Balkanalysis.com

Balkanalysis on Twitter

“The EU and Turkey Need Each Other”: Interview with Ambassador Selim Yenel

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: the recent failed coup in Turkey has made the country subject of non-stop world attention, with media focusing on politics and speculations over the coup’s sponsors. But largely lost in the current media frenzy has been the pre-existing issue of Turkey-EU cooperation on the migration crisis, the country’s relations with Balkan neighbors, Germany and Britain, as well as many other issues.

Over the past year, the urgent need for managing the migration crisis has accelerated the EU-Turkey dialogue. After long negotiations, Turkey committed to act as a buffer for asylum seekers, in exchange for EU financial assistance and fast-tracking EU visa liberalization for Turkish citizens.

In the following exclusive interview, Balkanalysis.com Brussels contributor Maria-Antoaneta Neag gets the insight of Turkey’s Ambassador to the EU, Selim Yenel, regarding the latest developments in the EU-Turkey dialogue, as well as Turkey’s enhanced role in regional security, in view of the recent coup attempt.

Background: Introducing the Ambassador

With an academic background in political science and a long diplomatic career in the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Selim Yenel has served in posts in Paris (Third Secretary and Second Secretary at the Permanent Representation of Turkey to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), Kabul (First Secretary at the Turkish Embassy), New York (First Secretary and Counsellor at the Permanent Representation of Turkey to the United Nations) and Brussels (Counsellor and First Counsellor at the Permanent Delegation of Turkey to the European Economic Community). He was also the Turkish Ambassador to Austria from 2005-2009 and, after a short period back in Ankara, has served since December 2011 at Turkey’s Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels, and will leave for Ankara after the summer.

Turkish Ambassador Selim Yenel- Interview with Balkanalysis

According to Ambassador Yenel, despite the attempted coup the Turkey-EU migration deal “will stand because nothing has changed in Turkey with regards to our commitments.”

The Migration Crisis and Visa Liberalization

Maria-Antoaneta Neag: It must have been a very active period for you, taking part in all EU-Turkey negotiations on the migration crisis and visa liberalization. How do you see these negotiations? Is the provisional outcome fair for all parts involved? Would the deal stand? How do the events in Turkey affect these negotiations?

HE Ambassador Selim Yenel: After three summits (meetings of the EU heads of state or government with Turkey), we reached an important deal in which we will actually normalize our relations. For a long time, the relations were unfortunately far apart. I have to say this has been an opportunity to normalize the relations. We had taken enough measures to prevent the flow of illegal migrants but the most important thing was the deal on the 18th of March 2016, because that deal mentioned that Turkey will take back everybody, whoever goes to the Greek islands, whether they are Syrian or non-Syrian, and that was the trick that did it. People saw they would go to the Greek islands for nothing. The traffickers, the smugglers also saw that their lucrative business was coming to an end, and that people won’t spend money to go there if they were going to be sent back.

After the deal was done, we saw the numbers drop dramatically. Before the deal the Germans and others said that success would be measured by the numbers and if it would be as low as three figures, it would have been a success. Now, it’s down to two figures and sometimes none at all, so this is a major success. And this will continue. On this side, we have asked the EU to speed things up and we opened one chapter during the Dutch presidency on their last day, Chapter 33. We have asked that the financial assistance for Syrians to be speeded up. That took some time but now it’s under control.

Thirdly, the most important thing was to obtain an early agreement on visa liberalization. We have fulfilled 67 out of 72 benchmarks but the last five were difficult to achieve in time, and the most difficult one was the change that the EU asked for regarding the terrorism law. As you know there is a lot of terrorist activity going on, not just in my country but all over the world and we expect some understanding from everyone to know that this is going to be difficult to change any legislation.

Hopes for September, but Delays Possible

Nevertheless, during the talks, when we opened the chapter, our foreign minister and the EU minister came here and had held discussions with Frans Timmermans, the first vice-president, and we said that if we can agree on the rest of the benchmarks and that if we know that what the EU wants will not hurt our fight against terrorism, then we can look for ways in which we can come to a mutual understanding. So we haven’t closed the door on this issue.

We hope to have a deal by September, when the European Parliament meets again, first of all because the Commission has the right to write these reports regarding the remaining five benchmarks; secondly, the Council has to give its approval, as well the European Parliament. We are aiming for September.

Now, what has happened in Turkey, because of the attempted coup might delay matters a little longer, though it is too early to say. With regard to what the EU considers very important, the deal itself will stand because nothing has changed in Turkey with regards to our commitments. We believe that the most important thing is that the Syrian crisis comes to an end. This is very difficult. As spill-over, the migration issue is very important for us. I believe people have forgotten that last year people were saying this is an existential issue for the EU. That’s what they were saying. And now it’s gone. The death toll has dramatically dropped. Nobody is dying in the Aegean Sea anymore. People forget the good things and remember unfortunately the bad things and we have to remind them that this deal has been a success and it will continue.

Scenarios for EU Inaction on Visa Liberalization and Turkey’s Likely Response

MN: What are your views on the possible contingencies? Could an EU refusal to fulfil its visa liberalization promises lead to a situation in which Turkey could again allow migrants to go to Greece and follow the Balkan route?

SY: No, this will not be the case. If the EU, despite everything that we’ve done, despite our efforts, if we have fulfilled the criteria and the EU still doesn’t give us visa liberalization then, then we would not apply the readmission agreement.

And that is what we have always said, even before signing it, during the signing of the agreement and afterwards. We said, if we fulfil everything and the EU still does not grant visa-free travel because of political reasons, one reason or another, then we won’t adhere to the readmission agreement, but the migration crisis is something else.

MN: Can the EU manage borders and migration without Turkey- with the help of Greece and other newly created EU bodies or initiatives, such as the European Border Guard, or the Italian Plan for Africa? Could migrants try to go through Cyprus? To your mind, is the EU‘s plan B for the migration crisis without Turkey feasible? Should we still worry about unclear scenarios? What is Turkey’s plan B?

SY: The fact that they want to have this kind of border control is important but that would take time and it’s not going to be easy. The borders are long and large and difficult to manage so they would need cooperation, they would need assistance from third countries. And the best assistance would be coming from Turkey, as we’ve proven it during the last few months. Turkish cooperation, Turkish partnership is essential and we will not shy away from it, so there is no Plan B. There should be no Plan B, there should be only cooperation.

Turkey’s EU Accession: Geography, Religion, Size and BREXIT

MN: In the process of EU accession, when considering Turkey as a candidate country, the geography argument is always resurfacing. Many also fear there is a strong West-East and North-South divide in the country, Istanbul being the only cosmopolitan hub.

This argument was also exacerbated to the brink of misinformation and used in the BREXIT campaign. How would you comment on this? Is Turkey a European country, from a cultural point of view but also geographically? To your mind, what would be Turkey’s greatest contribution to Europe and the EU?

SY: We were very disappointed by the arguments during the BREXIT campaign. They were making a lot of allegations, some of them outright lies, as if Turkey is going to join the EU very soon, as if 12 million Turks are going to come to the UK to live there. These were outright lies and unfortunately the government of the UK did not manage to convince the people of the truth about this, so we were very dismayed.

Regarding the contributions to the EU, Turkey is a European country whether we become members of the EU or not. That has always been the case, historically and geographically. If Cyprus is a member and if Georgia is considered to be a candidate in the future, then Turkey is of course a European country, geographically.

And, the fact that Turks have shown their strong support for democracy during the coup attempt during the last weekend is another demonstration that Turkey has become a truly democratic country. Lastly, I don’t think that we have to prove anything to anybody, because the other countries didn’t have to prove their credentials to become EU members- why do we have to do it?

MN: How much does it matter that Turkey is a populous and mainly Muslim country? Do you see any problem with this? How do people of different religions feel in Turkey? Is it religion or the size of your country that raises the EU’s anxieties?

SY: I think it’s both in Europe. It’s wrong because the EU is a 500 million-person entity and Turkey has 75-76 million people. We are not afraid of joining the EU and we don’t understand why the EU is afraid of Turkey.  This is a really strange situation, but is something that we see all the time.

The point is if Turkey joins, it would have the same rights as Germany in the institutions because of our population. That could be the main worry of the Germans, of the French and others, that Turkey would become a powerful member of the EU. So we have to prove that, if we do join, we will not rock the boat, and that we would actually strengthen the EU, that we would support the EU and have nothing against it. And Turkey is a secular country- yes, it’s a Muslim country but France is a Christian country [with a secular government]- the same thing. People shouldn’t read anything into it. You have seen that democracy is much more important than anything else.

MN: We mentioned BREXIT, how would Turkey be affected by this development? If the UK does leave the EU, would this leave a power void?

SY: Up until the referendum was announced, the UK was our strongest supporter in the EU with regard to accession. Since then, that support has gone and if the UK leaves the EU, that would be gone forever.

We believe that the EU should remain strong- and the UK is what makes the EU strong. We are very disappointed with this result. We hope that the negotiations will bring a beneficial result for both sides. I am not sure what kind of exit it will be, it is very early to say, nobody could guess. There will be a lot of factors to consider. Maybe it won’t happen at all and I do hope that it won’t happen at all.

MN: There have already been rumors that Turkey might have its own referendum on EU talks- is this likely?

SY: there is no reason to have a referendum right now, we are not there yet. People made allegations that we could have a referendum but on what grounds I’m not sure, because the negotiations are limited and much depends on the Cyprus question. If there is a solution on Cyprus, then the accession talks can start again but if they fail – this will be the last chance – then there is no possibility of Turkey advancing on accession, so that will already be a de facto way of cutting off negotiations. So we don’t need a referendum on this.

International Affairs

MN: At the beginning of June 2016, the German Parliament passed a resolution on the 1915 Armenian massacre by the Ottoman forces, which stirred the waters and angered Turkey over the Bundestag’s interference in these affairs. The resolution was harshly criticized by Erdogan, who recalled Germany’s own 20th century history, but also by the Armenian Patriarchate in Turkey. Furthermore, Germany pledged to help end the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. How do you weigh Germany’s role in improving Turkish-Armenian ties?

SY: We don’t need anybody else to help us on this and Germany is the last country to tell us something about these kinds of events.

MN: Is Germany’s position towards Turkey influenced by the traditional German parties? How do you see the future of the German political parties’ configuration and what role could the ethnic Turks of German nationality play in broadening views and political representation?

SY: The Turkish-origin peoeple in Germany have usually voted in one direction, basically for the Social Democrats. Up until recently, this is what we’ve seen. And of course they will look at the situation, at who supports Turkey or not.

We have no influence and we don’t want to have any influence. The Turks themselves can see what they need to see. Turkish-German relations have gone through a lot of difficult times. I am sure that we will get out of it. It is unfortunate, what we are seeing. Fortunately, the Chancellor [Merkel] and the President [Erdogan] talk to each other very often and they are able to overcome the difficulties.

MN: Turkey-Israel relations also went cold for a while, in view of the Mavi Marmara Israeli attack. But Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy made way for new talks in July 2016. What would be their probable outcome and how would the result read for the security in the region?

SY: Finally we have come to an agreement with Israel and soon we will send ambassadors to each other. This was something that both sides needed, especially with what’s happening in the region, with Syria and other conflicts around there, and especially the fight against Daesh and others. We are very happy that we were able to come to an agreement and this will actually strengthen the democracies in the region.

Turkey-Western Balkan Relations

MN: As this interview is for Balkanalysis.com, which covers the Balkan countries, what are your general comments on the state of bilateral relations with Serbia and Macedonia?

SY: We have excellent relations with all the Western Balkan countries and we have tried to strengthen them. We have supported their accession to either the EU or NATO. In NATO, of course, we have a role to play as we are members there but even in the EU, we have always supported their accession and we had a lot of talks, discussions to share our experiences, so we believe that it’s a good thing to have the Balkan countries in both organizations as soon as possible.

MN: Turkey also plays an important economic role in the Balkan area…

SY: That’s true. We have a lot of investments, a lot of trade going on with all these countries. Turkish Airlines is flying to all of them many times and we attract a lot of tourists from the region to Istanbul and beyond, and we hope they will continue to come despite these terrorist activities, as nowadays such activities happen all around the world.

Managing Refugees from War Zones- a Risky Business

MN: With Turkey being the forefront for migrant waves coming from Syria and the surrounding countries, there are worries that among the migrants, refugees in Turkey or among the Turkish people coming to the EU, there might be ISIS fighters.

SY: We have good cooperation on countering the foreign terrorist fighters, good information sharing with regard to people coming from the EU in support of Daesh. We stop them at the border or if we have information, we send them back. This cooperation has been going on for three or four years already and therefore we believe that this cooperation will continue as it affects all of us.

MN: Do you think the refugee situation currently dealt by Turkey is among the factors adding to the risk of terrorist attacks (such as the tragic Ataturk airport one)?

SY: Nobody can be safe anywhere in the world because of these terrorist attacks. In Turkey, there are close to three million refugees and it is very difficult to know who is who. So we always have this danger and that’s why we are trying to have more control, but you can never be sure about these things.

MN: Any last comments you would like to share with us?

SY: We need each other. The EU and Turkey need each other. We hope that the normalization of relations that has happened over the last year will continue as strong as before. We need the support of the EU for democracy in Turkey, as we have stood against the attempted coup and nobody should be worried about the future as we uphold the same values, such as human rights and the rule of law.

…………………………………..

*Note: Maria shares her personal views, which are intended to be neutral and for research purposes. They do not necessarily reflect the official position of the European Parliament.

Challenges and Opportunities for Albania and the Balkans: Interview with Edith Harxhi

In this exclusive interview, Balkanalysis.com Research Coordinator in Greece Ioannis Michaletos gets the insights of Edith Harxhi on the challenges and opportunities facing Albania and its role in the region, as well as her broader views on current issues like the migrant crisis, terrorism and the pace of EU reforms.

Ms Harxhi is the former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Albania, and currently is the Executive Director of Albanian Policy Center (APC) in Tirana. Founded in December 2013 in Tirana, the APC is a think-tank whose focus and mission is to formulate and promote right-wing policies that are based on individual freedom, rule of law, free entrepreneurship, a “laissez fair” free market economy, low taxes, reforms and transparency, small government, national security and securing the Albanian national interest.

Edith Harxhi- Interview with Balkanalysis

According to Edith Harxhi, the refugee crisis “has shown the fragility of the European Union’s crisis response” capacities.

Ms. Harxhi also previously worked as a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Albania before assisting the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary General (Civil Administration) in UNMIK in several positions. In this capacity, she covered topics like police, justice, minorities and social welfare. In additions, she established the Office for Public Safety and prepared the strategy for the transfer of competencies in the security sector on behalf of the Kosovo Government. On behalf of the Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, she also supervised the Office of Gender Affairs at the DSRSG’s Office and drafted the Gender Equality Law.

Geopolitical and Security Challenges for the Region

Ioannis Michaletos: The Southeast Europe region and in particular its Western part face a set of challenges, some perennial ones and others of a more recent nature. What do you think constitute the main threats and challenges that local governments should be aware of, and what are the most urgent priorities they have to set their eyes on?

Edith Harxhi: The Western Balkans since the end of the last conflict in the region in 1999 still faces quite a lot of challenges. These challenges have a geopolitical nature, security nature, economic and social which are local as well as external diffused challenges and local political challenges due to hybrid democracies, malfunctioning of democratic systems, autocracies, and political oligarchies.

First, the geopolitical challenges relate mostly to the interests and influences of big powers in the region, the convergence of the political axes and the re-emergence of old history and old alliances which date back historically. The Russian influence in the region has increased dramatically since the Kosovo War, and the aftermath of the accession of Albania and Croatia to NATO as well as now during the Ukrainian crisis and the possible NATO accession of Montenegro to NATO. Russia’s old alliances with certain countries in the region, economic and trade influence in Montenegro and Serbia, military influence in Serbia and its political tendency to increase its influence in other countries of the region through political or economic or energy routes and agreements demonstrates once again the geopolitical situation in the region.

Secondly, security challenges are mostly related to the accession of Albania and Croatia to NATO but also nowadays the invitation of Montenegro to NATO and the aspiration for NATO and EU accession of other countries in the region. There is no doubt that Russia has not seen these developments in a positive angle and has geared up to increase its role in the region either through strengthening the military cooperation with Serbia but also through investing in different sectors such as arms production, energy routes etc… Another security challenge is also the asymmetrical threats, or threats that all Europe is faced with, such as terrorism and violent extremism.

Thirdly, economic and social challenges have to do mostly with the current economic situation that the region is facing after the European and Greek economic and financial crisis, which has badly hit the entire region. The six western Balkans countries have inherited poor economies and are currently lacking reforms and brave privatisation processes, lack incentives for [attracting] foreign direct investments, and there is lack of trust in the judiciary.

Fourth, local political challenges are more related to the political systems in the countries per se, as well as deficient democracies and ruling political oligarchies in almost all the countries in the Western Balkans region. Widespread corruption, politically and financially captured judiciaries, captured and politically dependent media, and eccentric and autocratic political classes, as well as leaders who use any means to stay in power “by hook or by crook” and accept reform as yet another word in the political vocabulary without delivering anything- leaders who are not from the people and belonging to the people!

These are all priorities where governments and societies in the region should urgently turn their eyes toward and act, since malfunctioning democracies could also easily endanger now the stability of the region and can infuse further tension within countries as well.

The Migrant Crisis and EU Policy Failures

IM: Concerning the migration/refugee crisis, how do you view the situation unfolding both in terms of the likely opening up of by-routes from Greece to Albania for example, and in terms of the wider policy of the EU regarding this topic? Is the situation critical and out of control?

EH: It is a common understanding by now that unfortunately the EU has failed in dealing with the current refugee crisis.

We should first inquire as to the reason for the refugee crisis and the explosion of the refugee waves, which has turned into the most difficult problem for Europe since the end of WWII. I believe the EU could not produce a proper foreign policy and strategic plan in dealing with neither the Russian invasion of Ukraine nor with the Arab Spring, nor with the Syrian crisis. The situation in Syria needed real strategic planning by the EU and United States on how to deal with Assad and the many groups in action on the ground.

The EU does not seem to also have a coherent strategy regarding ISIS which now unfortunately rules over half of the territory of Syria and a good part of northern Iraq, and also controls big and important parts of oil and gas production in that region.

Thus one can easily believe that the refugee crisis was not [caused by] only neglect at the beginning, but also took Europe by surprise. In such a situation we have countries such as Greece, which is lingering with its financial crisis and Macedonia, which already has a political stalemate and very little financial and political support to deal with the big amount of daily refugees from Greece, as well as Albania, which is on the brink of a refugee wave too. They have very little to do to uphold such a situation on their own, when European countries are not willing to take any more refugees and have introduced Schengen as a measure to curtail the unwanted refugee influx.

Unfortunately the refugee crisis has shown the fragility of the European Union’s crisis response and the weaknesses of this great project of the 1950s, which has not been able to unify these countries’ foreign and internal policies.

The EU should directly deal with the cause of the crisis, as well as try to find alternative solutions such as working closely with Turkey in order to hold up the refugee wave to Europe, help Balkan countries financially and politically in overcoming this difficult situation in their borders. At the end of the day the borders of the Western Balkans are European borders too.

IM: There has been a lot of talk regarding terrorism in Europe and the role of the Balkans, as a staging ground or as a logistics base for the preparation of attacks. Are local governments ready to deal with this situation and how can international partners (i.e. NATO, EU, OECD) assist? Do you assess the possibility of new terrorist attacks either in the region or beyond?

Following the current terrorist attacks in Brussels, one believes that no place in Europe is safe right now. However saying this one cannot exclude terrorist attacks in the region too but the probability is much lower not because we have any security set up as such as to face the attacks, but because any such attack will not mean much for this type of conventional terrorism whereby the attackers would like to break the taboo of European security just in the heart of Europe and the EU rather than produce numbers of innocent victims.

A terrorist attack in our region would be much easier to accomplish than in many European capitals as the region lacks security, cannot control well the borders among the Southeastern European countries and also borders that our countries share with the EU. The [regional countries] have very little exchange of intelligence, nor well trained authorities to prevent any possible attacks, and there is a lack of trust among the countries within the region.

Unfortunately on the other side, the region has produced elements and subjects that have joined terrorist groups in the world and this has come due to many reasons starting from poverty, unemployment, an insecure future and unstable present. These subjects are an increasing problem in the region and although they do represent neither a majority nor an average number of people in the region, they have been in the public eye and international media attention during the last five years. They have unfortunately portrayed a bad image of the region and Islam in our countries.

Security Risks of the Migrant Crisis

One cannot say that we are completely immune to terrorist attacks, for as long as we are part of Europe and the European Union’s neighbourhood, and for as long as there are still people from our region joining terrorist groups around the world. Although I do not believe that the Balkans are a logistic place for terrorists and terrorist attacks, one should also be aware of the easy ground we offer to terrorist groups around the world with all the trafficking in narcotics, human beings and arms that our region is famous for. Thus we go back to the issue of security in the region and how much have we invested in this type of security set up during the last 17 years since the end of the last conflict in the region.

Albania’s EU Path and Reforms Shortcomings to Address

 IM: Albania is in the process of being accepted in the EU in the foreseeable future. What are the main obstacles for that path and what needs to be done to overcome them? Do you think that the most important problem is of economic or of a political nature?

EH: After many years of transition from the communist regime, Albania became a NATO member country in April 2009. Almost two years ago in June 2014 Albania signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement and the country hoped that, like the others in the region, with signing of the SSA, the Commission would also give the recommendation for the opening of negotiations for membership.

Unfortunately Albania has failed to deliver many reforms that would enable the country to move towards opening of the negotiations. During the last three years the country has stagnated, and so have the reforms that had already started. Not only we have been unable to deliver on the five criteria put forth by the European Commission, but also the much-needed reforms in the country such as justice reform, education and health have either failed or stalled.

The economy has seen some of the worst days and figures since the fall of communism, with consumer trust going down in value less than in the year 2000 and staggering unemployment rates, with the real signs of a deflation and plummeting of FDI, together with the closing of some of the most significant production plants owned by large international companies.

Also, a fluctuating progressive tax, with no stable policy on tax collection and no oversight, massive corruption in customs and other areas in administration have increased the crime rate and trafficking of narcotics. The emergence of a political oligarchy, as well as a lack of accountability from government and politicians, are some of the main reasons for Albania’s drastic economic decline in the pas three years.

Also, MPs with a criminal past who were elected to parliament three years ago have been subject of the new law that was proposed by the opposition and passed two months ago, named the Law on Decriminalisation. Certain acts of the law and other by laws need to pass in order for the decriminalisation procedure to start in the parliament and administration. However, a lack of political will and probably the captured state of law and politics have made possible the withholding of the implementation process of the decriminalisation law.

