A.: It will be very interesting to witness the situation under which the discussion will take place. We all wish that the atmosphere will be very positive and conducive during the discussions. There is a need of creating a common position and to agree on a modus operandi. Greece is a very positive on creating those two.
There has been a response from Russia in adopting the counter measures and they touched upon our commercial relations mainly Greek exports of food, vegetables, fish and dairy products to Russia that means we have lost a commercial partner for those goods and of course a source of revenue. Not only Greece but other European countries that have been thoroughly affected by the counter measures and this is one of the reasons why there should be a discussion in June. Greece is interested in participating positively in these discussions.
Q.: Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has given to EU Parliament President Martin Shulz the so-called ‘Savchenko list‘ with the names of Russians against who he suggests imposing sanctions. What is Greece‘s view of such an initiative? Do you think that such sanctions will lead to a further deterioration of EU-Russia relations?
A.: I cannot comment on another country‘s president policies. But as a general approach I would say that right now it is of outmost importance to find ways to positively approach the EU and Russia relations, and the more we negatively add to the existing situation the more it will be difficult to find the necessary links to follow suit later on.
Q.: In February Greece supported Poseidon project which is supposed to deliver Russian gas from the Black Sea to Italy. Initially it was planned that the pipeline will go through Turkey. Do you think it will start from Turkey or from Bulgaria?
A.: I think that Poseidon tranche is a good project that could provide gas to the south of Italy and in that respect is it an interesting part of pipeline that has its merits pending that it attracts the attention of gas producing countries and gas companies.
I am going to give you the usual answer: it‘s the market that decides. If you don‘t get finances and if you don‘t get fuel, be it gas or any other hydrocarbon, why would you build the pipeline?
Q.: European Commission Vice-President Martin Shevcovic has said that the EU questioned the effectiveness of the Poseidon project? How do you assess this position?
A.: I cannot interpret what he meant, but questioning the project doesn‘t necessarily mean that you don‘t want its project or you don‘t judge this project as interesting. Questioning a project means that you are making this necessary surveillance to see how it can fit into the larger picture. I believe this project can be really effective for the southern part of the EU. It doesn‘t have the rich situation that the northern part has benefits from. There is a lack of pipelines in the southern part of the EU.
Q.: Russia‘s envoy to the EU Vladimir Chizhov and the EU envoy to Russia Vygaudas Usackas have said that the opportunity to revive the South Stream project is still on the table. Do you think it is possible to revive this project?
A.: If Mr. Ushackas feels that it can be done who am I to say anything but to agree with both of them. It has been the main thrust that all pipelines designed in order to serve a diversification and security is more than welcome on the Greek territory. And we had been actively pursuing this idea by participating in schemes that would exactly ensure either interconnection or the creation of new pipelines in the region. In general we support the idea of South stream project.
Q.: The EU and Ankara have recently agreed on migration. Are there any points in this agreement that Greece disagrees with?
A.: No, because if there were any we would not have signed. This was an agreement that 28 member of the EU and among them Greece have signed. So it is only several days that the agreement came into timely effect and next days are very crucial in its implementation. We will see how things work out. I cannot give any preemptive comment. Naturally, I wish that the agreement will be fully and effectively implemented so that provisions that have been negotiated and agreed bring around the necessary and expected positive results for my country, EU, Turkey and for those people that it has been designed for, that means refugees and migrants which require all our sympathy and humanitarian attention.
Q.: Don‘t you think that the Turkish leadership and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in particular are blackmailing the EU by demanding money to stop the flow of migrants?
A.: There is no doubt that it has been a tough negotiation, but I believe one who read carefully what has been put on paper can still say that it was a tough negotiation and since there is agreement both parties somehow have found their satisfaction.
Q.: Does Greece support the acceleration of negotiations on Turkey‘s accession to the EU?
A.: I think that this is a discussion of much different nature of what was the imminent necessity of the agreement concerning the flow of refugees and migrants.
Q.: How can you describe the current relations between Greece and Turkey? Do you regard President Erdogan as a partner, especially in the light of the deterioration of relations between Ankara and Moscow after Su-24 incident?
A.: The last high-level council between Greece and Turkey took place about 10 days ago in Smyrna. Besides the prime minister there was a large number of the members of the cabinet. There was a frank discussion between the Greek and Turkish prime ministers and ministers not only on the refugees issues but on the other bilateral issues that are of importance to us. So we are doing what is necessary to keep Turkey engaged with us promoting good relations in commerce, education, tourism and other aspects of exchange. I think it is necessary for neighboring countries. There are tensions and there are issues to which we don‘t agree at all. For us it is important to keep Turkey engaged and to try to make them understand which is besides our and their national interests. The common interest of two neighboring countries.
Since there are more than 50,000 refugees on the Greek territory how Athens is going to accelerate processing the applications for asylum?
We are actually excelling ourselves into creating the necessary strcutures to speedely process the necessary paperwork. As we know the migrant and refugees pertain to different statuses and we are working very effectively. I am expecting any time soon large countries of the EU to send officers to increase the existing capacity in processing the demands either for asylum or any other humanitarian nature.
Q.: Do you think that such a large number of refugees, especially on the islands, can disturb tourists and even consider not going to Greece for vacation?
A.: No, I don‘t believe so because consistently over last six or ten months, since we witnessed the important flow of refugees and migrants, they have been transferred to the mainland Greece within two or three days. They are not staying on the islands. They are transferred to the mainland Greece and distributed in shelters that were prepared and are still being prepared for them because numbers are increasing. Each day we are adding to the capacity which is not always easy, but I think we are dealing with this. Not only the government of Greece but especially people of Greece who have contributed enormously on the humanitarian aspect of the presence of refugees and migrants. We are taking all necessary measure but we do it because we are a law-abiding country and because this has to be done irrespective whether those particular spots are of specific tourist nature.
Q.: What is your attitude to Russia‘s decision to withdraw part of its forces from Syria? Do you think it will stop the flow of migrants from which Greece is suffering?
A.: Obviously, there is an urgent need of a negotiated political solution to the Syrian crisis. It seems that this decision of partial withdrawal was taken in consideration of the upcoming Geneva talks and the aim off this move was to actively show how Moscow is interested in providing the necessary atmosphere. So in that respect we wholeheartedly welcome this move. Now we are following closely what is happening in Geneva and we do hope that there is a positive outcome and peace will prevail in Syria. Certainly this will contribute to create the necessary conditions for those people to be able to return. No one leaves their home unless it is too dangerous for them to be.
Q.: What is current situation in the Greece economy? Last year it was in a very difficult situation, and Greece was on a brink of default. What is Athens doing not to let this situation happen again?
A.: A couple of weeks ago we have started the necessary interaction with international bodies in order to make the assessment of the current situation. We hope that this will be concluded very soon and in a positive assessment. And then we will start the discussion for the restructuring of the debt. Obviously, the situation in Greece is difficult and everyday life in respect of economy and economic power of Greek households has diminished. But what is more important is that this phase of review is concluded with a positive mark and this would bring us to "calm waters". The way memorandums were designed has been sought that the situation of last year doesn‘t repeat ever again and the discussion we had last summer with some political connotations doesn‘t happen.
Q.: Is the question of Greece quitting the Eurozone is still on the agenda?
A.: That‘s precisely what I meant by saying "unnecessary political highlights".