Ioannis Michaletos

(RIEAS Junior Analyst and contributor to World Press on line)


Greece and the United States have a long record of bilateral relations dating back to early 19th century, when Greece began its struggle for independence in 1821. The first country to recognize Greece was the United States and over the decades, both countries remained staunch allies, in World War I, World War II, and during the cold war.

During the last week of March, the Greek foreign minister, Dora Bakoyanni, paid a visit to Washington and discussed the ongoing agenda of Greek-American relations, which covers a whole sphere of regional and international affairs. The Greek delegation presented a whole series of important points, either seeking American assistance or trying to influence American perception, especially when it comes to peripheral topics, such as the Balkans.

The first issue that was discussed extensively was as always Greek-Turkish relations. Both countries are NATO allies but also have a colourful history of rivalry and ongoing conflict in a wide range of affairs. The Greek minister expressed worry in relation to the political climate of Turkey, which will hold presidential elections in May and national elections in November. Already the climate between the two states has heated up due to continuous violations of Greek airspace by armed Turkish fighter jets. And the government in Athens is sceptical about the future prospects of Greek-Turkish relations.

A recent event that involved NATO created a public outcry in Greece and damaged to an extent the communication between these two states of the south-eastern NATO flank. More analytically, Turkey demanded that NATO cancel an exercise near a Greek island in the northern Aegean Sea—Aghios Stratis—and indirectly doubted Greek territorial dominance in the area. Last year, a Greek and a Turkish F-16 collided in midair after a "Dog fight" resulting in the death of the Greek pilot. In fact, there are tens of airspace violations by Turkey each week that result in some highly dangerous situations in the Aegean and in many cases create a sense of imminent military action by both states.

Nicolas Burns, the Department of State's No. 3 official, assured the Greek side that the island as far as the American side was concerned, was Greek territory. Overall though, the State Department preferred to stay aloof and consulted both sides to create a framework on which they could compromise and find a suitable solution to their bilateral issues.

A second topic widely discussed was the "Macedonian" name issue. The United States has recognized the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) plainly as "Macedonia"—its constitutional name—since Nov. 1, 2004. Greece is adamant on not recognizing any country with that name and vows to veto its entrance in the European Union and NATO. It is interesting to note that over the past few months Washington has been pressuring the government in Skopje to adopt a stance of compromise to please both sides in this conflict. Recently, the Congress drafted a legislation where both names—Macedonia Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia—were written, thus alarming the government in Skopje, which  assumes a change in American policy in the Balkans. Moreover, quite a few analysts expect Matthew Nimitz, the American mediator, to resurface and seek a compromise between the two states by the end of the year.

The Greeks and Americans discussed the Kosovo status negotiations, where a difference in relation to its independence status, became public. Athens states that an imposition of independence by the United Nations Security Council will become a dangerous international law precedent for other "hot spots" around the world and that an independent Kosovo might lead as well to a regional imbalance in the Balkans. Athens fears that the nationalist push by some circles around "Greater Albania" will give rise to the nationalistic rivalries of the 1990's in south-eastern Europe. The United States seems fairly confident that the independence status of Kosovo will stabilize the region and at the same time help American policy to disengage itself from the "soft underbelly of Europe" otherwise known as the Balkans.

Furthermore, energy security played a big part in the Greek-American dialogue. The recent signing of the agreement for the Burgas-Alexandroúpolis pipeline between Greece-Bulgaria and Russia creates a new situation in the Balkans. Greece becomes for the first time in its history an integral part of the international energy system and at the same time Moscow gets access to yet another route for its oil exports. Washington supports the deal, but is rather cautious on the overall Russian strategy and the fact that it controls 51 percent of the pipeline. It is worth noting that the strong Greek shipping sector controls some 30 percent of worldwide oil transfers—via sea routes—and energy security talks were always important to the Greek-American agenda. The planned pipelines between Burgas-Vlorë and Kostanja-Trieste—should they be created—will further upgrade in an energy level the whole of the Balkans and this was another aspect of the Greek-American agenda.

Also, Greece is a trespassing area of the natural gas pipeline transferring Azerbaijani gas via Turkey and Greece to Italy. Just a few hours before Bakoyanni's meeting with Condoleezza Rice, Rice signed an agreement with her Azeri counterpart that included American assistance to Azerbaijan in exporting its oil and gas to Europe. In light of that development, Greece is deemed important to the American administration in securing further this agreement.

The Greek and American foreign secretaries discussed also the prospect of Greece entering the "visa waiver" system by which Greek citizens could travel to the United States without a visa. Greece is one of the few European Union member states that still need a visa for its citizens entering the United States. Last year, the Greek government introduced a new passport for its citizens that uses the latest technological advancements and is considered one of the safest in the world in terms of protection against counterfeiting and retrieval of the passport holder's personal details. According to media reports, Greece will probably become a visa free country by the end of the year. The situation in Iraq and Afghanistan was another subject between the two states. America wants Greece to contribute more to the Afghanistan NATO force.

While Athens is willing to provide considerable military aid to Kabul's governmental forces, it does not want to contribute any more personnel of its own due to domestic opposition and public sentiment that is against further intervention. The Jan. 12 rocket attack on the American Embassy in Athens was mentioned, and still the culprits have not been found. According to the latest reports, the rocket launcher was transferred to Greece via the Balkans' "arms black market" located in Kosovo and both the Greek and the American security agencies have been researching the terrorist incident far from public debate. It is interesting to note that in comparison to other lower profile attacks against American targets in Athens in the past; this particular one was met by the American administration without any accusations—direct or indirect—against the Greek state or Greek security forces.

A last military issue addressed was the assistance of Greece in relation to the international force in Lebanon, on which Condoleezza Rice mentioned the constructive role of Greece in implementing United Nations decisions and joining the naval forces of other states, such as France, Germany, Britain, and others.

Lastly, the Cyprus issue was on the agenda, and especially the latest developments that include the possibility of Cyprus becoming an oil producing state within the coming years. Specifically, Cyprus has signed a series of contracts with oil researching corporations because there are strong indications of undiscovered oil reservoirs just a few miles offshore south-western Cyprus. In parallel, the Nicosia government managed to sign agreements between itself, Lebanon, and Egypt in relation to the sea economic area of the surrounding region to identify the exact territorial status of its country when the proposed oil production begins.

Similar negotiations are in process with Israel too. For their part, the Turk-Cypriots reacted along with the Turkish government. They are using their diplomatic tools to block a process that will further empower Cyprus' regional stance. The American government is not eager to get involved in the development, especially since American companies are looking to get the first oil licenses. What is certain though is the existence of a political behind-the-scenes bargain between all interested parties that will unfold over the coming months.

In summary, Greek-American relations were extensively discussed during this visit by the Greek foreign minister and a multitude of affairs touched upon. Things to watch: Greece entering the "visa waiver" system in the coming months. Negotiations about the "Macedonian" name issue restarting and a compromise becoming evident in 2007. Also, Greece enacting initiatives on energy security issues in the region over the year.

On the topic of the Greek-Turkish relations, there seems to be no interesting development from the American side, at least for the time being.

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