Justice Reform Issues and the EU Membership Goal

The justice reform system has been one of the main conditions set by the EU for Albania’s progress in opening negotiations, however as with the other reforms parties have failed to reach a consensus. After months of discussions by expert groups and three different draft prepared by the three main parties in the parliament, the reform with its three drafts was submitted to the Venice Commission for further advice and suggestions. Though since its final argument it has been published, still consensus is difficult.

Justice reform, as the most important political reform in Albania during the last 25 years, should be apolitical, impartial, independent, transparent and credible. The decriminalisation process, justice reform and the law on the National Bureau of Investigation (a body that will investigate corruption and crime among politicians, administration and judiciary) are the Achilles heel for Albania’s opening of negotiations with the EU.

Remaining last in the region only before Bosnia Hercegovina which already has ethnic and identity issues, as well as Kosovo, a newly founded state in the region, puts Albania in a vulnerable position and the Albanians in an unstable and uncertain situation at home. This also explains the Albanian exodus of 2014 and 2015 where more than 75,000 Albanians from Albania fled the country in search of a better life in Germany and other European Union countries. According to data from the German government, throughout 2015 citizens of Albania were the second-largest asylum seeking group in Germany after Syrians.

Under the current situation Albania will not be recommended for opening of negotiations even this year. This sets a negative trend among countries that have signed the SSA without producing enough reforms for the European vote.

Although many European sceptics blame enlargement fatigue as well as the current European turmoil with the refugee crisis and terrorist attacks, one cannot but show the real cause of this situation- the current Albanian current establishment’s non-delivery as well as lack of political consensus among the political class, raising doubts on Albania’s democratic deficiencies too.

(Realistic) Prospects for Regional Cooperation

 IM: Lastly, I would like to ask your opinion regarding regional cooperation, both on a political and an economic level. What are the strong points and the weak ones when talking about cooperation between Balkan countries? Can the region overcome its longstanding differences, as other parts of Europe have managed in the past?

EH: Regional cooperation has been an issue since the establishment of the Stability Pact and the end of the Kosovo conflict in 1999. The end of this deadly conflict opened the way to a new security infrastructure in the region and a different level of partnership and cooperation among neighbours and countries in the region.

Although not perfect, one might say that the regional cooperation policy has progressed well mostly in producing some good and safe political rhetoric and sometimes trust. Probably the soundest initiative during the last 15 years has been the Berlin Process and the Vienna Forum afterwards, with some concrete results and cooperation in some main areas of economic development for the entire region.

Due to increased political competition among states in the region, the economic cooperation, transportation lines, visa and passport regimes as well as border cooperation have seen improvement but not at the level one would expect 25 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and 17 years after the last war.

There are still countries in the region that do not recognise each other as political, administrative entities, as states or geographical units, as there are also countries that cannot find compromise and use veto on the name issue or still have bad records on treatment of national minorities. Well, these remain issues of concern as they stop and do not allow much fruitful cooperation beyond political rhetoric and show-off scenes of so-called unity in some main European capitals.

Unfortunately, we have failed to understand that the region can be attractive to global investment and energy routes only as a unified market, which would certainly produce security and good opportunities for everyone in Southeastern Europe.

European Security, Intelligence and Migration: Interview with Philip Ingram

In this exclusive interview, Balkanalysis.com Director Chris Deliso gets the insights and security assessments of former British military intelligence officer Philip Ingram, MBE. A 27-year veteran of the UK Army Intelligence Corps, Ingram worked in hostile environments including Iraq, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Kosovo, where he was involved with intelligence and liaison during and after the 1999 NATO bombing. Mr Ingram now works in the private sector, focusing on counter-terrorism and security issues for the press, governmental and corporate clients.

Current Investigations

Chris Deliso: Thanks for speaking with us today, Philip. First of all, before we get into the details, I would be keen to learn more about your company and what you are working on now.

Philip Ingram: Thank you. Actually, we operate two companies. I am the managing director of Security Media Publishing, which among other things produces SecurityNewsdesk.com, which has a newsfeed for the global security industry- covering ISIS activity to the latest in new CCTV camera technology, and everything in between.

Philip Ingram Interview with Balkanalysis

According to Mr Ingram, “the pattern of traffic we’re seeing in the Dark Web and some social media and other communications channels” indicates advanced planning for a major terrorist attack is now underway.

I’m also the chairman of Global Risk Awareness, a company providing cyber intelligence. This is different from most cyber security companies, as we monitor Darkweb activity through use of sophisticated tools, to see who’s doing what, for example, ISIS members interacting with each other on different forums clandestinely. We have the capabilities to sit there unknown, and monitor their movements.

CD: That is very interesting. This software, I assume, is proprietary and your own.

PI: Yes, our own bespoke software. No more than six or seven organizations in the world have software similar to ours- they are mostly the ones with three- or four-letter abbreviations, you know.

CD: Aha, so does the software have some government origin?

PI: No, it is not created from a governmental basis. It is original corporate software for monitoring the dark web, and we have developed additional tools and scripts in order to not just gather intel, but also to analyse it through a process called social network analysis.

CD: This is a fascinating topic, but I am no expert in technology. I had thought the problem governments find with monitoring users of the onion router is that there is specifically no way of tracking them, the only visible points there are the entry and exit relays. But again I’m certainly no expert.

PI: Well, the web in general is quite interesting, as it has three layers. The surface layer includes anything findable by search engines. Then the Deep Web operates within it, like your banking online details, the local library index or an association with a members-only area to their website. Then there’s the Dark Web. This is the layer of the internet requiring special software to enter, where websites are hidden and often where in order to find certain websites people have to be invited. It is where a lot of illicit activity takes place like the former Silk Road. And of course, extremists and terrorists also use the Dark Web. That is our focus.

CD: Can you give some examples of the kind of terrorist activity you monitor there? And their capabilities and interests?

PI: There are many ways that groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda are using the Dark Web in very sophisticated ways. We see them creating and interacting, for example, on forums where they will tell people how to build bombs, or give tactical instructions or otherwise what to do. They might post training videos for terrorists on how to set up covert communications channels. These include accounts through new internet communications media, like whatsapp- a lot of it is very secure and scaring intelligence agencies.

CD: So, in your assessment, what is the current activity level of Islamist supporters from the Southeast Europe area?

PI: Regarding the Balkans, a quick recent search of forums showed something interesting. When we searched for users from individual places, like Kosovo, I expected to see a lot of traffic, but there were surprisingly few hits from there and other Balkan areas.

CD: But that doesn’t necessarily mean there are not local supporters, no?

PI: Indeed, what that says to me is that the security being taken to access the Dark Net in the Balkans is really sophisticated. We can track people who are using proxy servers, but probably what they’re doing is going through initial web hosting not based in the Balkans. We can pick up proxy servers and TOR relays, but if someone using a foreign-based server as primary link, it is impossible to tell their true location.

Background Experience

CD: So, if you could share a bit about your background, and what drew you to this line of work- I mean before you retired, when you were working in the military intelligence.

PI: I was an engineering officer for 12 years, then I went into the planning side. I was asked to join the NATO planning team at the time when there was the UN takeover in Bosnia. And then having done the planning side of things, I had no desire to go back to the engineering side.

The one thing that tickled me most was every planning activity started with an intelligence briefing. I thought it would be good to be part of an organization that studied, analyzed and predicted what would happen. So I got transferred over, to the British Army Intelligence Corps.

CD: Where did you serve during your career, and when did you retire?

PI: Oh, all over the place. My first posting from training was to Northern Ireland. I also served in Germany, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Iraq, Cyprus and of course, the UK. I retired in 2010.

CD: What was your most dangerous mission?

PI: Depends how you define danger! In 1985, the IRA tried to get me, in Northern Ireland. People forget the intensity of different operations, but the fact is that the British lost more soldiers in Northern Ireland than in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. We lost over 200 soldiers in one year alone in Northern Ireland. Operations there were in a much smaller area- people forget the intensity that comes with having to work in such conditions.

But Iraq, where I was in 2005 and 2006, that was the scariest because you just didn’t know what the insurgents would do- they were always one step ahead of us, very sophisticated fighters. It was scary because there was no value in human life- at least within Europe, whether in the Balkans or Northern Ireland, there was a code. There were certain limits. But once you get into places like Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no code. In such a place it complicates the situation for operations, and especially how to work within an agreed legal framework, to be effective against those kinds of terrorists.

Kosovo Operations and Transitional Justice

CD: Very interesting perspective. Now, if we can return to the Balkans, and some recent events. You are probably aware that war crimes trials are coming up for Kosovo, and conceivably involve some of the people you had to work with during that time. What do you expect from this process?

PI: I find it fascinating, as the ICTY had tried to carry out war crime trials without success in the past. For example, Ramush Haradinaj was indicted twice and the charges were dropped twice.

The interesting thing from the war in Kosovo was that, looking at in a balanced way, from a human perspective, it was very simple- atrocities were carried out by all sides, and most of the people affected were civilians in that tiny area. This happened in a dramatic way, initially, with huge amounts of refugees into Macedonia and then when the Serb paramilitaries and regular forces and the KLA were fighting each other.

So intense was this fighting that huge numbers of innocent people were being killed. As NATO was negotiating with Serbia primarily to stop the fighting so that humanitarian relief could get in, the negotiations were stalling-

CD: Were you in Kosovo at this time?

PI: No- we were sitting in Macedonia with sophisticated intelligence equipment, listening and watching for the time being. I was later within Kosovo, after the fighting had stopped.

CD: What was the value for military intelligence of being placed in Macedonia, when the war was happening in Kosovo, and then in Kosovo, after the war had finished?

PI: There was activity we had to continue, to make sure that our lines of communication were constantly open to all sides, all the different groups, especially important before the fighting stops. We needed to make sure the backdoors are open, and get a feeling for what was going to happen.

For negotiations to happen successfully, you need good intelligence. The initial negotiations were between NATO and Milosevic, but when they were signed – the formal negotiations – only then could we get a leadership together, and continue further negotiations between the parties on the ground, a long process.

CD: Very interesting. Again, related to the court- have you or any of your former colleagues been called as potential character witnesses in these trials? Do you expect this could happen, or is there some kind of legal immunity?

PI: No, there’s certainly no legal immunity that applicable for us. But I’m sure that if the war crimes trials wanted to look at war records they could request them, and any other information that could give further details about events. Everything was carefully recorded.

CD: Interesting. But anyway, we understand that present senior Kosovo officials are not worried about the result of any future trials. Even if they are from rival political parties or groups, the Kosovo government will hire top lawyers and they expect the trials will finish without a single conviction. What is your view on whether the lawyers will get them off? Is it going to be just a short of show trial?

PI: I don’t know the details, as I haven’t seen specific indictments. But in general, there is a real difficulty with any war after it’s conclusion, because you are left with winning and losing sides. Then, when they prosecute the latter for war crimes, it is hard enough- it becomes much harder when they go after the winning side. There is naturally a lot of resistance to that.

Regarding Kosovo, I can’t see how they will easily build cases. I don’t see what good it will do, either. If you look at history, and compared how Israel grew, or South Africa or Northern Ireland and the Balkans after conflicts, the one place that got it right was South Africa, with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That made some positive achievements for the whole country to forward.

However in Northern Ireland, after the conflict finished, the ex-members of the two fighting sides are all in the Northern Ireland government now- but the British taxpayer is still being paralyzed with paying for inquiries that all seem to focus on British and not IRA activity. Millions of pounds are being wasted trying to get to the bottom of various incidents that happened long ago, and where there is little or no evidence.

So unless you’re on the ground at the time, you are not in a position to comment and look back… remember, a lot comes down to judgment calls that are made in quickly changing circumstances, on any given day. Also, laws change over the years- can a certain law still be applicable retroactively, if it differs from the one in place at the time of an event?

So in my opinion, all this kind of court does is undermine good efforts to build communities for the future. I expect it will appease some people, but I also suspect it will just undermine what they need to do to move forward after the conflict.

CD: That is a compelling argument. It leads to something else I wanted to mention, which is related. The Kosovo officials who are confident [about acquittals] specifically compare their cases as similar to that of Ante Gotovina, the Croatian wartime general who was acquitted by the Hague. When he was finally tracked down, wherever it was – I think the Canary Islands – it was due to the help of British intelligence, which had been persistently tracking him and other alleged war criminals for years. Were you still involved in the Balkans in that period, and did they request support?

PI: I remember this, and I know the ICTY if they needed could request information from the British government and this could include military intelligence information, I am sure they got full cooperation. In fact, the head of security for the ICTY at one point was an ex-British military intelligence officer-

CD: Really!

PI: Yes. And for the Kosovo conflict, all the pre-war and post-war intelligence and other information was handed over to NATO forces. It stayed within Kosovo. Later, decisions were made about what to do with it- it was then handed to the EU, some things were passed on, some not.

CD: What is the typical cooperation practice for the British, between the military and civilian intelligence services?

PI: In any operations, they work together closely. The value of cooperation in intelligence is in trying to build up a total picture from lots of jigsaw pieces. To do this, there is formal, and informal cooperation with various intelligence agencies, both military and civilian, both your own and those of different countries as well.

And this can be mutually beneficial, not only within your own services, but for your partners. Because in many cases you help them to add other jigsaw puzzles, to clarify their own picture as well.

Behind the Migration Crisis: Crime, Political Error and European Security

CD: So now we move on to migration, the current big topic in the Balkans and in European politics. We have been covering the migration crisis for years and now, in the last year, particularly the so-called Balkan route.

Our initial assessment, before the summer 2015 crisis even started, was that the migrant numbers would intensify, leading to a greater EU participation. But even into the summer, no one from out of the region seemed very bothered to do something about it. To what do you attribute this attitude? Who benefits from it?

PI: These are indeed both good questions, with a lot of history. If we go back to the traditional Balkan route for smuggling, this has long been used by people smuggling contraband drugs, weapons, other items and of course human trafficking. That route has always been used.

One vignette I remember well occurred inside Kosovo, after the war. I was talking to one of the senior leaders on one of the opposing sides, who just had gotten a nice new car. I asked his driver if it came from Tirana, where a lot of stolen luxury cars are sold for only a few thousand euros. The driver said ‘no, we paid cash- it wasn’t him [the senior leader] who bought it, it was his wives.’ And by ‘wives’ the driver was referring to prostitution rings in Holland and Germany controlled by that person. So Kosovar criminal organisations are moving people and goods for years. It doesn’t surprise me that refugees are-

CD: Yes, I agree about the organized crime, but in the current period migrants are not going through Kosovo, so I don’t know if their criminals are involved.

PI: Yes, true- the main reason the refugees are not going through Kosovo is the geography. The fastest route is through Serbia and Macedonia. Still I suspect the same people who have been making money over the years through smuggling in the region have at least some role in the current trade.

Now, regarding the lethargy in Europe about the crisis, I believe this was because many of the more northern countries had not yet felt the presence of the refugees, and underestimated their numbers, at that time. And the countries affected, like Greece, Macedonia and Serbia, obviously wanted the refugees to go through as quickly as possible. And also, Angela Merkel was badly advised, when she decided to welcome so many people. She now regrets it.

CD: Well, this is the biggest mystery to me and many other people. I can’t believe that she didn’t know what would happen. Our research indicates that the BND knew everything the whole time, about the situation on the ground, and what could happen later. So how do we explain that Merkel chose to invite so many refugees?

PI: There’s no reason why the Germans would want all these people- I have been racking my brain trying to find some logic behind it.

About genuine refugees, there is of course a legal right they have to protection, and requirements of states to fulfill that, and they are using it. But at the time when Merkel was first commenting on the situation, there was debate about what countries should take leading roles and nobody stepped forward. So she nominated Germany as leader of Europe in this situation, thinking others would follow their lead.

There has since then been a lot of debate about all this in Europe- and especially in the last week, as things have come to a head here in the UK, with Cameron’s negotiations in Brussels and announcement of the June 23 referendum date.

Merkel was probably trying to make a statement to other European leaders: if Germany could accept a certain amount of refugees, she was hoping others would follow suit. She just got that one wrong.

The Upcoming Migrant Surge: Security Assessments for the Balkans and Europe

CD: I still can’t believe she was that naïve or uninformed. This whole thing has to be in someone’s interest.

PI: Well, I don’t think the whole situation was well communicated at a political level, regarding who these refugees were. An awful lot of economic migrants have been among them, and are continuing to be. By effectively opening the European borders to these people, Angela Merkel opened the floodgates.

If it is in someone’s interest to have this crisis, there might be many parties, but most concerning for me is that mixed in with the refugees are a lot of ISIS members and supporters.

CD: Do you have any estimate regarding how many have already entered Europe?

PI: Well, mixed in with ISIS, probably this includes Al Qaeda members too, the numbers vary. But recent international press reports say about 5,000 so far. What’s clear is that they can get people in and out at will- look at the Paris attacks in November. Some attackers came up through Greece, and followed the route to Brussels. They bypassed everything, even though they were known to authorities.

CD: What is your assessment for a spring surge in migrants, as we have recently reported on, and how it will affect the EU? What are your thoughts on the situation and how it will be by May or June, say, by UK referendum time?

PI: I think we will see, as the weather gets better and the seas are calmer, just such a surge, as then it will be easier for migrants to try and make the journey. The other thing we see that can aggravate the migrant flow is the increased military activity now going on in Aleppo, which is forcing people out of their homes. ISIS is also pushing from other sides. There is a bursting point. And the people have to get somewhere.

CD: Looking at this issue in regard to your companies’ focus, do you see any evidence of migrant traffickers using the Dark Web for logistical or tactical purposes in this trade?

PI: We haven’t watched for migrant organizers there. It is unlikely they would need to use the Dark Web, though- they would be operating easily through closed social channels.

What is more worrying, in fact, is that right now we are seeing on Dark Web surveillance clear activity from everywhere in world among ISIS and Al Qaeda channels. These levels and patterns of activity match those that are noted right before big terrorist attacks happen. What these terrorists do is extremely well planned.

CD: Malaysia, is that one of the countries where an attack is expected? We noted the British government very recently issued a travel alert for that country, citing terrorism threats against foreign tourist destinations there.

PI: We haven’t looked at things in detail there recently, though we have historically looked at it quite a bit. And it seems that, yes, ISIS is increasingly recruiting from countries in Southeast Asia, as they find they are stronger fighters, willing to be more extreme and more brutal than European counterparts, and that is particularly worrying.

CD: We have recently reported on Macedonia’s plan to close the border with Greece to migrants. If the border with Greece is closed, what risk scenarios do you see for migrants trapped in northern Greece, and their smugglers, given the differentiated geography of the northern Greek border with four states, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Turkey?

PI: The biggest thing is there could become larger and larger camps of increasingly desperate groups of people situated alongside relatively small rural communities in Northern Greece. These could easily turn into flashpoints and then the security risk will grow.

You will see, like elsewhere in Europe in that situation, an increase of locals protesting against the presence of refugees and migrants, and the latter who can’t stand being stuck there. There is thus a potential for rioting and violent altercations with locals, police and military.

At the same time, criminal gangs will be involved- and when they aren’t moving people they aren’t making money, so they will try to find ways to move the people. Even terrorist gangs can emerge in such a climate and will exploit the unrest. But we have already seen from Hungary, where they are having trouble with refugees- they can’t keep them from cutting the fences to get through. So smugglers will keep trying to find ways to get people out of Greece.

CD: We have most recently reported that, in this case, a new Albanian-Adriatic route could develop, as Bulgaria has moved army units to its border with Greece, making it harder there, and anyway Albania is closer to Western Europe and has a history of people-smuggling by boat to Italy. Do you see this as a possible scenario, if Macedonia manages to keep its border sealed?

PI: All traditional routes will come into increased use in the Balkans. It is like when you squeeze a balloon between your fingers; you don’t know where it will pop out. But if you squeeze a bit too hard in one place, the air will move off to somewhere else. The balloon can’t stay still. The refugees and migrants don’t want to sit still, and the people who are profiting from moving them certainly don’t want them to sit still either.

Provided smugglers can make money – and they do it in very ingenuous ways – people will find a way. Yes, one likely way is to get into boats again, the Adriatic coast from Albania to Italy, and the long coast in Croatia, are all possible points of activity.

What we’re starting to see now with the EU, that the Schengen Zone is almost suspended, and without a central EU decision possible, countries can’t afford to have open borders-

CD: It will make it more expensive for migrants all down the line, and thus more profitable for smugglers-

PI: Yes, and we’re now seeing Austria only accepting 80 a day, and similar reductions will happen and worsen the situation.

CD: Indeed. Also, regarding the Eastern Mediterranean, we are aware that several ‘suspicious’ NGOs run by Islamic groups, including British ones, have been operating from the Greek islands near Turkey for the past year, for migrant facilitation and surveillance purposes. Do you have any further info? Given that there are British citizens involved, is this something British intelligence is concerned about?

PI: The presence of such groups is not surprising. It’s a standard method historically used, to employ front NGOs- if you go back to Al Qaeda’s earliest money movements, money changed hands through NGOs and charities.

I don’t know without seeing the specific details if the British government is doing anything or aware of any particular groups. But I can say that some are known about, but some might not be, so it is something to be concerned about.

Libya Assessments: EU Operations, Criminal Activities and Terrorism Risks

CD: It is also worth noting that, at the same time that exactly nothing was being done about the Balkan route last summer, the EEAS already had a very advanced surveillance and interdiction mission called Operation SOPHIA going in Italy. This was recently revealed by Wikileaks and has caused a lot of media coverage. Why the discrepancy? Why was there something big being done in a maritime area with relatively fewer migrants, considering that Greece, like Italy is a EU state, and had many more migrants?

PI:I think to analyze that, one has to look at how these international organizations work. Whenever a military force is put together, they will do it where it is politically acceptable, to maximize the political benefit from it. Thus, it might not necessarily be where the real threat is, but where it is seen to be doing something.

If you look at European public opinion in general, whenever the governments say ‘we are doing something,’ people aren’t going to sit and look at the details and analyze what that means. I have seen that with NATO and the EU as well- even if a mission involves a military component, it’s politics that decides it, ultimately.

Coming back to the Libyan bit… the sea crossing are much more dangerous from there to Europe. The Eastern Aegean routes are much shorter, between Turkey and Greece, and there the seas can be calm. From a humanitarian perspective, the latter is the least worst route.

And from Libya, we could see plenty of cases of migrants traveling with overcrowded boats of 500-700 people, with many deaths at sea. So from a humanitarian point of view, the politics would prioritize a mission there. And the criminal networks are more globalized in Libya, because they’re taking economic migrants primarily- the ones out of Libya in particular have been doing this for years.

CD: But from Turkey there are many economic migrants coming, just from other parts of the world- and Libya had fewer when Gaddafi was alive to honor his deal with Berlusconi and restrict migration…

PI: Yes indeed, ever since Gaddafi was kicked out, Libya has been a free-for-all for organized crime. Presently we have very good intelligence to suggest ISIS was sending a lot of people on boats from there, even though it was more dangerous than the Turkey-Greece route.

CD: Really.

PI: Yes, and they have pretty well-equipped boats, separate from the large and overcrowded ones that might not make it, so that they can get smaller numbers of their trusted people into Europe. That is ongoing for over a year now.

CD: Part of what was shown in the EU document put out by Wikileaks is that regular smugglers would give the boats just enough fuel to get, say, 30 miles out to sea and give them a satellite phone and a number to call when they got there- ‘here, call the police and they will save you.’ The smugglers didn’t care if the people or the boat made it to the destination.

PI: Yes, some people smugglers would do exactly what you’re saying, but particularly the unscrupulous ones. The scrupulous ones – if you can have scrupulous people smugglers – on the other hand would make sure that passengers arrived, because word trickles back, and it is not good for business to have people know that you might not survive the trip if you go with a certain guy.

But the more serious aspect of the ISIS infiltration from Libya is that it’s a different model- it isn’t, say, 500 people at once, and they’re charging a lot less. This is primarily for the purpose of building up support and logistics networks all over the place in Europe, by getting these supporters into Italy and even into Greece.

The majority of such traffic has been coming out of Sirte. Possibly, that’s another reason why the EU military mission concentrated around that part of the Mediterranean. Possibly that was the biggest threat that the major intelligence determined at the time of planning.

CD: You spoke with us one year ago for an article about the ISIS expansion in Libya. Again, at that time we were practically alone in making the assessment that the ISIS presence would grow. Now, the US suddenly bombed an ISIS safehouse there last week, which was preceded by a sudden flurry of big media reports on the alleged ISIS threat in Libya. So was the media reacting to an actual buildup, or was it scheduled around and anticipated attack?

PI: ISIS is growing rapidly, so I believe they have been reporting on this because it is happening. And if you look at what the ISIS leaders have done, they sent their mufti into Libya, which is very significant. He is called Sheikh Turki al-Binali, AKA Abu Sufyan al-Sulami, and is 30 years old, a hardline extremist.

So putting in this cleric as ISIS commander in Libya has effectively shown that with their territory in Libya, Islamic State sees it as a third territory, after Syria and Iraq. Among the reasons for that is if they get squeezed out of the Middle East – which is a prospect that will still take many years to happen – then Libya will be the next place to move to. Also, from there they can work on the neighboring countries, and with oilfields in Libya and migrant and other smuggling as two profitable trades, Libya becomes a natural place to focus on and to tap into.

CD: When the US did attack last week, why did their fighter jet take off from England, given that there are much closer NATO bases to choose from? Is there something in their military procedure to explain this?

PI: There are indeed NATO bases closer to Libya, but the things to look at is do those bases have access to the right intelligence at the right time. Further, were the right weapons systems available in those places? Were they committed to the right activities? For example, commanders won’t say to the fighter pilots, ‘okay, you two are going tonight to Syria, then you’ll come back and go to Libya.’ Each base might be geared up for different purposes and missions.

The US has used UK bases in the past. The RAF Lakenheath base in Suffolk, which is where the Sabratha attack was launched, has been used for operations in many countries in the past. So, it is not particularly unusual that it was used in this case. One thing that had to happen, of course, was that the British government had to sanction use of the base for that mission. But that is a routine procedure.

CD: When we spoke with you this time last year, you were highlighting the danger of ISIS possessing radioactive material from hospitals and other facilities they controlled in the Middle East, which could be used as a weapon. I have seen again a sudden flurry of articles on this topic lately. So where do we stand on that now?

PI: The threat remains the same. Yes, some recent reporting on isotopes stolen from hospitals has appeared that suggested that they fell into ISIS’ hands, but there’s nothing specific we have seen to suggest there is some imminently planned operation to use dirty bombs.

But that’s not to say they’re not planning to use it. There is one thing that is clear from ISIS covert discussions we have picked up recently. This is that they have a number of different spectacular attacks being planned.

CD: Really? What kind of targets?

PI: The pattern of traffic we’re seeing in the Dark Web and some social media and other communications channels all suggest this. And the kind of language used suggests advanced planning is now taking place.

The target list is quite interesting- there are some statements specifying Lisbon in Portugal, which is not usually considered a big target. Paris and London, of course remain top targets. And a lot of planning for such attacks seems to be happening inside Germany- whether they want to attack Germany itself, or just use it as planning base and keep quite there, remains to be seen.

Clandestine Cooperation, Media Standards, Brexit, and ‘Going Rogue’

CD: Now finally for some loose ends. I’d love to get your views on some related matters that have a British perspective. First, regarding Syria, Seymour Hersh wrote in the London Review of Books in April 2014 that Obama had at one point averted air strikes against Assad at the last minute, thanks to military intelligence received from British military intelligence which got it from the Russians, samples that showed it was not in fact Syria’s army that launched the Ghouta chemical weapons attacks. Any insights?

PI: The only thing I can say about this case, having read a number of reports about the issue, is that it is still not 100 percent clear who launched the chemical weapons. There is good analysis that both sides [Assad or the rebels] could have done it.

CD: Fine, I just thought the interesting part was about Russian, British and American covert cooperation, since the surface-level political rhetoric is so hostile between Russia and the West.

PI: The services do indeed cooperate- there’s a fantastic phrase security agencies use in reports, when noting that certain information has come from a particular source – when one knows he is dealing with another security agency – at the bottom of the report they will write that the information might be ‘designed to influence as much as inform.’ Often, it just happens to follow what that country wants to do politically.

CD: Fantastic. Another issue we have observed in this region is again with the British, that there is some confusion or uncertainty because of the handling or approach to events, about whether this reflects British central planning and policy, or whether someone in the middle of the intelligence hierarchy is interfering for personal or other motives… in your experience, what is the likelihood of someone ‘going rogue’ within the British intelligence apparatus at present?

PI: What I can say is that there are carefully controlled mechanisms to stop people from going rogue. But in the end of the day, intelligence officers are individuals. They can have personal motivations. In fact, I know of one case during Kosovo, not involving a British operative-

CD: But Western?

PI: Yes, it was a particular Western intelligence agent who went rogue, and it had very bad consequences. It cost a number of people their lives.

CD: What happened?

PI: Well, this individual had a direct line to a senior commander in Kosovo. And he convinced the commander to believe something would happen, contrary to other information from direct channels. At the time, I was still in Macedonia, while the bombing was still going on. It was just an example of bad practice. But the agent was never punished for this. It was a regrettable example of an operator having far too much influence over what senior decision-makers were doing, and a number of people died because of that.

CD: That is a fascinating case. Now, to speak of wrong information and get back to the Syria war: to me, the British military intelligence approach there seems to have shown new strategies- like they are trying to be more ‘hip’ or modern about how to interact. I am thinking of examples like the increased use of ‘citizen journalism’ and ‘outside groups,’ as was seen with ‘regular guys’ analyzing Youtube videos of fighting for making military judgments and putting it in the media. And of course there is that guy they’re always making fun of who is running this ‘Syrian Observatory for Human Rights’ from his house in Coventry.

To me, this seems to be a new low, but the media has repeated comments and opinions by such people verbatim. Are standards slipping? Does the government and the media just assume people are stupid, or don’t have much of an interest, or what?

PI: I think the increasing use of so-called citizen journalists, and more of the mainstream press using them, shows a huge slipping of standards.

What it does do, which is very sad to see, is a lot of mainstream media are going for sensationalism rather than well-researched and accurate analysis and good sources. It is definitely taking journalism to a new low.

But it’s not essentially a military thing. If you work in military intelligence, you will take information from everywhere, and then assess it. But I think it’s just some of these individual people doing it, getting their name and information out there- I am not aware of any evidence of someone in the UK cabinet directing them. In the end of the day, it’s a free country, you can’t stop them from giving their view. And that’s why so many military have died- for keeping it a free country. Free speech is a fundamental right of a free and liberal democracy.

CD: Thanks, that is very interesting. So then, what are your thoughts on Brexit and Cameron’s deal with the EU, speaking as a British citizen? He says it is in the security interest of the country to be in the EU. Is this the case? And especially given Scottish leaders’ recent retort that if the UK leaves the EU, Scotland will declare independence and join the EU.

PI: As a British citizen, I have to say that realistically the risk is none- leaving the EU will have no effect on British security. The whole Brexit thing is political noise.

The one thing that is certain is that if it leaves, Britain will have to renegotiate all agreements currently in place and it will take a lot of effort and time and you can’t guarantee content- it could be worse. But it is not likely to affect security. It will affect economy, of course- though in a positive or negative way, is still unknown.

CD: Indeed. Philip, I want to thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today. It is much appreciated.

PI: And thank you as well.

Slovakia’s Deepening Relations with Macedonia: Interview with Ambassador Martin Bezák

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: in this comprehensive new interview, Balkanalysis.com Director Chris Deliso gets the informed insights of Martin Bezák, one of Slovakia’s most experienced diplomats in the Balkans. Since 2013 ambassador to Macedonia, Mr Bezák has also served in Slovakia’s diplomatic missions to Belgrade and Athens. In 2005-2006, he was also Deputy Director and Head of the Balkans Unit in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department of South-Eastern and Eastern Europe.

In the present interview, Ambassador Bezák discusses Slovakia’s evolving bilateral relations with Macedonia, in the areas of diplomatic, cultural and business ties, as well as initiatives for promoting better regional cooperation at a time of great challenges to the general European project. In addition, readers are treated to several exciting new details that further highlight the developing bilateral relationship.

Martin Bezak Slovakia Macedonia interview Balkanalysis

In the opinion of Ambassador Bezák, the shared legacy of Ss Cyril and Methodius “is the strongest bond, spiritual, cultural or religious, in the whole Slavic world.”

Background and Bilateral Relations

Chris Deliso: Ambassador Bezák, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. First of all, it is noteworthy that you have come to this position here with such extensive regional experience already. So, how did your previous experience in diplomatic missions to the former Yugoslavia and Greece, for example, prepare you for your current position in Macedonia? Was there anything particularly valuable that you learned during these postings?

Martin Bezák: Yes, my previous assignments all influenced or helped me in some way. I had the privilege to be in Belgrade during some of the most crucial times for the Balkans; during the NATO bombardment and sanctions, in the period following Milosevic and during the state of emergency that was called after the Djindjic assassination. Those were tough times.

I also had the privilege to serve under Ambassador Miroslav Mojžita, who I consider probably the finest diplomat Slovakia has had, and under Ambassador Miroslav Lajčák, who is our currently foreign minister, an excellent diplomat, and a former High Representative and EUSR for Bosnia and Herzegovina. So this is a good school of diplomacy I have benefited from.

Regarding the local situations, from Belgrade, we also covered Macedonia at that time, so I have actually been in touch with the country since 1999. And of course my assignment to Greece helped me understand better that country and their view on the crucial unresolved issue that still hampers Macedonian EU and NATO accession. So, with my experience coming at both ends of Trans-European Corridor 10, perhaps it is quite logical that I am currently posted here in Macedonia, where I am also currently the youngest accredited ambassador, at age 43.

Finally, I might add, the fact that my son was born in Skopje gives me another kind of ever-lasting personal bond with Macedonia.

CD: Very interesting! So, in that light, it would be interesting to know how you characterize Macedonian-Slovak relations today, and how have they advanced in the period since 2011- the time when we interviewed your predecessor, Robert Kirnag. Do you have any thoughts?

MB: The basic characteristic for Slovak-Macedonian bilateral relations is that they are traditionally very open and friendly, without any open issues that could burden our bilateral cooperation. In 2009 was the opening of the Slovak residential embassy here in Skopje, something that definitely contributed in a positive way to the development of our relations.

Here I would like to say that things would be even better if there was a Macedonian embassy in Bratislava, or at least an honorary consulate.

CD: Really, there isn’t? That is a surprise.

MB: No, but I can say that there are certain dynamics in both directions at the moment, and so I really hope that by the end of this year at least an honorary consulate will be opened by the Macedonian government in Bratislava. This would have a positive impact on trade relations and economic promotion as well.

However, even despite this lack, the current political dialogue is advancing quite well. There is a certain asymmetry, though, in that the great majority of our meetings are taking place in Bratislava. My task is to balance this trend.

New Developments: Economic Cooperation and Air Connections

CD: Are there any specific opportunities for increased cooperation, and perhaps bilateral achievements you would like to mention?

MB: In economic diplomacy there is huge potential that is not being used to the full potential we would like to see. But, in the weeks and months to come, certain initiatives will be taken to bridge this gap.

For example, in February in Skopje, the first meeting will be held of the Joint Commission for Trade and Economic Cooperation. This is co-chaired by the deputy ministers of economy. Simultaneously the first-ever Slovak-Macedonian Business Forum will happen, from 22-23 February. Further, in March the Slovak-Macedonian Business Club, based in Skopje, will be established.

Also, in the field of public diplomacy and the cultural promotion of Slovakia in Macedonia, we are doing well. An important part of our mission now is to provide consular services, and we have upgraded these services in the past two years. We are issuing passports, IDs and visas here now- this wasn’t the case before.

CD: That’s great to hear. These new initiatives sound most welcome. If I can ask as well, what have you learned about Macedonia, having been here for some time now? Is the country different in any way than you had expected?

MB: Macedonia definitely is a nice place for living and working as a diplomat. The country is small, which gives you an advantage to know almost every corner of it. The people are very friendly, the food is good and the wine is even better. Of course, since my very first experiences with the country in the late 1990s, it has changed a lot, and Skopje especially. From one perspective that has been a little controversial, but on the other hand, it was very helpful in bringing tourists, and also from my country.

On that note, I am proud to announce that from the end of March, we will have the first-ever direct flights from Bratislava to Skopje, operated by Wizz Air. This will definitely help bring many more Slovak tourists to Macedonia and vice versa.

CD: That is excellent news! But how did the preparations for it work? Was it a simple business decision from the company, which after all is a Hungarian one, or did you lobby in any way for this route to be added?

MB: Yes, we did lobby for this route, as we had a bilateral agreement on air transport. Of course it is ultimately the primary interest of the company, to decide on the cost-benefit analysis of any route, so we are happy they agree it is worth having. The first flight is scheduled to be on the 28th of March.

CD: So, what is the awareness level of Macedonia among Slovaks? What do you they think, if anything, when they hear of the country there?

MB: The overall knowledge about Macedonia in Slovakia is relatively low. Most Slovaks know about Macedonia from football, as we are traditional rivals. But more recently, it is interestingly in the context of the migrant crisis that the knowledge of Macedonia increased, since the media has reported so much about the issue and the country is on the route.

A Shared Diplomatic and Cultural Heritage, and Slovakia’s International Role

CD: Migration is indeed a pivotal issue, which I would like to return to a little bit later. But first, I wanted to clarify another issue: what is the historical basis of Slovak bilateral diplomatic relations with Macedonia in the post-1991 period? Was there any specific orientation or vision that your leaders had over the years?

MB: In a few weeks, we will celebrate the 22nd anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Slovakia and Macedonia. There are a lot of similarities between the two countries, even in terms of constitutional development. Both were in the past part of multinational federations- and both were smaller parts. At approximately the same time, within a distance of one year, they both gained their independence.

Plus, I don’t want to omit this really strong bond which is constituted by Ss Cyril and Methodius. The bond which comes out of this legacy, in my opinion, is the strongest bond, spiritual, cultural or religious, in the whole Slavic world. And this shared cultural bond has provided a very solid basis for development of relations in the post-independence period.

There is a common strategic foreign policy as well, for European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Slovakia has so far been more successful in this, but on the other hand, our very success obliges us to help our Macedonian friends in their path towards these integrations. We do this by extending our experience, which is quite unique, and still relatively fresh. We are willing to share this experience- and not only the awareness of our successes, but also of our mistakes, as this is what sincere friends do- to help each other learn from their mistakes.

CD: That is all very significant to note, and it is important to see Macedonia has a committed ally in Slovakia. On a more international scale, your embassy co-hosted an event in Skopje late last year, on Slovak participation in the post-WWII period in San Francisco and involvement with the UN there. How important do you see the UN as being in today’s world? Is Slovakia able to use any of its diplomatic influence through UN channels to complement its role with Macedonia and the larger region?

MB: The migration crisis, and the struggle against terrorism in light of recent tragic events, confirm the argument that none of the national, regional or global crises can be solved without joint efforts and the involvement of the UN. Current threats require a strong emphasis on conflict prevention and mediation as well, and in this regard, the role of the UN is quite unique and irreplaceable.

For Slovakia, the goals and principles of the UN charter are at the basis of our foreign policy. And there are a lot of examples as to how Slovakia contributes to these values. In Cyprus, for example, it is a relatively little-known fact that Slovakia plays a crucial role as the mediator of inter-party dialogue between the Greeks in the south and the Turks in the north.

CD: Really! I had never heard of this.

MB: Yes. For over two decades, the Slovak ambassadors in Nicosia have organized bi-communal meetings at the Ledra Palace Hotel, in the divided city’s no-man’s-land.

CD: That is a marvelous fact, but seems completely random. Why would Slovakia have had this role in the first place?

MB: Well, it is a historical function. The independent Slovak state inherited this from the time of Czechoslovakia; one of its ambassadors then started this forum as the only channel for direct meetings between political parties from the north and south, keeping Greeks and Turks in good contact. So this is just one important example of how Slovak multilateral diplomacy can be seen in action today, under the UN system.

Secondly, I should add that Slovakia is a leader in such critical areas as security sector reform in different countries. This is important in post-conflict countries, and Slovakia has played a key role in such nations, particularly in Africa, with an emphasis on how to reform the security sector after the armed conflict has ended.

There are other examples of Slovak diplomats who have been engaged in the UN system at high levels. From 1991 to 2001, the SG Special Envoy for the Balkans was Eduard Kukan, the same man who was also foreign minister and is now one of the facilitators from the European Parliament here. [Editor’s note: read the 2012 Balkanalysis interview with Eduard Kukan here]. His assistant at that time was Miroslav Lajčák, who was later of course, the UN High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina and, as said, now Slovak foreign minister.

Exclusively for your website I would like to tell you that there are rumors that Mr Lajčák will be nominated as Slovakia’s candidate to be the next UN Secretary General. From what I know, if he decides to run, the government will support him as the only Slovak candidate.

Migration and Security Relations

CD: Thank you, that is a very interesting bit of news. We will keep a lookout for such news. Now, perhaps we can discuss migration, which is the most important issue for Macedonia, and for Europe, entering 2016. Since last summer, migration policy has of course been on the top of everyone’s agenda. However, the EU, UNHCR, and many other states failed to correctly understand and assess the issue even as it was becoming very apparent to those of us living in the region. What measures should be taken, according to Slovakia?

MB: This is a very complex and actual issue. What is our approach… first of all, you have certainly noticed that Slovakia is not in the ‘Brussels mainstream’ on how to tackle this phenomenon.

We said that we promote complex, comprehensive and sustainable solutions, since the crisis has very many aspects. As such, it cannot be solved through a simple administrative approach- by this, I refer mainly to quotas.

Not less important, we also are saying that Europe should focus on how to solve the whole problem- not just the consequences, but also the causes. What does a sustainable solution mean, in practice? What is the remedy?

First, we must insist on better protection of Europe’s external borders. Functioning hot spots, where registrations should be maintained, must also operate. Secondly, the EU needs to create a better readmission policy for migrants. And we need better cooperation between European intelligence services, and a more robust common foreign and defense policy of the EU. You know, we have instruments in existence- we are just not using them effectively enough. There is the Lisbon Treaty, Frontex, and so on. We need better synergy between the EU and NATO, which already has existing capacities. If I am not mistaken, in the Eastern Mediterranean NATO’s Active Endeavor security operation is ongoing, and this could play a role as well.

CD: Very interesting arguments. Can you explain further about the legal challenges from Slovakia and other countries over migration quotas? This has been one of the most significant events to try and slow down what has been a rather autocratic policy process steered by the Germans…

MB: On migration quotas, we launched a legal action against the European Council of Ministers of the Interior. The Hungarians did the same. The Czechs announced that they would also do so, but they have not done so thus far.

We were forced to do this because we believe that, for Slovakia and for Europe, a quota system is not a real solution to the migration problem. This developed largely because of the way the discussion was held within the EU. The discussion was neither comprehensive nor sophisticated enough; nor was it sufficiently inclusive.

There are a lot of open questions about quotas. Did anyone define the absorption capacity of individual countries, and the EU as such, before assigning numbers to them? What would the right number be, and who is to decide? The figure of 120,000 was decided after some debate. Who made this up? Is it the final number?

CD: I don’t think so. Now they are talking about millions…

MB: Yes, that figure was from the time when this discussion started, last year. But now we are at the point where over one million people entered the EU during the last year, and the arrivals are obviously continuing. So, in our estimate, migration quotas have the potential to create more migrant flows- would-be migrants see the announcement of quotas as a sort of invitation.

And this in turn creates many difficult questions. Who will be selecting and deciding who goes where? How can Brussels know what is appropriate for Slovakia, and indeed, for any other EU state?

CD: I agree with you completely. It is common sense. But when someone makes such a case, they are usually accused of discrimination and so on.

MB: This is not about discrimination- it is about real integration. We want to ensure the capacity for meaningful integration, and to avoid creating ghettoes, a condition of living that is first of all bad for the migrants themselves.

We have even been accused of a lack of ‘European solidarity.’ But if you speak of solidarity, you should stick to it at all times- not only selectively. So in energy security, for example, where is the solidarity concerning Nord Stream, or regarding Ukraine, for just two examples?

In fact, to speak about European solidarity, it is a little-known fact that Slovakia received so far more than 8,000 economic migrants from Ukraine. And we also temporarily received 500 Middle Eastern asylum seekers from Austria, people who had arrived in Austria but who were still waiting for Austrian approval.

CD: These are good points. And I believe that Macedonia, even if it is not an EU member, has suffered a lot of pressure from Germany and other EU states over migration. The country has taken responsibility for its own policy, as we analyzed in a recent article. Most recently, police from several Balkan and Central European countries have been invited to come, and will come, to help Macedonia police its borders. Is Slovakia going to join this contingent?

MB: Yes. Slovakia is part of this action, in order to help our Macedonia friends better protect the border with Greece, and to fight against illegal migrant smuggling. The Slovak government decided on January 13th that it will send 25 fully-equipped police personnel, to be deployed from the 5th of February, primarily on the border with Greece. Slovakia’s police contribution is the biggest per capita out of those countries that replied positively to the request of the Macedonian authorities.

Moreover, on 19 January, a meeting of the Visegrad Group’s ministers of the interior was held, a meeting which also included representatives of the Slovenia, Macedonian and Serbian interior ministries- the V4 Plus. At that meeting, it was agreed that in the next 14 days a special expert assessment mission from the V4 will be dispatched to Macedonia’s southern border with Greece, to see and assess other needs there, like technical equipment.

CD: That is a positive development. Over the past nine months, the situation at the Greek-Macedonia border has been chronically misreported in a way that casts Macedonia in a bad light, both by partisan sources and by aid agencies looking for further funding. To what extent do you think that this new enhanced police presence will correct the outside view, considering that these European police must report what is happening to their home countries, and therefore cause the information to trickle up in the EU?

MB: This is possible, but not sure yet; what we can say is that there are clearly efforts being made by Central European countries to help Macedonia. To what extent this will help, we will have to wait and see. But I do think it will definitely help. There is also a balanced number of police by nationality. There are 10 from Croatia, 20 from Serbia, and six from Slovenia. Then there are 31 from Hungary and 25 from the Czech Republic. But we should also keep in mind that the deployments are being done on several rotations. For example, the Slovak and Czech officers will come at the start of February, while the Hungarians only came quite recently. So we will wait to see the results.

CD: During his November 21st visit to Skopje, Donald Tusk stated that Macedonia has “a right and a responsibility” to protect its borders. We know that the Macedonian state has said it cannot accept more than 2,000 migrants in transit, even though behind the scenes there is still heavy pressure from certain EU forces to fund camps through the UNHCR for up to 30,000 persons. Macedonia has repeatedly stated such a scenario would be a logistical and security problem. Can Macedonia count on Slovakia to speak up on its behalf, whether publicly or in the halls of power in Brussels, on this issue?

MB: Again, as we see it, the issue is fundamentally about quotas. It would be wiser to leave Macedonia to decide on its own what its capacities and capabilities are to handle this issue. If the Macedonians have said several times that their maximum capacity is up to 2,000 persons in transit, Slovakia has absolutely no intention to question this statement.

CD: As we have seen with Kosovo, large numbers of migrants and asylum seekers in 2015 were actually coming from the Western Balkans, despite years of Western funding that was meant to create viable states that would expressly keep citizens from trying to move elsewhere in Europe. What should be done to address this issue?

MB: This is obviously a very delicate issue. On the one hand, it is necessary to create a local ownership role, to create suitable social and economic conditions to stop brain drain and economic migration. Second, it is necessary to really reform the asylum procedures in EU member states, since they are not harmonized, and we have now a pattern of misuses of benefits given in certain member states.

Guidelines for Good Diplomacy

CD: During 2015, Slovakia stayed out of the political crisis in Macedonia, one that has had damaging effects on certain other foreign missions’ ability to cooperate with the Macedonian state, as their representatives have ended up compromised in one way or another. Does this local reality give Slovakia a greater role than it might otherwise have?

MB: Slovakia has experience in the Balkans, which has been proven over many years of engagement. We don’t have any hidden agendas in the region, and I can say that Slovakia is thus kind of an honest broker here.

Again, what we can offer is our experience and advice. We have the approach of “two A´s” – assistance and advocacy, for countries in transition. And for this we can use our position within the EU and NATO.

You know, sometimes it is better to keep a low profile, and not publicly expose yourself in order to do the job in a better way. Also, we are working with a view to the future, bearing in mind that Slovakia is now preparing to assume the presidency of the European Council, in the second half of 2016. There will be plenty of opportunities at that time for us to be more visible in this regard.

Slovakia’s Role in Regional Development through the Visegrad Group

CD: This sounds like promising development, which will also increase the stature of Slovakia at an important time. More generally, where do current events figure in with any regional development initiatives Slovakia may have here? Where does your government assess the most need?

MB: In the Balkans, there are already quite a lot of regional initiatives. Some are fruitful, and some are more questionable, in terms of real added value.

But what Slovakia emphasizes in the Balkans, and what I am doing here, is inviting the local actors to examine the possible example of Visegrad cooperation. There are a lot of aspects here that should be followed, considering that the V4 is the most successful such group for regional cooperation in Central Europe. Nowadays it’s an internationally respected brand, even here in the Balkans.

We have a special program, the previously mentioned V4 Plus cooperation. And one of the target regions for it is the Western Balkans. Within this format, we communicate, cooperate, and transfer our experience.

CD: Does this group have an associated fund for projects, similar to other development agencies and indeed the EU?

MB: Yes. This started after our accession into the EU, 10 or 11 years ago. The so-called Western Balkans Fund, as it is called, is kind of a clone of the International Visegrad Fund, and was established in November of last year. The Slovak V4 presidency played a crucial role here. The treaty was signed in November in Prague, during the Czech presidency, but the preparatory period happened when Slovakia held the presidency.

Local and external donors provide for the V4 fund, which has a 10-million euro annual budget. But contributions also come from Germany, from the Dutch, from the US- even from South Korea.

Regional development and good neighborly relations are the two main goals. Behind the success of the V4, I strongly believe, is our focus on a positive agenda. This means that the primary value is placed on the points of common interests of the citizens of the region, while any differences are put aside. The V4 agenda is thus not burdened by open bilateral issues; the initiatives we consider are based on a positive vision: let’s focus on what unites us, what´s beneficial for the region and its citizens, let’s connect, let’s solve bilateral issues bilaterally.

Another aspect that makes the V4 successful, I might add, is that it does not have any institutions, no permanent secretariat, no assembly. So operationally speaking, it is quite informal, very flexible and efficient. Third, it has established a certain solidarity in the region, which we have always felt, even during the more autocratic Vladimír Mečiar period of 1992-98 in Slovakia.

CD: The Group sounds like it can set a good example and perhaps play a positive role for Balkan countries. What sort of feedback do you get here? Has the Macedonian side been enthusiastic about cooperation?

MB: Yes, I believe that they are. And our legacy of positive experience with the V4 leads me to wish as much Visegrad as possible for the region.

An important fact that people should appreciate, also, is that in Macedonia, the V4 is the only regional format that maintains regular meetings with the president of the state. What is interesting and very important is that this has come on the initiative of the Macedonian President, Gjorge Ivanov. Every year, he invites the ambassadors of the V4 for a working lunch. We really appreciate this gesture from the president; it is another sign of the quality of cooperation that Slovakia, and the V4 in general, enjoy in Macedonia.

Building Economic Relations

CD: Everyone knows the Macedonia government for almost 10 years now has been focused primarily on attracting foreign investment. Can you give us any information about Slovak investments in Macedonia and/or Macedonian investments in Slovakia? What is the balance of trade between the two countries?

MB: There is unfortunately still no proper direct Slovak investment in Macedonia. Rather there is Slovak participation in investment by the Macedonian state, as with Macedonian Railways, being helped by Slovak producers. Thus the supply of 150 freight wagons produced in Slovakia means the renewal of 20 percent of Macedonia’s freight fleet- the first such renewal in 30 years.

Similarly, another Slovak company provided modernization services for the Macedonian Army’s helicopters calibration of equipment. And one Slovak construction company, Chemkostav Michalovce, is performing repairs and building activities at the state prison at Idrizovo. Quite recently, they also got the second tender for construction of sewage systems between Berovo and Pehcevo in eastern Macedonia.

As far as I know, there are no Macedonian investments in Slovakia. The current balance of trade comes to only about 100 million euros. This is not so much, but with the imminent establishment of direct flights and a business club, I am quite optimistic about the future.

CD: Are there any specific industries that you see as most promising for the future bilateral economic relationship?

MB: The automotive sector is certainly promising- a fact you should know is that Slovakia is the world’s number-one producer of cars per capita. In fact, last year over one million cars were produced in three factories: this equals 184 cars per 1000 inhabitants.

CD: I definitely did not know that, though I can imagine room for convergence given Macedonia’s existing investments from auto parts producers. What are the companies?

MB: Volkswagen, PSA (Peugeot-Citroen) and Kia Motors. And last year, we were also successful in attracting Jaguar Land Rover to make a 1.4 billion euro investment. And yes, future cooperation with Macedonian factories could realistically come through sub-supplies, connecting the clusters.

A second field perhaps would be energy, and particularly in terms of biofuels. Macedonia has practically no experience with the kind of plants that we are already using for producing electricity from biofuels. We would like to transfer our knowledge regarding this, which could lead to growing the right kinds of plants and building power plants using this resource. These are just a couple of the many opportunities for economic cooperation that lie ahead for our two countries.

Developments regarding Cultural Relations between Slovakia and Macedonia

CD: Every year, we note the special day of the above-mentioned Ss Cyril and Methodius, ‘enlightener of the Slavs,’ who traveled from Macedonia to Moravia on their famous pilgrimage. What is the perception of their achievement among Slovaks, in popular culture and daily life? Has it influenced in any way cultural relations or cultural awareness of the Macedonian heritage?

MB: Ss Cyril and Methodius, and their legacy, is an integral part of our modern state and identity; Slovakia is the only country in the world with a direct reference to the legacy of their mission in the preamble of its constitution.

Upon this basis, and in accordance with the ties that are confirmed by this story, we are developing our activities in the cultural and academic field with Macedonia. For example, the University of Ss Cyril and Methodius in Skopje, and the University of Constantine the Philosopher in Nitra, which is the nucleus of the saints’ Great Moravia mission, established an international conference on Slovak-Macedonian cultural, linguistic and literary relations.

So far, two such conferences have been held- one in Nitra and one in Skopje. We promoted the publication of the first trilingual version – in Old Church Slavonic, Macedonian and Slovak – of the Proglas (Foreword) of Constantine the Philosopher (St Cyril).

CD: Are there any specific cultural relations, events or organizations between Slovakia and Macedonia that you would like to highlight? Can we expect any exciting developments or events in 2016?

MB: Well, first to conclude, we also did promotion for the first Slovak-Macedonian dictionary, the first tourist guide to Ohrid in the Slovak language, and a few other events, like the first Days of Slovak Cinema in Macedonia, and the first Days of Slovak Gastronomy in Skopje. Now we are planning a second Days of Slovak Gastronomy, in the fall and will continue with other events.

CD: Great news. I am interested in this light to know what efforts are being made to develop exchange student programs between the two countries? Do you have any information on the number of Macedonians studying in Slovakia, and vice versa?

MB: Several such initiatives are taking place, some are bilateral, and some are organized under the auspices of the V4. About 30 Macedonian students are currently studying in Slovakia, mostly in technical subjects. Unfortunately, no Slovak students are currently studying in Macedonia

But there is a special program within the V4 fund called academic mobility, and scholarships through this can be provided through the fund. Presently supported through it is an academic program on conflict resolution, here at the University of Ss Cyril and Methodius: it aims to relay the experience of V4 countries in this regard to students from the Balkans. It is an ongoing program, and has attracted lecturers from V4 countries. The program also provides for excursions of Macedonian students within the V4 countries.

CD: These are all very promising developments. So, to conclude, I must ask you: where do you see Slovak-Macedonian relations in 10 years?

MB: My wish is to see Macedonia as a strong friend and ally of Slovakia within NATO, and a country well advanced on its way to negotiating EU membership. I really hope that by then Macedonia will have established a dynamic diplomatic presence in Slovakia, and I hope that we will have really increased our economic, trade and touristic exchanges. These are my hopes, and I believe they are attainable with the right spirit of cooperation and effort.

CD: Ambassador Bezák, thank you very much for your time and valuable insights, they are very much appreciated.

MB: Thank you as well.

Serbia’s Relations with Belgium and Luxembourg: Interview with Ambassador Vesna Arsic

In this comprehensive new interview, Balkanalysis.com Director Chris Deliso speaks with Vesna Arsic, Serbia’s ambassador to both Belgium and Luxembourg. The embassy is based in Brussels, and complements Serbia’s missions to NATO and the EU, which are also based in the Belgian capital.

Serbian Ambassador Vesna Arsic- Balkanalysis Interview

“Belgium and Luxembourg have indicated their support for our proactive role in regional cooperation,” notes Ambassador Arsic.

Ambassador Arsic’s distinguished career has included leading technical reforms in the banking and pension funds systems in Serbia’s ministry of finance, drafting important legislation, and leading the negotiating team in the process of Serbian WTO accession. She also served as the head of government representatives for negotiating free trade agreements with the Russian Federation, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Turkey and the EFTA countries.

In this interview, Ambassador Arsic discusses the Serbian bilateral role with Belgium and Luxembourg, cooperation on security and migration-related issues, and how the two countries continue to support Serbia’s EU accession goals. Also discussed are some interesting, little-known facts about the countries’ historical relationships and cultural cooperation initiatives.

The Importance of Bilateral Ties

Chris Deliso: When the discussion turns to Brussels, everyone talks about Balkan countries’ diplomacy with the EU. So in contrast, how is it to be the Serbian representative to the state of Belgium? What are the key issues?

Vesna Arsic: It is very important to Serbia to have a strong diplomatic presence in Brussels: currently Serbia has three ambassadors, including the EU and NATO missions. My position is to cover the bilateral relations. This fact means that the Serbian government has assessed it as a high priory to be more strongly represented in Brussels and Belgium in general.

It is essential to note that in Serbia, not only the government but all parties have the common interest of EU accession as a top priority, and Belgium is one of those countries among the founding members of the EU. My MFA and I myself see my role as very important in that we have direct relations with our counterparts in the Belgian MFA.

We also have developed networks in Belgium as a whole, which is partly due to the complex structure of Belgium, its decentralized and multi-ethnic nature. This means there are other levels of authorities who are also involved and we must have engagement with them too.

CD: What sort of legacy do the two countries have in terms of historic relations?

VA: Our bilateral relations are very historic. They were first established in 1879, and in 1886 further, during the Kingdom of Serbia, when we had a diplomatic envoy to Brussels. Also, Belgian investors were active in Serbia in the 19th century, in mining. And in fact the first railway in Serbia, in Negotinska Krajina, was built on Belgian concession.

Further, the first privileged national bank of Serbia, back in 1884, was developed with the support of skilled staff from the Belgian national bank- and the first Serbian bank notes were even printed in Belgium.

CD: Really! That is quite extraordinary.

VA: Yes. And also, the first democratic constitution in Serbia was made following the Belgian constitutional model. So we have long and rich ties.

CD: Also, in addition, Luxembourg is a country in your diplomatic remit. What specific interests and challenges does this portfolio entail?

VA: It is also essential for us to have direct communication with Luxembourg, and we have seen this year with the Luxembourg COE presidency the positive results of their support. They called all EU candidate countries, not only Serbia, to participate in the majority of ministerial councils. This means that similar to the Belgian bilateral relationship we seek to cultivate, the goal is the bilateral relationship here. The role and experience of Luxembourg as another country that was in the group of the first EU founders, like Belgium, is important.

CD: Can you tell us if there are a certain number of Serbian citizens living in Luxembourg presently?

VA: Yes, we have a certain number of Serbs present in Luxembourg- many of them moved there as a result of the conflicts of the 1990s. The number is estimated at around 5,000 to 7,000 persons.

CD: In the past, Luxembourg has played a somewhat complicated role- we know for example that in the run-up to Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence, the Americans were heavily using Luxembourgish diplomats to coordinate European states’ recognitions process behind the scenes, in the months before the decision in 2008. Obviously this was against Serbian interests. How have things proceeded now in the seven years since? What is the state of the diplomatic relationship now?

VA: It is still an important matter for Serbia, the process of countries’ recognition of Kosovo’s unilaterally declared independence. But it didn’t ruin our bilateral relations with Luxembourg at all. Although it is also important for Serbian foreign policy to know how many countries, generally speaking, recognize Kosovo, because that decision is something that was unprecedented.

On the other hand, Luxembourg was very important and helpful for Serbia in regards to the Stabilization and Association Agreement we reached with the EU. They helped to push for this agreement at a time when some states were referring to issues such as Srebrenica to try to block Serbia’s SAA. This was back in 2010 and 2011. But Luxembourg helped a lot as it pushed some of the more reluctant countries, and we are grateful for their support.

In general, Luxembourg and Belgium have been able to show us their examples regarding reconciliation attitude after WWII, and used this case to point out their experience regarding how to improve attitudes to other regional countries. In fact, they have noted that Serbia, being the biggest country in the Balkans seeking membership, should be the role model for the region. And in the process of dialogue, both countries said they supported this approach, as only through dialogue and reconciliation will all countries in the region achieve better prospects and prosperity.

CD: Does Belgium provide any kind of political diplomatic support to Serbia that is unique or different than other countries, in terms of initiatives, programs etc?

VA: They stress the importance of dialogue to achieve solutions we should reach for Serbs in Kosovo, for example. But at the same time, over the last few years officials like the minister, Didier Reynders have visited the whole region, including Serbia, and in a lot of his speeches and appearances he has emphasized the need to support the EU integration of the whole region. Serbia and Montenegro are on top of this agenda currently.

Security Cooperation Developments between Serbia and Belgium

CD: Security has obviously come to the top of the European agenda after the Paris attacks. In late November, the Jerusalem Post reported that “a week before the Paris attacks, Serbia announced that Serbian and French security agencies had rounded up a major gang running guns between the two countries.” Do you have any further information on this case?

VA: This kind of case is as you know managed between the special services of the two countries, so they would have more details. But I can say that Serbia and Belgium are in the process of completing a new agreement on police cooperation.

This is to be finalized by the end of this year and signed next year. It will provide for deeper cooperation between the MOI in both countries, in all cases regarding extradition and readmission, as well as regarding concrete cases involving activities such as human trafficking and weapons smuggling.

The bilateral security relations, we should note, have been long established and have had excellent results in past. The two police forces have recorded high success rates in important cases.

CD: So the current planned agreement was agreed before the Paris attacks, and the implementation was envisioned already before that event?

VA: Oh yes, it was agreed before the Paris attacks. Those attacks emphasized the importance of closer cooperation. Because you can see now that problems are becoming more and more international and global in nature; there might be weapons produced in a certain country, sold in another, with an entirely different final person or group using them somewhere else. And so it is something normal and necessary to develop direct communications with specific countries like Belgium, and not only through Interpol and similar institutions.

CD: The Israeli newspaper’s report also specifically mentioned Serbia and other Balkan countries as routes for weapons trafficking into the EU and particularly Belgium, and reported that the EU is thinking of imposing some restrictions on Balkan countries. Do you have any information on this, and what possible developments could occur?

VA: They will be focused on better border controls- not regarding restrictions of the visa liberalization that our citizens enjoy, but on stricter measures in controlling the border. We can see 500,000 migrants passed through Serbia this year, and this created an enormous problem: how to manage a problem which impacted our budgets for police, health care for migrants and so on. In the latest EU progress report you can find a very good appraisal of how Serbia managed the crisis, even compared to some member states that have much more capacity than Serbia does for crisis management.

CD: That is interesting to note. We will consider the migration issue a little later but first I would like to ask if in general, after the Paris attacks, has the direct security relationship between Serbian and specifically the Belgian security services stepped up? If so, has it led to any tangible effects? What do you expect for future cooperation?

VA: There are several channels for cooperation on a bilateral level, as I mentioned, better checking via borders and of persons who had experience in fighting in Syria and other countries suffering from wars. We are now trying to exchange data about such persons at a higher level than before.

This is the priority on the national levels, but at the same time our embassy has had a lot of communications with concrete departments in Belgium like the anti-terrorism force, with the public prosecutor’s office, with the crisis center. We wanted to pick up their legislative framework and inform Serbian institutions how Belgium manages legislatively in fighting against terrorism. In fact, Serbia will finish a 2020 security strategy for fighting terrorism.

CD: Really? When can we expect to see this?

VA: The strategy will be finalized soon. Again, because of the possible smuggling from the Balkan region and generally globalizing nature of security threats, Serbia will be more focused on cooperation with European countries, which also need more cooperation with us on the bilateral as well as international institutional levels.

Cooperation on Migration-related Issues

CD: Obviously the migration issue is a major topic for Serbia and Macedonia now, and for Europe as a whole. Here at the embassy, what do you cover regarding common plans to deal with this, compared to the Serbian delegation to the EU?

VA: The matter is channeled through the part of government concerned with it. All criteria and recommendations, and also laws that are actually enforced within the EU framework, are implemented in Serbian legislation and practice. We have been in direct contact and had lots of meetings with the EU commissioner for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, and with different offices in Belgium, like institutions for social protection.

CD: You mention Avramopoulos who of course was nominated by Greece, the frontline country in this whole migration crisis during 2015. Has this fact been helpful at all for Serbia, considering it is a traditional ally of Greece, in terms of getting support from the EU?

VA: I couldn’t say that support from the EU comes especially because of his origin, but this year he has had a complex role to carry out. And this job is also shared by the EU External Action Service, while Commissioner Mogherini also plays a big role. At the recent EU summit in Malta, we finally got more concrete measures to improve the situation.

CD: Migration is also a controversial subject for domestic politicians in Europe, and Belgium is an interesting case because of its decentralized, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic composition. Does this mean there are any challenges for you in communicating Serbian policies or getting cooperation? Is there a unified Belgian position that can be understood and assessed?

VA: Regarding foreign policy, Belgium has a formulated standpoint through its MFA, and we have a direct channel through the MFA where we can find general approaches to concrete matters. Also, our embassy has developed very good relations at all levels throughout the country, so regarding the majority of issues, we have direct contact and can see clear policies.

Investments in Serbia from Belgium and Luxembourg: a Promising Development

CD: How does your background in financial negotiations help in your current posting? Are there any trade deals that you have worked on between the two countries? How do these countries measure up as trade partners for Serbia?

VA: Regarding trade agreements, we have a free trade agreement with the European Union, so it covers all states- there is no need for separate treaties with individual states. And we can say the EU is our most important economic partner; the volume of Serbian trade with EU countries reaches 67 percent.

Regarding the volume of trade with Belgium- it is among the first 20 countries for Serbia as a trade partner. And especially in the last few years, you can find a very positive trend in the export growth rate. This is going from five to eight percent annually from Serbia to Belgium. Trade is especially increasing in processed food and Fiat cars- in central Serbia there is a factory for the Fiat 500L model, a car that you can see frequently driven in the streets of Brussels.

CD: I also understand there is a Belgian-Serbian Business Association in Belgrade. How active are they, and do you work with assisting them? In general, how is the Belgian investment scene in Serbia today?

VA: Yes. This club for Belgian investors in Serbia was established seven years ago, and is very active. Investors from Belgium include major companies like Delhaize, a supermarket chain, food processing interests, Metes in the metal industry, and Puratos in the bakeries industry. Another major company from Belgium is ElectraWinds, active in the renewable wind energy sector.

We are also in the process of attracting cooperation between the three countries’ ICT sectors, examining potential areas and matching possible interests. This is done by looking at relevant sectors and chambers of commerce, matching them with representatives of relevant companies. For example, in one case with a Luxembourgish ICT interest, we have already found interest on both sides. And we agreed that in April 2016 a special conference will be held in Belgrade- a certain numbers of companies from Luxembourg will participate.

Also in the ICT sector, Microsoft established a big center in Belgrade for outsourcing some of its European activities. They are happy with the quality of Serbia’s skilled engineers, and now you have more than 500 Serbian engineers working for Microsoft around the clock. And we see matching possible interests from ICT companies in Luxembourg.

Aid and Technical Assistance from Belgium and Luxembourg

CD: You have also worked in banking and pension reforms. Are there any specific programs or perhaps lessons learned from your Belgian and Luxembourgish counterparts that have been implemented?

VA: Well, the two national banks have constant bilateral programs and technical support experts from Belgium have trained Serbian banking staff in annual programs. Also important to note is that between Luxembourg and Serbia, there was important cooperation on the stock exchange infrastructure. This permanent cooperation involves the software that the Belgrade Stock Exchange runs on.

CD: So, you mean the actual software Luxembourg’s stock exchange uses was brought in to also power the Belgrade one?

VA: Yes. And it was financed on the bilateral level by Luxembourg. They gave us their software, which is quite sophisticated and has improved our own stock exchange technically.

CD: On another subject, Luxembourg’s Catholic charity Caritas has for several years run aid projects in the cross-border Serbian and Montenegrin Sandzak/Raska region, in poor and multi-religious areas. This is interesting considering that there are other areas of Serbia where poverty is worse and development also necessary, that would seem equally or more deserving of such aid. Do you have an awareness of this program, and how it was decided? How do you assess the situation?

VA: Yes, we know they are present there. I believe that they concentrated there because some 70 percent of the Serbian diaspora in Luxembourg came from the Raska area. So it is normal that Luxembourg as a country is taking efforts here to help it integrate these foreigners in society. But also this choice was because of the relative openness of society; Luxembourg assessed that the openness of this part of our diaspora was less than other parts, so they want to help them regarding integration. We should add that this activity is being done there at a high level, compared to other EU countries.

Diplomatic Benefits of the Relationship and Future Expectations

CD: It is well known that Luxembourg as a wealthy and influential country has many connections globally in the political and business spheres, while Serbia has historically been noted for its diplomatic acumen. Is there any benefit your country gets, therefore, from its partnership?

VA: Diplomatically, we do have support based on the kind of communication we maintain. But we can also have political support through company channels. For example, the European Investment Bank, which is headquartered in Luxembourg, has financed several Serbian infrastructure projects.

CD: Do Belgium and Luxembourg have any particular or different approach to Serbia compared with other western European countries? What are the ramifications of this, if so?

VA: They are both very supportive of Serbia. We need and we value their support, not only for keeping up the current EU enlargement momentum over the next several years, but also because of their understanding over our position regarding Kosovo and the need for dialogue in resolving that issue. Further, Belgium and Luxembourg have indicated their support for our proactive role in regional cooperation.

These three matters will be priorities in the next three years for the Serbian government and people. We therefore need the continuation of support from these two countries. The main focus of these three key matters – EU accession, Kosovo dialogue and regional cooperation – is to point out this message. We need continued understanding, and a continued level of support, like Belgium and Luxembourg have continually expressed.

CD: How do you see the future of Serbian relations with these two countries, especially in regards to the EU accession process?

VA: We are sure that Luxembourg and Belgium will stay on a similar course in future. Towards Serbia’s EU membership, they will help with the further opening of more and more negotiations chapters. In the last few years we have seen real support and understanding from both countries for greater Serbian prosperity and progress.

But it is not only a matter of directly joining the EU; we also want to make sure we stay in a position whereby the gap [between Serbia and EU members] does not become wider and wider. It is important to follow the progress, and to be aware of the EU’s own developing legislation and policies. If you stay behind, the gap tends to get wider and wider.

This is also vital for all countries in the accession period, for candidate countries, which nowadays need more and more time since the EU didn’t put enlargement on their agenda in the next few years. Now, you can let yourself be disappointed by this, but no- we look at this situation as one in which we have to continue our reform efforts. But we also need understanding of our situation; maybe the European Union and Commission can establish new methods and models to involve candidate countries in the meantime in some processes. Luxembourg did this in some capacity during its EU presidency.

It is also in the interest of the EU to act not only through handing out IPA funds, but also to include candidate countries through a broader scope. Belgium and Luxembourg in this regard participate and have an important role. This imperative is particularly necessary in a globalized world.

It is important that both countries have recognized that it is important that the momentum keep up for Serbia, and that after those efforts we have done regarding accession reforms, proactive dialogue and engagement with regional reconciliation. They have also noted our improvements in the economy, especially in the field of fiscal adjustment.

The point is that it is important that you have two countries that recognize how much effort we have made, and how hard it is to implement reforms in a transition country. Sometimes, this understanding and their presence in important meetings is enough to prove to us that they support Serbia.

CD: That is very important to note indeed. Now finally, I am always interested to ask about any unique or little-known aspects of the bilateral relationship that readers might not know about. Is there anything you would like to add here?

VA: Well, you can feel both Belgian and Serbian societies have a similar feeling for history. Like the Serbian people, Belgians like history and to be present at commemorative events, especially because both of us suffered a lot during the First and Second World Wars. Many civilians as well as soldiers lost their lives then.

This legacy is still in the mind of ordinary Belgian people, small children are presented with it and this means they grow up with this essential awareness of the heroic history of their country. It gives us this special feeling. Very often, our embassy is invited to share our history here.

For a concrete example, we have very tight communications with the Belgian city of Liège, not only because of our diaspora, but also because it holds the graves of Serbian soldiers who had been held in prisoner of war camps. They are buried in Robermont Cemetery.

CD: Wow, that is interesting. I did not know there were any Serbian war graves in cemeteries in Belgium.

VA: Yes, and it is also important to note that Belgrade and Liège are two of only five cities in the world to have received the French Legion of Honor medal for their role in the First World War. So we have a common and distinguished history that is commemorated.

CD: What about cultural events and other happenings that people might not know about? Does your embassy help organize any such things?

VA: We have a lot of exchanges of cultural heritage and exhibitions and movies from Serbia presented here. Cinema festivals like Balkan Trafik or the Mediterranean Film Festival, for example. And from time to time, there are concerts- the music of Goran Bregović, for example, attracts the attention of not only Serbs but Belgians too.

So we can say that all channels of communications are open. Between our universities, we have agreements, and a memorandum of cooperation exists between the National Library of Serbia and the Royal Library of Belgium.

CD: Interesting! What does this mean in terms of specific activities?

VA: This means that we have cooperation on a constant level; the two libraries exchange books and experts in the field of conservation. We also have very tight communications with Belgium regarding the process to establish cooperation between our respective military museums, directly or indirectly via our embassy.

The Renewal of Greek-Iranian Economic Relations: Interview with Patroklos Koudounis

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: while the French Intelligence Online recently reported that Britain has “leapt ahead of other Western countries” in the race for business opportunities in post-sanctions Iran, other European nations are also stepping forward and forging new partnerships. A leader among them is Greece.

Following our recent analysis on prospective developments in post-sanctions Greek-Iranian relations by Ioannis Michaletos in Athens, we thus continue to explore this topic here, in the following exclusive interview with Patroklos Koudounis, President of the Business Initiative for the Hellenic-Iranian Chamber of Commerce. The only entity of its kind in the EU that was created during the sanctions period, this group is concentrating on developing bilateral economic relations between the two countries.

Mr Koudounis, who is also CEO of the Athens-based consulting firm Adequate Consulting, has 16 years of managerial and corporate experience in key positions with major organizations, such as the Athens International Airport, Alco Group and G4S International. He has also been an elected member of the Board of Directors of the Athens Chamber of Commerce and Industry since 2011.

Interview with Patroklos Koudounis Greece Iran economic relations- Balkanalysis

According to Mr Koudounis, “Greek companies are in a position to penetrate the Iranian market by selling quality and know-how” across a wide range of industries.

Ioannis Michaletos: Thank you very much for this interview. First of all, I would like to pose the question as to how you view in general terms the current state of affairs of bilateral economic relations between Greece and Iran. What are the pros and cons, and what things should any prospective investor or trader look out for?

Patroklos Koudounis: Mr. Michaletos, first of all I would like to thank you for your kind invitation and for the opportunity that you are giving me in order to present briefly the reasons for which Iran is a critical destination for Greek exporters.

The level of bilateral trade between the two countries is currently very low, and does not exceed $18m. This number – although it seems frustrating – clearly shows the upside potential of the business opportunities that both countries have to exploit.

The advantages of the Iranian market are plenty. With a population that exceeds 80 million people, Iran is in the geographical center of a world that pivots to the East. Hence, any local office can be used as the export base that would serve the needs of all neighboring countries, such as Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Oman, etc.

While Iran holds the biggest oil and gas reserves globally, half of its population is under 34 years old. If you consider that Iran also enjoys the highest concentration of persons with PhDs, you might easily realize the dynamics of a country with cheap energy and millions of well educated young people who are ready to create and produce. In addition to that, keep in mind the rare element of political stability that makes Iran unique, in a part of the globe where multiple conflicts and political instability are always present.

On the other hand, a thorough risk analysis would definitely take into consideration the volatility of the local currency – i.e. the Iranian Rial- which might discourage any conservative investor.

Additionally, there are obvious cultural and religious differences, which may demand an extra dose of patience and tolerance in order to enter successfully the local market.

IM: How do you assess the short and mid term developments regarding business opportunities in Iran?

PK: At this juncture, the European Union process regulations implement the gradual de-escalation of sanctions against Iran, a process that will probably be completed and enter into force in the first quarter of 2016. Until then, the sanctions are theoretically valid, but nevertheless the period is considered to be favorable for the exploration of product placement perspectives, in the promising Iranian market.

According to the – rather optimistic – Iranian side, the Implementation Day of the lifting of the sanctions is placed in late November this year, while the International Atomic Energy Agency places it in early 2016. Due to the complexity of the provisions and schedules, the External Service of the European Union has committed to issue explanatory draft guidelines, with relevant questions and answers for entrepreneurs. This will be published in due course.

IM: Are there any specific corporate sectors which would be of particular relevance and interest for Greek businesses dealing with Iran? What are the basic products that would be in most demand on the Iranian market?

PK: According to our experience and analysis, Greek companies are in a position to penetrate the Iranian market by selling quality and know-how. We cannot easily export olive oil. Our product is good, but the marketing expertise of the Italian and Spanish competitors muscles us out.

On the contrary, there are other fields where we enjoy competitive advantages, mainly due to our know-how, i.e. Construction, Tourism, Education, Food , Animal Feed, Pharmaceuticals and Cosmetics, Restaurants, Apparel, Services (marketing, advertising, etc), as well as Software and building materials.

Needless to say, Shipping and Transportation services have always been our strong points.

IM: It would be very interesting to note any cultural differences or peculiarities that the Iranian market poses for a foreign investor. How different it is doing business there actually, in practical terms?

PK: The government offers multiple subsidies and tax relief, depending on the kind of investment. The bureaucracy is relatively limited in a way that the commencement of any business is very simple. Just imagine that in order to start running a new shop, there is no need to create a company first! The shop has a unique tax number – as an entity – and you are taxed according to the performance of the shop! A sufficient analysis of the tax system in Iran can be found on Wikipedia here.

Given the cultural differences – as you correctly mentioned – there are certain “rules” that must be followed by those who are targeting the Iranian market.

First, a physical presence is of great importance. I really have to discourage those who are under the impression that they can sell in Iran without a local partner or an established office with local employees.

Secondly, patience is a necessary skill for all newcomers. Third, a thorough study of the local business and negotiating habits is of the essence. It will save time and money.

IM: Could Greece become a hub for other Balkan corporations wishing to invest and develop ties with Iran? Is Athens up for this effort? In short, do other Balkan countries also have ambitions to enter the Iranian market?

PK: Starting from the last part of your question, I am pretty confident that all the Balkan countries have ambitions to penetrate the Iranian market. I am aware, though, that all our neighboring countries are preparing delegations in order to officially visit Iran.

During my recent trip to Tehran, I detected a vivid interest for a full exploitation of the European market by many Iranian companies. This is why we – as Adequate Consulting – decided to create a representation office in Tehran, in order to be able to facilitate Iranian companies which are trying to enhance their exports in Europe.

Talking about Ancient and Byzantine Coins: Interview with Yannis Stoyas

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: money – or the lack of it – has kept Greece in the news for the last few years. But what about the currencies in use for centuries before the euro was ever imagined? This comprehensive new interview by Balkanalysis.com Director Chris Deliso with Greek numismatist Yannis Stoyas covers many aspects, from the role of gold coinage in the Late Roman and Byzantine Empires to the contemporary worlds of numismatics, auctions and governmental regulations on coin collecting. As such, this wide-ranging interview will be of interest to readers from many backgrounds.

Yannis Stoyas works as a Researcher Curator in the KIKPE Numismatic Collection, Athens. Since 2004 he has been teaching Numismatics and History of Money at the National Hellenic Research Foundation. He has participated in numismatic exhibits and conferences and has produced several publications. Among them, he is co-author (with Prof. Vasiliki Penna) of the Sylloge Nummorum Graecorum, Greece 7 (Academy of Athens, 2012). He is also a PhD candidate in Medieval History (University of the Peloponnese), working on a dissertation under the title ‘The Catalan-Aragonese presence in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1261-1460: An economic, military and political study.’

Background and Initial Inspirations

Chris Deliso: Thanks for speaking with us today, Yannis. I’d like to begin by asking firstly about yourself – how did you get interested in the study of coins in the first place, and how did you continue this interest to where you are today?

Yannis Stoyas: It is quite telling that my first and most profound love was history, rather more than archaeology, which I studied at the University of Ioannina, in my hometown. But with coinage you can combine both, at least from a certain point of view that deems necessary to employ in numismatics a historian’s mentality.

Yannis Stoyas- interview with Balkanalysis

Numismatist Yannis Stoyas is a leading expert on ancient and Byzantine coinage, and offers considerable insight into both historical and contemporary issues affecting coins.

Numismatics deals with several layers of history such as art history, economy, religion, political propaganda, etc. There are aspects of all these illustrated on coins or associated with them. The basic thing is to see what link can be discerned connecting a coin possibly with a historical event. This is my main scope.

CD: Very interesting, and an important point. So, if your main motive for pursuing a career with numismatics is academic, can you tell us a little more about how you became interested in it in the first place?

YS: After finishing my undergraduate studies, I started working in the Archaeological Service, for the Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Quite early on, I felt this inclination to deal with coins in particular, and so thereafter, from 1996 to 2007, I worked in the Numismatic Museum at Athens. In the beginning, I had the privilege to work under the guidance of Ioannis Touratsoglou, the Museum’s Director until 2002. My first numismatic work was actually in an EU-funded collaboration project with the British Museum, the realization of an internet exhibition; back then, this was a rather pioneering thing. That was between mid-1996 and early 1999.

CD: What was that exhibition about?

YS: It was called ‘Presveis – One Currency for Europe: Common Coinage from Antiquity to the Modern Age.’ Common coinage was divided into two major categories of case studies. One, in the coinages of ancient federal states and leagues; such an example is the Achaean League in the Hellenistic period. Two, in the common currencies more or less imposed, either by the success of their own prestige or by military/political force. Within this category, the coinage of ancient Athens was quite successful in an international level, used for trade or for mercenary payments. Another example would be the coinage of Alexander the Great, imposed by his military campaigns and then widely diffused. The focus of the project was to examine the idea of common currency, from its very beginnings, and present it online for the public. Collaborating with the Department of Coins and Medals of the British Museum, which has a really magnificent collection, was quite an experience.

The KIKPE Numismatic Collection and Its Scientific Purpose

CD: Very interesting. And since then? What brought you to your current position?

YS: I continued to be employed by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture until 2009; since that same year I started to work for the KIKPE (the Welfare Foundation for Social and Cultural Affairs/ Koinofeles Idryma Koinonikou kai Politistikou Ergou). This is a private foundation that conducts a wide variety of public-benefit nonprofit activities. These activities revolve around the two basic axes in the foundation’s name, social and cultural aspects. Within the foundation’s cultural/educational undertakings is also incorporated one of the most intriguing coin collections in Greece.

CD: This is a very interesting institute indeed. Can you tell us how large are the KIKPE’s numismatic holdings?

YS: At present, in the KIKPE Numismatic Collection there are kept about 4,500 coins. A main part is comprised of Ancient Greek coins, while the part of Byzantine coins is also large; in our acquisitions there are also included Roman Provincial, Western Medieval, Islamic, Ottoman, Modern Greek coins, etc. The Collection has some keynote features that make it rather unique. First of all, it is monometallic, containing almost exclusively copper and/or bronze coins. All were purchased from auction houses in the abroad.

CD: Interesting! But why only at foreign auctions, when there are so many local collectors and excavations? I would imagine foreign auction prices would be much higher as well. And why do you not buy the more ‘desirable’ silver and gold coins?

YS: Well, there are some legal complexities with buying from within Greece, so a policy has been assumed not to bother getting involved in such a fuss. On the other hand, it is safer to follow a standard procedure and bid in auctions abroad or buy from fixed price lists and then import the items, with the Greek state always being aware. If this is done according to a strategic plan, the goals of the collection can be achieved. Perhaps the Foundation could also buy gold coins if it wished, but this is not the adopted approach.

CD: What is determining your Collection, then?

YS: One point was to cover the whole ancient world, from Spain to India, and from Crimea to Morocco. That was more or less the known world then, where coinage was minted and used for trade (leaving aside the case of China). The initial idea was quite simple: to have at least one coin from each mint that functioned during the Classical and Hellenistic times, and then proceed with other periods.

CD: Still, it is not in the purview of the collection to have silver or gold coins from these mints?

YS: Technically speaking, there are in the Collection a few subaerate coins, plated coins with a copper core and silver coating; there are also very few coins of copper-silver alloy and of cupro-nickel alloy. Such cases are within our scope.

CD: If price was not the issue, why did you choose to focus on the copper and bronze coins?

YS: Because this Collection is intended to be used on a scientific level, mapping the ancient world through coins. Another essential concept was put forward by the head of the Collection, Dr Vasiliki Penna (also Associate Professor in the University of the Peloponnese), and this was to bring in the spotlight the everyday transactions in several ancient societies; dealing with copper and bronze is preferable, because these were the base metals most commonly used in the everyday life of the people. These are also found widely, across the whole geographic area we are researching. Furthermore, after a fashion, some coins are repatriated; it is more preferable to acquire them at foreign auctions, so they are brought back to Greece by making legal purchases.

CD: Interesting! Is that a difficult procedure, or with certain complex regulations?

YS: This is rather a quite simple procedure: one has to present the documents which indicate that the items were legally acquired in compliance with international rules.

Legal Issues Affecting Collectors of Coins and other Antiquities in Greece

CD: How does it work on the legal aspect within Greece, which has strict antiquities laws, for a private collection such as this to be developed?

YS: The KIKPE Numismatic Collection is a collection established with proper documentation and the according legal status, as far as the Ministry of Culture is concerned. It may be noted that it is quite a different thing to have a collection with the right to expand it.

CD: Meaning? Say someone finds a coin on the ground in some village. Or, there are many locals who have small collections at home, sometimes inherited within the family.

YS: Right. The process, if you find a coin or want to register a collection, is that first you go to the responsible agency of the Ministry of Culture and officially declare that you have these coins in your possession. However, though this might be approved, you can’t expand the registered antiquities in your possession. There is a certain classification, however, where a person or private foundation can be given this right from the Ministry of Culture. In Greece, most of the owners are known as simple possessors, and very few as collectors. The KIKPE foundation is counted among the collectors.

CD: So say you are a tourist, what do you do if you discover a coin? Do you get to keep it?

YS: One should go by the book and visit this agency of the Ministry of Culture, which used to be called the Ephorate for Antiquities Shops and Archaeological Private Collections, but which has now become a Department. Alternatively, one should contact the relevant local Ephorate. The main thing remains that you have to declare that you have the coin in your hands, whether it be one item or a hundred. On occasion a citizen may be allowed to keep some antiquities in his or her possession; these cannot be sold without the authorities knowing, as antiquities in general are considered property of the Greek state. It is quite different when one is given ownership for certain items.

CD: And what about if someone wants to take their newly-discovered coin out of the country? In regional countries, there are different laws, but every once in a while we hear a story about foreigners arrested while trying to make off with coins or other antiquities. In some countries, the law states that items less than 100 years old, for example, can be taken away.

YS: It is not allowed to take something out of Greece in accordance with the provisions of the UNESCO Convention concerning the protection of cultural heritage. Besides international regulations, there is also national legislation, of course. In Greece there was for many years a cut-off date of 1453, the fall of the Byzantine Empire. There is a distinction between movable and immovable objects as well. Movable objects, which consist of excavated archaeological finds, are under protection of law if they date from before 1830, the creation of the modern Greek state. Accordingly, the law on coins up to 1453 still stands.

There have also been some additions to the law, like the definition of a ‘coin hoard’ for example. This is by extension also protected by the state, because it is an ensemble, with an additional historical and archeological value. To give an example of how rules are enforced one could mention the case of the phoenix of Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first governor of the modern Greek state. This silver phoenix was the first modern Greek currency, issued in 1828, before the drachma.

Now, if you find one coin of 20 lepta (a copper fraction of the phoenix) minted in 1831, it is not protected. But if someone finds in a field, say, 10 or 12 such coins of the same date, this is considered a coin hoard and thereby as a group find falls under protection of the law.

International Law and Disputes over Antiquities

CD: This is a very interesting subject, as of course there are many in Greece who would like, for example, the Elgin Marbles back from the British. In recent years there have been more legal challenges from states where antiquities have been taken abroad, and they want them back based on the argument of provenance. How is international law involved here?

YS: This is of course the fundamental question of ‘who owns antiquity’ to use the title of a book by James Cuno, on this debate, which has been argued for a long time. A pivotal thing has to do with which countries have ratified the UNESCO Convention and when. There are several matters regarding the protection of cultural heritage that have to do with illegal trafficking. Some people would argue that coins are something of a mass-production product, as it is approximately estimated that a couple of dies could have produced up to 15,000 coins, which would be practically all the same. Note that this number depends on the metal and other relevant factors.

CD: But I imagine in that case, finding the original dies would be something quite exciting for collectors and important for scholars. Do you ever see these come up?

YS: Well, some pairs of ancient coin dies, mostly Roman, can be found in auctions. But these are very rare, so you are right, they have a certain value in themselves. But it is not as simple as that, as these are made of base metals, being important mainly as technological instruments.

CD: Regarding the provenance issue again and historical legacy, we know that Turkey often claims to be the Ottoman inheritor, and Greece feels like it upholds the Byzantine legacy. How does this affect coins and coin hoards from the periods in both countries?

YS: For coins, as for other ancient items, whether they are found in Turkey, Greece or elsewhere, there are some restrictions according to the UNESCO Convention concerning illegal movement from where they have been discovered. To cite a quite well-known example, such was the case of Turkey asking for the return of a great hoard of Athenian decadrachms. Back in the mid-1980s, there occurred the famous case of the Elmalı or Lycian Hoard of these rare ancient Greek coins found in Turkey and resold in the US, before being returned to Turkey following a legal challenge. This example was so studied that even a conference was held about it.

This was very important scientifically for numismatists, since we knew of only about a dozen Athenian decadrachms at that time. With the said hoard another fourteen surfaced. Later, in the mid-1990s, the Karkamış hoard of 3,000 coins was found near the Turkish-Syrian border, which brought the number of the Athenian decadrachms to about 40. A meticulous study undertaken by a German scholar, Dr Wolfgang Fischer-Bossert, in Vienna, refined this matter on several levels, taking into account these additions and some more, so that by now we know of approximately 45 specimens. So, in a way, these kinds of high-visibility discoveries and disputes sometimes can provide new knowledge about some rare coins. Of course, the importance of knowing the archaeological context of the items cannot be overlooked.

Dealing with the Illegal Trade in Rare Coins

CD: Since we are talking about auctions and re-sales, what about the internet? There are obviously millions of coins being sold on various websites all the time. Do the authorities monitor this trade for if any stolen items come up?

YS: There is a department in the Ministry of Culture that deals with such matters, and which has undertaken a truly Herculean task.

CD: What about the shady world of private auctions? We frequently hear stories about how the best treasures of antiquity are sold discreetly in such places as Switzerland, Germany and Austria to sophisticated millionaires. Is there anything to be done about this? And what about the initial transactions from say, poor farmers or collectors who provide the coins and middlemen who transport them out?

YS: That is a very difficult issue, if you were to try and track down the thousands or millions of coins, seeing what belongs to whom.

Illegal activities also take place, no doubt there, but we usually find out about these when they come to light. An interesting example, which happened ten years ago, at the Customs of the London Heathrow Airport involved one of the famous coins struck in the name of Brutus, produced at a traveling or military mint, ca. 43-42 BC. At that time Brutus was in the Roman province of Macedonia; the coins in his name could have been minted somewhere near his camp, possibly at Amphipolis or perhaps at Thessaloniki. The issue in question, to which the coin intercepted at the airport belonged, was the ‘Ides of March’ denarius, famous already in antiquity. It depicts the cap of liberty and two daggers, like the ones used to kill Julius Caesar, as well as the date of the deed: March 15 (44 BC).

So, getting back to the story, a crucial point was to pinpoint where these coins were minted and where they could have circulated. By establishing a provenance from the Greek territory, the said coin had to be returned to the Greek state.

By the way, the UNESCO Convention was created in 1970. It was ratified by Greece in 1980 and signed by the UK in the early 2000s; such technical details can be of importance regarding how things are accordingly handled.

More recently, a similar case emerged about a rare silver octadrachm of Mosses, a very obscure ruler, perhaps of the Bisaltai, which was brought illegally to Switzerland and then claimed by Greece.

The Science of Numismatics: How Coin Finds Can Change History

CD: These last examples show some of the interesting historical details associated with coins. Since of course your main interest is on the academic side of coins, rather than the business of coins, I would be curious to hear more about how the study of coins is today and some of the interesting details you come across while researching here.

YS: Numismatics is a science – they used to call it an auxiliary science, which is somehow inappropriate. In fact, it is an instrumentum studii and it can be used as a primary source in historical research in some cases. For example, there are some kings known only by coins. For example, a Celtic kingdom, existed in the 3rd century BC in what is now Bulgaria.

CD: In Bulgaria? That is earlier than I thought too.

YS: Well, we know that the eastern Celtic tribes had reached the Danube in the late 4th century BC. Later they launched an offensive on Macedon and they even reached Delphi in 279 BC in a failed attack; after they were repulsed, there were three detachments of these Gauls disengaging towards the north and east. One ended up in central Bulgaria, creating the Kingdom of Tylis, as it was known. It was a short-lived state in Thrace, lasting about 60 years.

Another contingent went to Asia Minor where they would become known as Galatae. One of their major centers was Ankyra (modern Ankara); subsequently the Galatian kingdom was often at war with Pergamon. The descendants of these Gauls became eventually Hellenized and then Christianized.

CD: So, from all this fascinating history, who is the king known only from coinage?

YS: We know that the last Celtic king in Thrace was Kavaros (known both from texts and coins). With him the Kingdom of Tylis perished, but before him there were at least two other kings, whose names are only attested from coins: Kersibaulos and Orsoaltios. No textual record survives for them.

It is supposed that they would have most probably been Gaulish. There was a coin hoard reportedly from the Banat area, or perhaps from the broader territory, even from Bulgaria. Some punch marks on the coins of this hoard are considered Celtic. Among the other coins found, there was one coin of Orsoaltios.

CD: Wow! That is a very interesting example about a group that I’m sure very few people have even heard of.

YS: Another case in point: Domitian II went unrecorded by ancient historians and until recently this second Domitian from the 3rd century AD was considered an imaginary emperor. There was of course the well-known Domitian from the Flavian dynasty (1st century AD). However, evidence on another Domitianus – one of the pretenders from the times of the 3rd-century crisis of the Roman Empire –was for many decades put aside.

However, there are now two extant coins of Domitian II: one, in a French museum, known since 1900, had been considered a fake; a second piece, however, found recently in 2003 in Oxfordshire, helped confirm that the first one was genuine. A fine study by Dr Richard Abdy of the British Museum made clear that the two coins matched, and that thus there was indeed a Domitian II after all. He was involved in the turmoil of the breakaway Gallo-Roman Empire and probably ruled briefly in AD 271.

CD: It’s amazing that only one or two coins can so dramatically affect our knowledge of the historical record, in the absence of textual sources. Are you personally working on coins with this kind of history-enhancing value?

YS: Well, there are still some very rare coins to study. Recently I went to a conference in Berlin on ancient Thracian coinage. It was the second time I had to deal with a rare coin issue with the legend Melsa on it; one such coin is in the holdings of the KIKPE collection. The legend could be referring to anything, as in “Melsa” (singular genitive, i.e. of Melsas) or “Melsan(i)on” (plural genitive, i.e. of the Melsans), for a city perhaps. A city with that name is not known, but such a scenario should be thoroughly examined in order to be disproven. The other hypothesis that came up as a proposal was that Melsas could have been an unknown king. The writing is in Greek, while several kings in the Thracian lands produced coins with Greek script.

I have proposed that the said coin has not to do with a historical person, but with a hero – probably Melsas, the heroic founder of Mesembria Pontica, modern Nesebar. However, this coin issue may have no direct connection with that city- there could be just a link with the hero. In brief, I would not consider after all an association with a thus-far unknown ruler, or with an obscure city. Specimens of this coinage come from a certain area near the Romanian-Bulgarian border; certain clues rather eliminate the possibility of an unattested city having been there. I would suppose it more likely to have been a sanctuary in the name of a legendary founder.

CD: The ancient Thracians have always been an intriguingly enigmatic people. Does numismatic research help in identifying them better?

YS: Yes. Another related rarity would be a coin issue of a Thracian tribe, the Danteletai, which is not well known from literary sources. This is why there have been some misconceptions about their territorial location in antiquity. This has been stated as having been near Kyustendil in Bulgaria, but from coins and literary evidence, it seems that their homeland was (at least initially) closer to Mt Haemos. Very few of these coins are known to have survived; in 2012 we knew only of five, and now some more have appeared. One of these is kept in the KIKPE Numismatic Collection.

CD: That’s a great detail, and congratulations for that. But when you are working with so many coins, or seeing records of them in other collections, is it possible to lose track of what is what? Are there possibly other similarly rare coins in collections that people just overlook?

YS: It happens. When something is rare, you can have trouble to identify it. When I first saw the KIKPE piece of the Danteletai, I managed to recall an old Bulgarian publication which I had come across a dozen years ago; there a claim had been made that such a coin was fake, but evidently research moves on. There is another thing to maybe ponder: after a coin is correctly identified and properly studied, it can become referenced by the auction companies. Such scholarly references cited in the auction catalogues tend to add more perceived value to the coins for sale.

Auctions, Scholarship and the Effect on Coin Value

CD: That is a very interesting point, and it raises a question I was thinking to ask. People like you, who have all this specialized knowledge that can make or break the value of a coin… do these kinds of companies contact you to do appraisals?

YS: Personally I don’t do this kind of work. There are some numismatists who are working for auction houses full time, and they do a fine job. It’s another matter that all parts of the numismatic community should cooperate in the name of comity and for the benefit of science and research.

CD: But they don’t pay for it? That doesn’t sound fair.

YS: The auction companies pay the people who work for them. When there is some connection between the academic community and auction houses, it should be understood as well-meaning conduct between civilized people. And, as a scholar, it is always good to see that your work is quoted, as one should quote the work of others.

CD: And what about the other way around, if you see something up for auction that piques your interest – can you examine it to use it in your research?

YS: Yes. An example that comes to mind is in relation with a recent study of mine on a Roman Provincial coin issue of Abydos at the Hellespont, struck in the name of Commodus as caesar. Note that during that period provincial mints, especially east of the Adriatic, were allowed to produce copper coins, in the name of the emperor or of a young caesar. Anyway, I wanted to take an opinion from an auction house, about a coin issued again in the name of Commodus as caesar, but from another mint in Asia Minor. For such a specimen I had noticed an intriguing remark made by someone in the personnel of the auction house, so I proceeded to make contact and ask for some elaboration.

The whole thing worked as a quite useful insight, even for a while though, as part of a working hypothesis. Eventually this remark outlived its usefulness, because my study became more thorough and more extensive, leading to a more precise chronological classification of certain issues minted both in Rome and in the eastern provinces.

CD: Since the coin value is so much determined by its history, auction houses must dread such situations – the possibility of being wrong and the customer being displeased. Does this happen often?

YS: There are always cases in which some mistakes are made, even by auctioneers; nobody is infallible, and numismatists are occasionally in error too. Probably when such mistakes are made it is rather a combination of partial lack of knowledge, time pressure, or even wishful thinking to inaccurately consider something as rare, when in fact it is not.

Besides proper documentation, usually the factors of known provenance or pedigree are employed to help determine rarity and value. There is something of an overvaluation tendency sometimes, especially when the market goes through a period of hype and, when possible, these kinds of mistakes should be corrected.

CD: Interesting indeed. But do you have time, and do they let you, to work with a coin before the sale?

YS: One can ask for permission, either before or after a sale, to publish a photo of a coin that is rare, but it is not guaranteed. There is a chance, if a coin is very rare and if the buyer cannot be known, that it could get out of reach for research for a very long time. So, one has to go and ask for an image, e.g. in order to use it in a scientific article.

CD: That sounds like a fair request – after all, you’re doing it to expand scientific knowledge.

YS: Well, usually it is not difficult to get an affirmative response. As noted this can become on occasion a decisive factor: sometimes a publication appearing about certain coins may after a fashion influence the value of the coins referred to. Matters of authenticity and rarity when dealt with by scientific research can obviously affect a coin’s value to some extent.

Historical Insights to the Late Roman Economy and the Byzantine Gold Coinage

CD: I think many of our readers will be interested in the Byzantine coinage in connection with the historical aspects you have mentioned. Is there anything you can add about this?

YS: Sure. Here let me quote the famous words of Robert Sabatino Lopez, a scholar born in Genoa in 1910, who immigrated to the US in 1939. In a 1951 paper, he coined for the Byzantine gold coinage the term “the dollar of the Middle Ages.”

CD: Why was it considered thus?

YS: The starting point for discussing this coinage is the establishment of the gold solidus (or nomisma) in AD 309/310 by Constantine the Great. The introduction of this new coinage marked a differentiation from the previous one in terms of value. The previous gold coin unit was the aureus, which had been introduced by Augustus; according to the Augustan standard, 60 gold aurei were equivalent to one libra or litra, i.e., one Roman pound of gold (ca. 328 grams).

The newly established equivalence was 72 solidi to one Roman litra. What was in effect done was to introduce a lighter coin, with a high intrinsic value (24 carats), but at about 4.5 grams of gold, lighter than its predecessor. By the way, the word ‘carat’, derives from the Greek term keration (alternatively, siliqua in Latin) and it became largely employed as a metric fraction from this time onwards.

CD: Interesting! Yes, as they say, all words come from the Greek. What led Constantine to make this reform, however?

YS: As already mentioned, the 3rd century AD saw a big tumult within the Roman state, a multifaceted crisis hitting almost all levels of society. So, anyway, the Tetrarchs re-consolidated the state to some degree. Then, a little later, Constantine started to eliminate all the other contenders; he obviously wanted to break away from the previous tradition even before he became sole emperor in 324.

His idea was to use lighter coins and spend less precious metal on coins in general. Inflation was there for sure, and rampant, as we can see in a famous edict of Diocletian issued in 301. The measures taken were insufficient to stop it. Obviously, you cannot easily check inflation or make it illegal.

CD: Sure. But does this mean Constantine invented the concept of a carat? What was used previously?

YS: The carat is an old metric idea, however it took physical form when it became a coin. Before Constantine it was never a coin, just a metric unit used to measure gold, dust or nuggets. A carat is like 0.189 grams of gold- practically it itself could never be a gold coin. But when under Constantine I a coin was issued with a carat designation, it was a silver one (this is the siliqua). The ratio is quite revealing: the equivalence between gold and silver was largely set at 1 to 12.

Since a very small gold piece was impractical to use, making a coin out of its silver equivalent was more preferable instead. Less gold would be spent also in coin production. Thus the carat became a monetary unit and accordingly, it became important.

CD: That is a really intriguing story. I never knew that detail. So, this is the origin of the Byzantine monetary system?

YS: Yes, the foundations had been laid. The important thing with the solidus was what it is implied by its name, a ‘solid’ coin that was fully intact and highly pure. A coin of 24 carats gold is very valuable and a formidable means for conducting transactions. That is why it dominated the Mediterranean commercial world and many medieval markets for centuries.

But the metal is just one aspect- the other is the imperial power. The only one who could produce this coinage was the one, until Charlemagne, emperor.

CD: Was this because of Byzantine access to gold, or simply the imperial authority?

YS: The Byzantine Empire was not very famous for its gold mines. The ones in Nubia (an area in southern Egypt) were probably the most known. Some celebrated ancient gold mines would have probably been exhausted by the Byzantine period. There were some known to be exploited in Armenia, Asia Minor, Montenegro, Serbia, and elsewhere; obviously, Byzantium had access to these mines for quite a while. The access to the Nubian mines lasted until the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs in 641.

CD: Did that cause a dramatic change?

YS: No, interestingly enough. The Byzantine gold solidus remained a powerful instrument for centuries as it was not based on mine production, but largely on import and taxation, taking reserves of gold and turning them into means of transactions. In fact, politically, it is more or less a powerful currency imposed. This is rather the case, by a combination of political and economic power- when your coinage is respected and coveted because it has been disseminated by force, diplomacy or other means. The Byzantines were thus adept at using their gold coinage as a weapon.

CD: A very interesting point, using money as a weapon, and this concept is obviously still alive and well with certain modern countries and currencies, as Greece has experienced these last few years. But I seem to recall part of the story of Byzantine coinage had to do with debasement at various points, like under Alexios I Komnenos, and other happenings related to the empire’s changing fortunes.

YS: Indeed. But, first, let us clarify a technical distinction regarding Byzantine coinage- when do we place the start of it? For a particular reason, it is with emperor Anastasios I (491-518). The turning point was actually his coin reform of 498; a second stage of this reform was performed by 513.

It involved only the copper coinage, bringing in a factor which has to do with economic developments of importance. For quite a while the inhabitants of the Empire were using small and impractical nummi– bronze coins, small like lentils. They were very debased, and a very unreliable form of currency. Then came Anastasios, who in 498 introduced the follis, a large copper coin. This was the first and more essential reform.

The follis was a reliable coin, and something of an innovation. Anastasios ordered the value of the coin to be placed on it with a letter, Μ. This was the Greek letter mu, that is the 12th letter of the Greek alphabet, also signifying as a numeral the number 40. It equaled 40 of the small nummi, which continued to circulate for a while, until the end of the 6th century. Similarly, on the other smaller denominations the coin’s value was also placed.

CD: What was the impact of this reform?

YS: There are two very important reasons why this reform was successful. First, if one would go to the market to make some transactions for everyday items, he or she should have been carrying a purse or a pouch, having great difficulty to do shopping with a bunch of the minute and unreliable old coins. With the folles in use, large coins with marks of value, things were simplified.

Reason two involved fiscal affairs- one thing is the public, the other is the state, which has to collect the taxes. Especially in Byzantium this had to do mostly with land, as it was largely an agrarian society. It may be said that trade was not equally significant to the larger tax base. For the emperor, it was profitable to develop a system for what the state would accept from tax collectors.

For example, one collector would take in 7,000 of the small and debased nummi, and would take one solidus for all of that. But, he had to add another 200 little nummi for this amount – it was like a surcharge. This regulation made one gold solidus the equivalent of 7,200 nummi, but this was only in connection to the revenues of the state, not for the other everyday transactions. If the tax collector wanted to exchange 7,000 of his small pieces with an individual person, he would accept one solidus back. When one dealt with the Byzantine state, he would end up giving more to the state, which made a profit of 200 nummi per solidus transaction.

CD: And this had a beneficial effect for the state for some time, I would suppose?

YS: At the end of the reign of Anastasios I, the imperial treasury was full of gold: its solidi equaled approximately 104,000 kilos of gold! Now, if you do the math, there is no doubt that you have a very successful gold coinage, alongside with the efficient economic policy followed. It could be argued that the state treasury became full of gold because of the reform of copper coinage and, significantly, the political power to impose it mainly through taxation and tight management.

CD: So in daily life in that time, were the gold coins really used by regular people?

YS: Through the centuries, gold coins would be used only for large transactions, like large-scale trade, tax payments, etc. With one gold coin, to give an example, one could buy ten cows, as attested on one occasion in the 12th century, or a common psalter book- a quite expensive item in the Middle Ages.

The Prestige of Byzantine Gold Coinage, its Regulations and Gradual Decline

YS: Stories abound also about the power of Byzantine gold coinage in textual references. Such a narrative is about a merchant who reached Taprobane, which was most probably modern-day Sri Lanka. It’s a well-known source, the former trader Kosmas Indikopleustes, who later became a monk. This is a mid-6th century text relating a story from the beginning of that century about Sopatros the merchant, who was brought before the Indian ruler of the island, together with a Persian ambassador.

The king was asking questions about the respective kingdoms. The Persian was boasting, and the king noticed that the Roman/Byzantine remained silent. So he asked what the man could say in favor of his own land. Sopatros told the Indian king that the coins could be compared rather than comparing accounts. They just had to juxtapose a gold solidus with a Persian silver coin.

When the Indian king compared the two coins, he decided that the greatest king was in fact the Byzantine emperor. This is a tale, and of course every such tale has elements of propaganda in it. But a valid point is that one coin is attested as having prestige over all the others for that period, the solidus, and that it lasted for several centuries.

An analogous point is also made by the historian Procopius. Such is the case with a reference in 536-7 to the Franks, a rising power that had occupied Marseille. He was irritated as the Franks had issued gold coins with their own images. This was viewed as trying to usurp the imperial right to coin solidi.

CD: So the Byzantine state tried to prevent others from minting gold? It is just a metal- how could they enforce this?

YS: The Byzantine state would not bother e.g. about tremisses (thirds of solidus) being produced by the Franks or the Visigoths, but they had serious objections about others seeking to mint solidi with an image other than the imperial portrait. Theodebert I, the Merovingian king of Metz in Lorraine at that time, did so, and this was more than frowned upon by Procopius.

This was a crime worse than counterfeiting: it was considered to be abuse of the imperial authority.

CD: Fascinating stuff! So the use of gold coinage and its inscriptions had an aspect of financial competition between states, even then.

YS: Another example will make it more evident. I have to quote Procopius once more. In 542, he recounts a case in which Justinian I did not allow the Persians to receive ransom for a certain captured Byzantine aristocrat, Ioannis from Edessa in Syria, who had been taken as a hostage.

His grandmother was willing to pay the ransom, the equivalent of about 10,500 solidi. So here comes the intervention of the emperor, who said “I will not allow this in order to not give to the barbarians the wealth of the Romans.” A very important element can be noticed, which is that in Byzantium there was a prohibition on the export of gold coinage.

CD: Indeed. This sounds like an interesting policy with some modern similarities…

YS: It was rather a mercantile policy of how coin circulation could be controlled. It is well known that the Byzantines were paying tributes to avoid invasions, or bribes to warlords who could be employed or used against other enemies. A significant amount of gold was leaving the state – that is true – but in the case mentioned previously Justinian declared actually that the emperor alone was responsible for regulating how much money was getting over the borders. It is also like making a statement, because the currency was interwoven with the name of the emperor, and thus his personal power.

CD: How did the state enforce attempts to export money? What about melting it down to evade detection?

YS: In Byzantium, generally speaking, there was capital punishment for counterfeiting, altering or defacing gold coinage; this parameter was tied up with imperial authority, continuing also the Roman legal tradition. During the period of Iconoclasm, the major topic was of course how to deal with the reverence or the misuse of the religious images. The Iconoclast emperors tried to oppose what they perceived as idolatry; inevitably, the matter of the religious and the imperial images on the coins came up.

There is this story about a certain St Stephen the Younger who was presented before the emperor Constantine V, in the 760s. According to the story, he takes out a gold coin in the emperor’s image and name, and they have a debate. Stephen asks what would be the consequences for him, were he to willingly step on this coin with the emperor’s face engraved on it. So the Iconophile saint then accuses the emperor of affronting the images of the divine by his policies, and he steps on the coin. For this offense, he was driven to prison charged with stepping illegally on the royal image, as the source relates.

CD: That’s great.

YS: Again, gold coinage and the imperial right to issue it were matters of very serious importance. Sometimes these matters involved some sort of financial war or even could lead to real war. A remarkable example was with the Arabs, around 692. At the time, caliph ‘Abd al-Malik was involved with Justinian II in a conflict about coinage. The Arabs had to pay tribute to Byzantium and they proposed to do this by issuing their own coins and paying the amount due with them. From Byzantine sources, two views on this episode are recorded: one, that is a contra-emperor source, says that Justinian II foolishly did not accept this and campaigned against the Arabs. Justinian can be called a fool in retrospect though, because he lost the war.

Another source, however, states something very interesting, that it was unacceptable for anybody to use a different kharakter – this Greek word means the stamp or imprint on the coin, which also includes the royal image – for the minting of gold coins.

CD: Very interesting. And as time progressed? What led to the decline and debasement of the Byzantine gold coinage?

YS: The Byzantine gold coinage was used as a weapon for centuries more. A later Western source, Liutprand of Cremona, was a bishop visiting Byzantium during the reign of Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas. There is a 968 episode where a person in the Byzantine court literally threatens the bishop with coinage: Byzantium was so powerful in terms of money, he said, that it could employ with it other nations against a certain opponent, in order to crush him like a clay pot, which cannot be glued together again. At that time this claim was far from bragging.

The swan song of the Byzantine nomisma was gradual at first. The gold coinage began to be debased during the second quarter of the 11th century. There is a theory that this was a time of creeping inflation, and that can be seen arguably as a means for economic growth. But it is just a claim for now, as we haven’t yet found the real causes to fully explain the collapse. Several reasons have been proposed, but this is a matter that merits further research. In any case, after 1071 debasement became rampant, leading to a ‘gold’ coin which was a pale shell of its former self (being below 6 or even below 3 carats in purity).

The numismatic reform of Alexios Komnenos, which you mentioned already, was based on the hyperpyron- introducing this gold coin which was now of about 21 carats pure, no longer 24 carats. Without going into further details, this 1092 reform was quite pivotal for a period of temporary recovery.

However, debasement started anew after 1204 and was gradually continued during the Palaiologan period; by ca. 1300 the hyperperon had dropped down to 14 carats and by 1310 the Byzantine gold coin’s worth was down to 12 carats, half of its original value. As the territory and the political power of Byzantium waned more and more, with dire consequences, the fate of the once powerful coinage was unavoidable. The hyperperon ceased to be minted altogether soon after the middle of the 14th century. As the scholar T. Reinach wittily remarked, the Empire perished in 1453, “when it had spent its last gold coin.”

Numismatic Exhibits ahead for KIKPE

CD: That is all very fascinating background on a very detailed study. So, finally, to return to your work at the KIKPE institute, can you give us some updates on your past and upcoming activities of interest?

YS: In the past, the KIKPE Numismatic Collection went public for the first time with two exhibits in Greece, at Athens in 2006 and then at Thessaloniki in 2007. The first exhibit was held in the Benaki Museum; this was part of an ongoing agreement as the material of the Collection has been given on loan to the Benaki Museum for safekeeping and for organizing cultural events with the participation of both institutions.

After the repeated success of the temporary exhibit at Thessaloniki, the KIKPE Foundation adopted an extroverted policy, in order to promote Greek culture abroad, through concepts mostly involving coins. The first such project to be realized in this direction took place at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC in 2008, an exhibition called ‘Classically Greek.’ It combined banknotes, coins and other objects. Later, in 2012, an exhibition was organized at Geneva; it was housed by the Fondation Martin Bodmer and was entitled ‘Words and Coins: from Ancient Greece to Byzantium,’ combining coins with manuscripts and old books, juxtaposed thematically.

At the moment, we are preparing for a periodical exhibition at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. It should be inaugurated hopefully by July 2016. The focus will be on the development of the human figure as showcased on coins, medals, gemstones, etc.

The KIKPE foundation is also in discussions with the American Numismatic Society in Manhattan, so that we may be able to proceed with a joint project. The possibility of organizing a numismatic exhibition in New York City is under consideration. Another venture to be attempted would be to co-produce a book on copper coinage through the ages- but anything would be very premature for the time being.

The proper organization of these activities is the responsibility of the Board of the KIKPE Foundation. At the same time, on our part, there are other tasks which should be taken care of, as very important work has to be continued also concerning the documentation and cataloging of the Numismatic Collection.

CD: That’s a great result and exciting program you have going on. I wish you good luck with it, and with your research in general. Thank you very much for taking the time to share these fascinating stories.

YS: Thank so much also for having such an interesting conversation.

Albania’s Emerging Regional Role: Interview with Arian Spasse, Albanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: as Albania continues its diplomatic and reform efforts towards European Union efforts, it is placing strong emphasis on high-level cooperation. In this exclusive new interview, Balkanalysis.com correspondent Blerina Mecule gets an update on Albania’s EU reform efforts, bilateral agreements, and participation in European initiatives for the region from Arian Spasse, director of the Albanian ministry of foreign affair’s special department for relations with the European Union.

Preparing for Accession Negotiations: the Reform Process

Blerina Mecule: In June 2014, Albania was granted the status of candidate country for EU membership. This was an important achievement for the country. The EU has announced that further enlargement is expected in 2020. What are the signs of progress, in terms of reforms, that Albania is making towards the opening of the accession negotiations expected late this year, focusing particularly in the newly approved National Council for the Integration?

Interview with Arian Spasse- Balkanalysis

According to Spasse, “A tangible and credible EU perspective is an irreplaceable support for domestic reforms and motivation of the administration.”

Arian Spasse: Albania views its EU perspective as closely tied to the domestic reform agenda focused on the consolidation of the rule of law. It welcomes the recent positive evaluations of the European Commission and is aware of the challenges that lie ahead for the fulfilment of the five key priorities for the opening of accession negotiations.

We consider that the opening of accession talks would provide a roadmap for progress in addressing the reform challenges. Accession negotiations are an opportunity to better focus on what is to be done, particularly in relation to the rule of law, through the benchmarks for chapters 23 and 24. A clear illustration of the role of accession talks is the reform of the judiciary: if Albania is to adopt a long-term strategy for the reform of the judiciary that is sustainable in time, it needs the screening and benchmarking for chapter 23 to feed into the strategy.

A tangible and credible EU perspective is an irreplaceable support for domestic reforms and motivation of the administration. There has been an enormous advancement concerning the reforms in five priority areas, which are crucial for the next step – the opening of accession negotiations.

The reform of the judiciary is the most difficult one and is led by the Ad Hoc Parliamentary Committee on Justice System. The first analytical draft of the Justice Reform has been discussed with the stakeholders and finalised, identifying the needs for intervention (Phase I). The Ad Hoc Committee, on proposal of the Group of High Level Experts, has adopted two very important documents – the Strategy of the Justice System Reform and the Action Plan for the implementation of this strategy (Phase II). The above mentioned documents will serve as a guide for the development of Phase III of the process for reform in the justice system, the drafting of constitutional and legal amendments. The Strategy and Action Plan will remain open for comments and suggestions for improvement. The Group of High Level Experts will organize a process of public consultation and consultation with international experts (the Venice Commission) and will assess and reflect on their involvement in these documents.

Fighting Corruption and Organized Crime

Regarding the fight against corruption, there has been progress made in strengthening cooperation between law enforcement agencies, by removing obstacles to conduct proactive, efficient investigations of inexplicable wealth and corruption-related offences, including via the effective use of financial investigations. A functional network of Anti-Corruption coordinators and contact points has been set up, and an online system for the denouncement of corruption cases has been set up. We are making efforts to increase pro-active investigations substantially towards establishing a solid track record of investigations, prosecutions and final convictions in corruption cases.

The fight against organised crime has shown a positive trend. A series of legal reforms, approved during 2014, aim at improving the organizational and functional aspects of State Police. Drugs trafficking in general, cultivation and trafficking of cannabis in particular have been hit by police operations. These operations, as well as the cooperation with law enforcement agencies in neighbouring countries, confirm the commitment of the Government in tackling this issue.

Positive trends in track records are reported, especially in relation to money laundering and drugs. The anti-trafficking Strategy has been approved and launched in December 2014, showing commitment to step up the fight against trafficking of human beings, money laundering and implement the Anti-Mafia law. The efforts made in this field have been rewarded with the decision of the US State Department to remove Albania in 2014 from the Tier 2 Watch List.

In order to ensure the sustainability and success of the reforms, an all-inclusive approach is necessary. The Albanian government is committed to making every effort to ensure a constructive political dialogue and to build on the existing political consensus on EU integration. The recently established National Council for European Integration (NCEI), chaired by the opposition, serves as a platform that brings together political parties, civil society, academia and other stakeholders. NCEI has a key role in ensuring all-inclusiveness and the necessary political and social support for the implementation of EU related reforms. Civil society representatives participate actively in the meetings of NCEI.

A New Investment Council and other Pro-Economic Development Policies

BM: Recently Albania has launched the Investment Council, to strengthen the business climate in the country. Could you tell us more about this initiative, as well as about other concrete steps of the government to create a friendly legal framework, in order to attract more foreign investments in Albania?

AS: The Investment Council is a project that was launched in February 2014 with the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the Albanian Government and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Representatives of government institutions, donors, international partners and business communities are part of this high-level platform.

The purpose of the Council of Investment is to facilitate a direct dialogue and dynamic interaction between business and government, to address problems related to the business climate and investments, to report cases of unfair and abusive practices to business, to fight corruption, tax evasion and informality, and to suggest legal and procedural mechanisms to prevent, eliminate and resolve such problems.

Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) has been at the focus of the Albanian governments. Three new laws are very important in this respect – the law for strategic investments, the law on public-private partnership, and the law on tourism, as a clear indication of the importance we attach to foreign investments, which bring economic growth, increase competitiveness, and which also offer sustainability and employment.

Albania’s legal framework on FDI has been designed to create a favourable business climate for foreign investors. I would like to emphasize that no prior government authorization is needed and there are no sector restrictions to foreign investments. Also, there is no limitation on the percentage share of foreign participation in companies- 100% foreign ownership is possible. Foreign investments may not be expropriated or nationalized directly or indirectly, except in special cases, in the interest of the public, as defined by law. Foreign investors have the right to expatriate all funds and contributions in kind of their investment. In any case, foreign investments will have a treatment equal to what common international practice allows.

As a result, in the latest “Doing Business” report for 2015, Albania showed a significant improvement in the overall ranking, especially regarding the ease of doing business. In 2015, Albania’s position in “Doing Business” has improved. It ranks in the 68th place compared to 108th in 2014, and 136th in 2008.

Natural Resources and Advantages for Investors

BM: What are the advantages that Albania offers in terms of natural resources combined with its strategic position in South East Europe that might be of interest to foreign investors?

AS: Albania has a very good geographical position along Adriatic and Ionian seas. The coastline has stupendous potential and support for endless opportunities. Albania’s proximity to regional and EU markets, allows low distribution costs and “just-in-time” product delivery.

Albania benefits from extensive Free Trade Agreements and has free access to a market of 26 million customers. The country became a member of the WTO in 2000, and signed the SAA and CEFTA in 2006. In 2009, Albania signed an FTA with the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), etc. Currently we have double taxation treaties with 40 countries.

Actually, Albania can offer a cost-competitive and dynamic workforce. 57% of the population is under the age of 35. More than 100,000 students enrol at university. English and Italian are widely spoken. French and German languages are included in the education system. Other regional languages are widely used, as well.

The government has approved a new fiscal package whose main objective is to maintain macroeconomic stability and continuation of structural reforms. It has been designed in close consultation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) and does not distinguish between foreign and domestic investors.

As potential investment sectors for foreign investors I would mention renewable energy (hydro, solar and wind), petroleum and gas energy, manufacturing (textile and footwear industry), agriculture, tourism, transport and logistics, etc.

Albania’s Foreign Investors Today

BM: The idea of the Europeanization of the Western Balkans is becoming even more a reality not only politically, but also in economically. The main foreign investors interested in entering South East Europe are the EU, USA, UAE, Turkey, China and Russia. What is Albania’s orientation in this regard?

AS: According to the Bank of Albania, FDI in 2013 reached €2,854 million. Of these, €785 million were invested in the sector of “Post and Telecommunication,” €780 million in the sector of “Monetary and Financial Intermediation,” and €732 million in “Extraction of energetic minerals”. Greece ranks first with 37.49% of the total. Canada is second with 27.93%, followed by Austria with 13.24%, and then the Netherland with 12.26%. Turkey is next, with 9.78% and then Germany, with 3.75%.

In comparison to 2012, Greek direct investments increased to 39.5%. Many Greek companies operate in Albanian banking, construction, services, industry, etc. Most of them are small and medium size businesses. Canadian direct investments increased by 13.4% in comparison to 2012 and are focused mainly in oil extraction. Austrian investments experienced a decrease of 2.33% in comparison to 2012. Austrian companies are focused on banking, energy and services sectors. During 2013, the Turks increased their investments in Albania by 18.72%. Their companies are active in sectors like banking, telecommunications, the food processing industry, mining, energy, education and healthcare. German companies make up 3.3% of foreign companies in Albania. Their investments increased during 2013 by 16.3%.

Regarding trade, Albania exports mainly textiles, shoes, minerals, cement, metals, foodstuffs, etc., and imports mechanical and electrical machinery, foodstuffs, tobacco and minerals. In exports Italy is the main trade partner with 52% of the total, followed by Kosova at 7.3%, Spain at 6.5%, Malta at 6.2% and Turkey at 3.9%. Italy is also the main partner concerning imports, at 29.8%, followed by Greece at 9.4%, China at 7.3%, Turkey at 7.1% and Germany at 6%.

As one can see, the Albanian market is open to foreign investors without distinction. Countries like Italy and Greece are natural partners, but the recent economic crisis in both countries forced the Albanian companies to adapt and look for new markets.

China’s European Investment Tactics and Infrastructure Projects in Albania

BM: Do you think that China is exploiting the zero custom tariff regime in the Western Balkans, applying the same model as with Iceland to penetrate the European Single Market via those Balkan countries which are on the way towards EU membership, but are still not full EU members?

AS: The relations of China with the countries of the Western Balkans are focused on several areas – economy, culture, humanitarian and social development, etc. To come to the question, yes, Western Balkan countries have a zero custom tariff regime for exporting their products to the EU, which China should see as an opportunity for its producers. It means that Chinese companies, after producing their goods, let say in Albania, sell them to the EU market as “made in Albania.”

So far China has not taken advantage of this convenience with the EU, at least not of Albania’s quotas, as it considers them irrelevant. Instead, China is approaching Central and Eastern Europe through the China – CEE Cooperation Initiative. This initiative, which involves 16 European countries, EU members and candidates, aims at strengthening China’s presence through the investment of $10 billion in several areas like infrastructure, energy, transportation, agriculture, etc.

Currently, Albanian authorities are negotiating with Chinese companies on the construction of a highway that will link Tirana with the Macedonian border. Chinese companies have shown interest also for the development of the Port of Shëngjin and construction of an industrial park near the Port of Durrës. Let me underline that for China, the last two projects offer – along with the Port of Piraeus in Greece – access to European seas only a few miles from the EU waters of Italy.

Regional Energy Cooperation and Views on the ‘Balkan Benelux’ Concept and the ‘Western Balkans 6’ Initiative

BM: In the article “The energy-security nexus in south-east Europe” published on The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Albania, Mr Ditmir Bushati, writes about the strategic value of the regional cooperation in south-east Europe: “Connecting the energy islands in south-east Europe will help to build a true region in both economic and security terms, a region that can act as a strategic partner for the EU in the broader energy security nexus. Last but not least, such a bold approach will further consolidate the regional cooperation and the EU integration agenda of the Western Balkans, following the successful example of the six founding member states of the European Union.”

Some months ago, the idea of the Balkan Benelux-Model was again circulated. This would be aimed at creating mainly a Balkan Energy Union, (BEU) and a Balkan Area of Free Trade Agreements (BAFTA) between Albania, Kosova, Macedonia and Montenegro. Who is proposing this model and would it require a change in the state integrity of the countries involved?

AS: The interesting idea of a Balkan Benelux was proposed several years ago by the Action Group for Regional Economic and European Integration (AGREEI), a think tank which aims to support the economic and European integration of Albania, Kosova, Macedonia and Montenegro. According to AGREEI, the creation of a market of eight million consumers with free movement of goods, services, capitals and people and cross-border cooperation would speed up the EU integration of the four countries.

Instead, another format raised more interest and was accepted by our countries, the EU and other actors – the Western Balkans 6. This informal initiative is a forum of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosova, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Like Balkans Benelux, it aims at supporting them on their individual paths towards the EU. It involves the European Commission and the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) as observers.

So far, WB6 meetings have focused mainly on connectivity, youth cooperation and mobility, establishment of the Western Balkans Fund (WBF), etc. Tangible results have been achieved. In November in Prague, the WB6 Ministers of Foreign Affairs will sign the Agreement on the Establishment of the WBF. Its seat will be in Tirana.

In Vienna, the WB6 prime ministers signed the Joint Declaration on the Establishment of the Regional Youth Cooperation Centre. Earlier, in April, they agreed on the regional projects related to the extension of the EU core network in the Western Balkans. The ministers of Energy, as well, have agreed on regional projects that aim at creating a regional energy market, functioning according to TEN E guidelines, and connecting the energy islands in this part of Europe. Cooperation includes other areas, as well, like security and home affairs, cross-border cooperation, etc.

Regional Free Trade Area Processes and Bilateral Agreements

BM: The Free Trade Area between the EU and the Western Balkans countries has been achieved progressively through the SAA agreements and further on is subject to membership obligations in the Euro-Atlantic structures. The reliability of such a process is to be achieved also by avoiding bilateral competition between the Western Balkan states.

Within the framework of the Regional Cooperation Council of SEE and the common efforts to address the political, economic and energy-security nexus of regional issues in a cooperative way, could you describe for us the bilateral and multilateral relations of Albania with its neighbouring countries, starting with Kosova, mentioning also the number of bilateral agreements undersigned in the latest High Level Meeting held between the two countries in Tirana, Albania, in March 2015?

AS: Good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation are pillars of our foreign policy and form an essential part of Albania’s EU integration process. Albania has continued to actively participate in regional initiatives, including the South-East European Cooperation Process (SEECP), the Central European Initiative (CEI), the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC), the Energy Community Treaty, the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) and the WB6. In November, the countries of the region will formalize the Western Balkans Fund, followed by the Regional Youth Cooperation Office. According to the Progress Report 2014, “Overall, Albania has continued to act as a constructive partner in the region, further developing bilateral relations with other enlargement countries and neighbouring EU Member States.

Albania’s Bilateral Regional Relations

Concerning bilateral relations with the neighbouring countries, Albania has excellent relation with Kosova. Last year, on 11 January, in Prizren, was signed the Joint Declaration for Cooperation and Strategic Partnership between the two governments. I would like to point out the G to G meeting between Albania and Kosova on 23 March 2015, in Tirana, where 11 agreements of cooperation were signed. These relations are a successful example of cooperation between two countries, sharing one European future.

We welcome the resumption of political dialogue between Kosova and Serbia under the auspices of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Mrs. Federica Mogherini, as a contribution to peace and stability in the region.

At the same time, Albania urges all countries to support Kosova in its bid for membership to regional and other international organizations, like UNESCO. The membership to international organizations means more opportunities for the country to develop, more responsibility and more accountability.

Albania aims at having good-neighbourly relations with the Republic of Serbia and has full readiness to engage in an open political dialogue, in order to create a sustainable climate of confidence and respect. The visit of Prime Minister Rama to Belgrade opened a new chapter in our overall political and economic bilateral relations. Meetings between Prime Ministers Rama and Vučič are not a taboo anymore and the ministers of foreign affairs, Bushati and Dačič meet on regular basis, particularly in the WB6 format. There is a set of pending bilateral agreements which need to be finalized. Albania pays great attention to the well-being of the Albanian minority living in the Presheva Valley and to their treatment according to European standards.

We are willing to maintain good bilateral relations with Macedonia. We consider Macedonia a friendly neighbour and we support its prosperity, sovereignty, integrity and stability. Events in Kumanovo have threatened normality and ethnic relations, which are still fragile, due to the partial implementation of the Ohrid Agreement. Interethnic relations are vital to the existence of the Macedonian state. Albania condemns any act of violence, considering it unacceptable for a democratic society that aspires to Euro-Atlantic integration. We consider that the full implementation of the “Ohrid Framework Agreement,” without any delay, is essential for Macedonia’s security, democratization and its Euro-Atlantic integration processes.

Political dialogue and high level contacts with Montenegro have been further intensified. Cooperation is focused on economic and trade relations, energy, joint cross-border projects, strengthening of the system of communications and telecommunications, further facilitation of the movement of people and goods, strengthening of the joint fight against organized crime and illegal trafficking, etc.

Albania and Greece have good neighbourly relations. As NATO members and as countries sharing vital and mutual interests, relations between the two countries are of strategic importance in the region. Nevertheless, from time to time, some frictions fuelled by certain circles arise. In our opinion, bilateral issues should be addressed in compliance with international law and accepted by both parties. Greece continues to be a very important economic partner for Albania. For years, it has been at the top of Albania’s list of partners in trade and foreign direct investments. The Greek minority in Albania and the community of Albanian immigrants in Greece constitute strong bridges of friendship and cooperation between the two countries.

The Berlin Process and Developments after the Recent Vienna Balkan Conference

BM: Let’s discuss the Berlin Process initiated by Chancellor Merkel, created with the aim of fostering the interregional cooperation among the business community and the governments of the Western Balkan countries, to strengthening the interconnection b2b, g2g e g2b and reinforcing the perspectives for EU accession. What is the message Albania is bringing home after the waltz on the beautiful blue Danube in Vienna?

AS: Indeed, the Berlin Process, initiated by Chancellor Merkel, has intensified regional cooperation. It set in motion a process that aspires to generate tangible benefits for our citizens from the process of EU integration. But it is not a substitute for EU accession. It aims at reinforcing the perspectives of EU accession, by building up in the Western Balkans a true region in economic and political terms.

The process has produced practical and political consequences and has shown that the countries of the region can deliver on their promises. The participating countries committed themselves to resolve any open questions through bilateral negotiations or other peaceful means, and not to block the progress of neighbours on their respective EU paths.

Kosova and Serbia signed four agreements while Montenegro signed the border agreement with Bosnia-Herzegovina. The participants jointly identified the projects related to the extension of EU core network corridors through the Western Balkans, as well as the projects related to energy connectivity. They agreed on establishing the Regional Youth Cooperation Centre, an initiative of both PM Rama and PM Vučič.

The Conference of Vienna served also as a platform where our countries voiced their concerns. The resource gap between member states and candidates is significant: in terms of net inflows the difference between membership and accession is a factor of almost six.

In Vienna we emphasized that citizens of all countries in the region need to feel the benefits and the transformative power of the EU accession process. In this context, connectivity is seen as a transformative concept aiming at increasing social cohesion, reducing economic “nomadism” and supporting trust-building mechanisms that are born out of successful regional cooperation processes.

In its second phase, the Berlin Process should lead to the definition of investment priorities that will form a growth package for the Western Balkans in the form of financial guarantees. The EU’s strategy for the region needs to encompass the energy security dimension: more particularly, a better channel of EU funds towards energy infrastructure. One key pre-identified project that deserves collective backing in the months and year ahead is the Ionian-Adriatic Pipeline.

For these connectivity investments to be sustainable, we must continue to invest in the education of our youth. We must implement vocational training in our countries in the fields matching our countries’ respective market demands, among them, IT, tourism, energy, and agriculture. We must also maximise use of the Erasmus+ program, which will allot up to 14.8 billion euros EU-wide by 2020. Additionally, we must mirror the opportunities created by Erasmus+ for students and lecturers in a program solely for the Western Balkans.

This is just one part of the homework we need to focus on doing this year. The others are related to the strengthening of the National Investment Committees’ role in preparing the single sector pipelines, to the establishment of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office and youth mobility, to the involvement of civil society in the integration process, etc. As you can see, there is a lot to do before going for a “tango” to Paris.

…………………………..

*Note: the content of this interview does not represent the official position of the Albanian MFA.

Greek-Brazilian Trade Relations: Interview with Flavio Goldman, Embassy of Brazil in Greece

Balkanalysis.com editor’s note: From 2-5 June, the First Vice-Chairman of the the Brazil-Greece Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Tourism visited Athens. The visit, meant to further develop the bilateral trade initiatives between the two countries, provides fitting context for Balkanalysis.com director Chris Deliso’s exclusive interview with Flavio Goldman, head of the Trade Promotion Sector of the Brazilian Embassy in Athens. In this discussion of a rarely-analyzed trade relationship, we cover tourism trends, key exports, and possibilities for the future.

Chris Deliso: First of all, thank you very much for speaking with us today. There are a number of issues of interest to our readers, particularly in Greece. We might start with the question of the ‘human factor.’ As I understand, there is a well established Greek community in Sao Paulo, including major businessmen. At the same time, some Greeks complain that these descendents of émigrés have never invested in Greece.

Interview with Flavio Goldman Brazil Balkanalysis

According to Mr. Goldman, “in Brazil there is a very strong image of Greek hospitality. Brazilians know they will be welcome when they come to Greece.”

So, is there any attempt from either the Brazilian or Greek side to engage this community in improving trade and human capital, as a sort of bridge between both countries?

Flavio Goldman: Currently, as far as we know, there are no institutional initiatives to engage the Greek community in Brazil specifically in trade. We do see, however, that at the Brazil-Greek Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, created in 2011 and based in Rio de Janeiro, there are directors of Greek origin. We notice that the focus of the Greek community institutions in Brazil has been mostly in preserving their cultural heritage and also on raising awareness about the current situation of Greece.

Origins of the Greek Community in Brazil, and Trade Possibilities

CD: Interesting. Is this a matter for Brazil to get involved, or is it a Greek responsibility to entice these businessmen?

FG: We notice there are voices in Greece that advocate the strengthening of the links between Greece and its important diaspora. For instance, the newspaper Kathimerini has recently published an article calling on the government to increase connections with diaspora in general, proposing a creation of Deputy Minister for diaspora.

CD: By the way, how many Greeks or people of Greek ancestry live in Brazil anyway? Is it a significant community?

FG: We estimate there are 30,000 Brazilians of Greek origin. And they are very much integrated, as are all other communities of foreign origin in Brazil. Our country is a true melting pot. When people immigrate to Brazil, and when their children are born in Brazil, we usually don’t say that they are ‘Greek-Brazilians’ or ‘Italian-Brazilians’ or whatever. Take our president, Dilma Rousseff – nobody refers to her as ‘Bulgarian-Brazilian.’

CD: When did most of the Greeks come to Brazil? Was there a historical period of immigration, as we had in the US through the early 20th century?

FV: The major wave of immigration of Greeks to Brazil was in the first half of the 20th century, with important peaks in the 20s, after the catastrophe of Asia Minor, and in the 40s, during the period of the Greek Civil War. Brazil, and other countries in Latin America, were seen as major countries of opportunity. And not only for Greeks- for example, Brazil has today around 10 million people of Syrian and Lebanese origin. Sao Paulo is also the largest Japanese city outside of Japan. In Sao Paulo, there are no less than 70 foreign communities coexisting in harmony. This contributed largely to the multicultural aspects of Brazilian society.

CD: And what about their sense of identity? As we all know, Greeks in America, Canada and Australia particularly keep a very strong national affinity and are very active in business and political lobbying for the old country.

FG: Brazilians of Greek descent keep their specific cultural identity, as all other communities, and their affinities with Greece. There are some institutions, such as the Areté Cultural Center of São Paulo, that have been very active in promoting this sense of identity among members of the Greek community in the city. The organization was founded by a Brazilian editor of Greek origin, who publishes mostly Greek culture content.

Tourism Development between Greece and Brazil

CD: That is an interesting aspect, as the Greek cultural offering opens onto tourism visibility, and tourism is of course a major industry for Greece.

FG: Sure. And, according to the official Greek statistics, the number of Brazilian tourists to Greece rose 90 percent in 2014.

CD: Wow! That is a huge increase. How do you explain this?

FG: There is a major curiosity about Greece among Brazilians. For example, Globo, a major TV channel, has a weekly show called “Globo Reporter,” which consists of documentaries of about one hour about different issues. Last year they presented two documentaries about Greece. One was about the famous longevity of the islanders of Ikaria, the other about the Mediterranean diet. And the documentary on Ikaria was the most-watched “Globo Reporter” show of the year. This indicates how appealing Greece can be for Brazilians. There was a poll by Tripadvisor in Brazil, asking what countries people wish to visit, and the 13th place overall was Greece.

CD: Really! That is fascinating. And a stroke of good luck, for the Greek side. But who was behind the decision to make these films? Did the Greek government get involved, or it was an independent effort?

FG: Incidentally, the producer of the show was a Brazilian of Greek origin, but I understand this was not a key issue in the TV channel decision, since there is a solid interest about Greece in Brazil, about its cultural heritage and natural landscape, as proved by the success of the shows. I should add that the Greek government was very helpful in assisting the production in their different needs, especially in granting access to film at archeological sites.

Also, we should note that in Brazil there is a very strong image of Greek hospitality. Brazilians know they will be welcome when they come to Greece. Bear in mind, though, that, in spite of the important increase, the absolute numbers of visitors are still small: they rose from 27,000 to 52,000 in 2014. We account for 0.2% of Greek tourism overall. So there is still a lot of opportunity for growth.

CD: I am wondering what other factors might account for this low rate, considering how populous of a country Brazil is. What about connections between the two countries? Are there direct flights, otherwise how do people get between the two continents mot easily? Obviously, this is a major factor when it comes to tourism development.

FG: There are no direct flights between the two countries at the moment. Travelers come via other European capitals and Istanbul.

CD: What about the other way around? How many Greek tourists visit Brazil?

FG: The number of Greek tourists in Brazil currently visiting Brazil is relatively small- only 5,000 last year. We expect an increase that in 2016, as we will have the major incentive of the Olympics in Rio. We see the Games as an excellent opportunity to foster our connections with Greece. We will organize an event in Athens to promote tourism to Rio connected with the Olympics next year.

Sporting Events and Cultural Perceptions

CD: Ah yes, the Olympics. I imagine Brazil has learned from some of the mistakes Greece made and losses suffered due to hosting the Games in 2004. What do Brazilians think about the Greek connection with the Olympics?

FG: Brazil, and Rio in particular, have studied how all recent Olympic hosts handled their Games, and I’m sure learned a lot from this. But regarding the 2004 Athens Olympics, there is a nice story connecting Brazil and Greece. In the marathon run, we had a Brazilian runner who was leading the competition, until an Irish fan suddenly grabbed him! And then a Greek guy saw the Irish fan and interceded spontaneously, to help the runner. So this Greek guy became like a national hero in Brazil. This added to the existing Brazilian perception of Greek hospitality, and the image of Greek help to a person in distress… This man was invited to go to Brazil, as an expression of our gratitude, and was very well received there.

CD: That is really interesting. It seems to me a unique aspect that most people have never heard of, or at least no longer remember. The fact that an image like that could have a lasting opinion on cultural and social identifications is very interesting.

FG: And recently the UN rapporteur on racism, who is a Kenyan, visited Greece. He said that he met immigrants, and was impressed to see that on the islands that are affected by illegal migration, how local people go out of way to help, even though they are affected by the economic crisis.

In general in Brazil, Greeks have a very popular image, and I think the same is true vice-versa. There are many positive associations to Brazil in Greece, like our popular music and our history in soccer.

CD: Yeah, I’m sorry about the World Cup. We were pulling for you. Damn Germans.

FG: We even received messages of solidarity in the embassy here after the defeat. So, I suppose there were many Greeks supporting us too! We hope there will be a number of Greeks curious to see the Olympics in Brazil, and we hope that they will enjoy their experience there.

Other Trade Sectors

CD: So, to return to the economic and trade issues, can you tell me what were the major issues of interest for Mr Pereira on his visit to Greece?

FG: Mr Pereira’s visit had a major focus on tourism and maritime transport, which are two important sectors of our bilateral exchange. He also saw local importers of soya, sugar and coffee.

CD: Indeed. Speaking of coffee, we know that Greece is a major consumer of coffee, and Brazil has been a major export partner here. Since this is such an important export, it would be nice to know more about the specifics of the trade, how important Greece is to the general Brazilian coffee export market, whether you project the trade to increase or decrease, and so on.

FG: It is an important export, yes. We should note that Greece imports today green coffee from Brazil, not processed or roasted coffee. Brazil accounts for 60 percent of green Greek coffee imports, we are by far their main partner. Vietnam comes second, but with a much smaller percent. And Brazil is, as you know, the world leader in green coffee export.

Greece is a very important market for us: it ranks among the 20 top markets for this kind of coffee for Brazil. Usually, its position in the ranking varies between 14 and 19. We see our position in the Greek market as very stable, but, of course, there is always room to expand it, as well as to explore the possibility of exporting roasted coffee too.

CD: Has Brazil identified what are other products, in addition to coffee, that will be most important in future to traders? And what about the market for Greek producers in Brazil, is there anything they should be working on?

FG: We believe there is room to increase our exports of sugar to Greece. We have received positive signs of a few key players in Greece, highlighting their interest in importing more sugar from Brazil. And regarding Greece, I would say that the exports of Greek wines, honey and olive oil could be expanded, in view of their quality. If you go to Brazil, you will see the major imports of olive oil are from Portugal, Spain and Italy.

CD: Yeah, we make the same mistake in America. Very unfortunate.

FG: Because of our long cultural relations, obviously Portugal has a strong foothold in the Brazilian olive oil market. But we begin to notice an increasing interest in Greek olive oil, which is viewed as a very high quality product among experts in gastronomy. Yet the current volume is still very low considering the size of the Brazilian market.

The promotion of olive oil, dairy products and other Greek products was indeed part of a recent mission to Brazil organized by SEV and the Hellenic-Latin American Chamber of Commerce based in Athens. They went to Sao Paulo and then to Argentina and Mexico.

CD: Another possible issue is of Greek shipping companies, which transfer a lot of Brazil’s iron ore exports. Are there any estimates for the quantitative importance of Greek-owned shipping for total Brazilian export activities?

FG: It is a very important presence. We can say that shipping services account for the vast majority of our exchange in services. According to our most recent data, 70% of that exchange refers to shipping support services, and 24% corresponds to the services of oil transportation. We also noted a significant increase in the demand for Greek shipping personnel. The bulk of work visa requests we receive here at the Athens embassy are from our oil company Petrobras, requesting Greek personnel for temporary missions. There are also Greek ships performing services to Petrobras, for a number of years now.

I believe the acknowledged expertise of Greece in shipping services and the increasing needs of Petrobras, related to the sustainable exploration of our pre-salt layer, offer very good perspectives for our bilateral change in this field.

CD: Thank you very much then, I really appreciate you taking the time to share these fascinating insights. Best of luck with the work.

FG: Thank you also.

 

Tourism on Turkey’s Black Sea Coast: Interview with Dr. Gülçin Bilgin Turna

Balkanalysis.com Editor’s note: in this new interview, Turkish professor and tourism expert Dr. Gülçin Bilgin Turna shares her knowledge and experience of the issues regarding Black Sea tourism development with Balkanalysis.com Director Chris Deliso.

 Born in Istanbul in 1981, Dr. Turna received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Business Administration, with a major in Marketing from Yeditepe University, Istanbul in 2004. She subsequently worked in the corporate marketing department of Anadolubank, and served as a management trainee in Istanbul for two years. She later taught English for three years at Rize’s Bilge Primary School.

 Dr. Turna received a scholarship from The Scientific and Technological Research Council for her PhD at Karadeniz Technical University, Trabzon. With the support of European Union-Erasmus Scholarship funds, she studied in Halmstad University, Sweden in 2010 and worked as a visiting researcher in Erasmus University Rotterdam in 2013. She is presently assistant professor at Recep Tayyip Erdogan University in Rize. Dr. Turna has written several research papers about the effects of country image on consumer behavior. Her main research aim is gaining a better understanding of consumer choices in relation to a country’s reputation. Dr. Gülçin Bilgin Turna can be contacted by email at: gulcin.turna@erdogan.edu.tr

The Current Tourism Situation, Nationally and Locally

Chris Deliso: Professor Turna, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today.

Gülçin Bilgin Turna: I would like to thank you for your time. I am happy to answer your questions.

Balkanalysis interview with dr gulcin bilgin turna

For Dr. Turna, “the combination of Black Sea and high mountains” is what makes the Rize area appealing to visitors.

CD: Firstly, can you tell us something about the Turkish Black Sea coast, particularly the east, where you are located, and how this differs from other shores of the same sea? What do you like most about the area, which is obviously very different from your home city of Istanbul?

GBT: Rize, the city where I have lived since 2005, and which is located in the east of Turkey’s Black Sea coast, is totally different from my home city of Istanbul. Istanbul is a metropolitan located in the west of Turkey with more than fifteen million inhabitants. It is Turkey’s economic, cultural and historical heart. Rize, on the other hand, is a small city with 330,000 people.

What makes it different and special is that it is highly mountainous which means it has a different climate and lifestyle. What I like most about the area is that we have the combination of Black Sea and high mountains. Virgin nature in different shades of green fascinates the tourists. Tea grows only in Rize in Turkey. The crime rate in the area is low, which makes tourists and inhabitants feel safe. The city center of Rize is small, so it is easy to get around and get things done. Everybody knows each other.

 CD: Please tell us more about Recep Tayyip Erdoğan University in general, and particularly the work done on the tourism research topic at your university. What are the objectives of the center, and what kind of research is being done there? Do you think it makes an impact on the policy discussion or tourism development program in your country?

 GBT: Our university was founded in 2006. There are various faculties including the faculty of tourism. I work at the department of Business Administration as an assistant professor. We recently founded the “Centre for Black Sea Strategic Studies” in order to cooperate with the countries in the Black Sea, to improve the area economically and culturally, and to come up with scientific research and publications. Attending the symposium in Athens organized by ICBSS and the meeting of Black Sea Universities Network were our first interactions.

Studies at our university are being done not only in the area of tourism, but also in the development of agriculture and fisheries. I cannot be certain about the impact of our center on the policy discussion or tourism development in our country, because our centre is quite young. However, I can say that since our university takes its name from Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whatever we do attract attention from the public and government. There is also a development foundation within our university supported by philanthropists from Rize. They provide scholarships for students and funds for all kinds of research at our university.

 CD: In terms of national tourism visitor numbers, you have noted that Turkey is the 6th most-visited country in the world, and 12th among world countries in terms of tourism sector income. And you have noted that among BSEC countries, Turkey is first, ahead of perennial tourism powerhouse Greece. However, are you aware more specifically of what percentage of overall tourism visitors/figures is specific to your region of Turkey? If so, what percentage is it, and how important to the eastern Black Sea economy is tourism presently?

GBT: Yes, Turkey is very successful in international tourism in the world and among BSEC thanks to its Mediterranean, Aegean and Marmara Regions. I am not sure about the exact percentage of overall international tourists in our region of the east Black Sea but I believe it is extremely low.

CD: You have also noted that the Turkish government plans to make ‘a huge leap’ in increasing tourism between now and 2018, and then after that to be sustained at an even level of growth, and that in executing this policy it plans to increase spending. Are you aware of any specific policies in this regard, and if so, what amount of attention is Ankara giving to tourism in your region?

GBT: Yes, Turkey had this leap in the last five years and has plans for the upcoming five years. The general strategy is to build more hotels, improve infrastructure and direct flights from abroad. Foreign tourists enjoy Turkey due to its climate, hospitable people and reasonable prices. I believe Turkey will be successful in its tourism plans. About the development of tourism in our region, certain areas were chosen as priority regions. In particular, Ayder, Anzer, Ovit and Kuspa are the four areas chosen to be improved in tourism by our government. They will build a ski resort on Ayder Mountain.

CD: Given the current uncertainties in the region such as instability in Syria and Iraq, and recent violence in southeastern Turkey, do you think the government will fail to make this ‘huge leap’ come true? Or is it also possible that the Black Sea area, being far from any of these crisis zones, could possibly benefit in comparison with other parts of the country in terms of visitor numbers?

 GBT: Turkey had been struggling with terrorism in southeastern Turkey for many years. Given the current uncertainties in Syria and Iraq, tourism numbers decreased in southeastern Turkey, but not in other regions. The other regions of Turkey are very safe. X-ray machines are operated both in the entrance of airports and shopping malls. I don’t think that the crisis in southeast of Turkey affect the tourism in Black Sea area.

Challenges and Solutions

 CD: You have mentioned that Rize tourism professionals could use some insight and experience from Turkish tour operators and other professionals who come from the far more popular Aegean and Mediterranean coastal areas. What kind of insights or knowledge do you think they could provide? And, considering the very different physical conditions and appeal of the two areas, how relevant would the input of those persons be?

GBT: They could provide their general knowledge in the area of tourism. We can never be sure until we consult them. I believe it is worth the effort. They and local tourism authorities may form synergies.

CD: So, mentioning Turkey’s warmer coasts and seas brings us to the hard question: to be brutally honest, why should someone go to the frequently stormy, cold and dark Black Sea when they have those other enticing options? Or are you looking for a different kind of tourist profile altogether?

GBT: The Black Sea is not cold; it has more of a tropical climate. And when you swim in the Black Sea in summer, you don’t feel cold at all. However, there are no beaches suitable for international tourists. You can experience different weather by the coast and in the mountains. It is stormy only in winter. The problem in our area is the scarcity of land. The number of hotels is not sufficient.

So, first the infrastructure and bed capacity should be improved. The Black Sea does not offer nice beaches and nightlife like the Mediterranean does. The Black Sea, especially in the east, is famous for its high and mystic mountains, so people think that the Black Sea region is something totally different. Given its traditional values, the region does not offer the same type of entertainment as other areas do. So yes, different kinds of tourists visit our area. Mostly adventurers (sports and hiking) and tourists, who like the rain and fog in the mountains, trying to escape from the very hot weather elsewhere in Turkey, visit the Black Sea.

 CD: You have said that Rize and Black Sea tourism professionals need more language skills. What is the current level of English or other foreign languages spoken there? Should an independent foreign visitor expect to get by without speaking Turkish, or would it be difficult?

 GBT: Hotel receptionists and tour guides can speak English, however local people cannot. Yes, unfortunately it would be difficult for an independent visitor to get around without speaking Turkish. But I’m sure all the locals will try to help using body language and talking Turkish very loudly, heh heh. The local government provides free English courses for all the professionals.

CD: What is the situation in Rize for local and foreign companies that want to get involved in the tourism sector? Is the bureaucracy difficult, and if so are they working to fix this? What is the balance of different responsibilities and power shared by local or national authorities, for example, with regards to giving permissions to build, collection of taxes, regulation of tourist activities and so on?

GBT: To the best of my knowledge, the bureaucracy is not difficult. Government provides incentives for investors. However, due to the scarcity, it is very expensive to buy land in Rize. That is the problem.

Local Activities and Initiatives

 CD: You have pointed out that Rize will increase its offerings of health tourism and some culture/history tourism, as well as outdoor sports like hiking, rafting and heli-skiing. Can you give us some more specific details about these plans and these attractions and where readers can learn more about what is available?

GBT: There are spa hotels in Ridos and Ayder. There are many hiking, rafting and off-roading clubs. These clubs address Turkish tourists; there are no websites available in English as far as I know. But once the foreign tourists are in the area, they can benefit from all these activities. Heli-skiing, on the other hand, totally targets foreign tourists, especially French. Many websites in English are available.

CD: I have seen in other parts of Turkey, such as the Taurus Mountains to Egirdir, the popularity for European hikers of the St Paul Trail. Are there any historic or symbolic hiking trails in the Rize area that can be exploited in such a way, maybe creating linkages with other areas of Turkey or neighboring countries like Georgia or Armenia?

GBT: Yes, it is “Kaçkar Mountain Trails”. Armenians and Georgians settled early in the Pontic Alps, now the Kaçkar, later building wonderful stone monastery churches hidden in the mountains. The Turks gradually occupied the area from the 11th century but the area remained ethnically mixed; Turkish, Hemşin and Laz languages are still used. More information about the trail can be found on the Internet.

CD: On the sub-regional level, what does Rize have to offer in particular, compared to other Turkish Black Sea coastal towns like Trabzon or Samsun? Is there anything specific to Rize that cannot be found in other coastal towns in Turkey?

GBT: Trabzon and Samsun are big and industrialized cities. Rize is more agricultural. Rize is small, more mountainous and natural, people are more hospitable. Tea and kiwi grow here.

CD: Can you say at the present time, what kind of tourists are you seeing most in your region? I mean, whether independent or package tourists, from what countries, what ages and so on? And, do you have any data or other information on how do these tourists find out about the area and decide to visit, compared to any other part of Turkey they could go?

GBT: As far as I have observed, independent tourists are from Europe; package tourists are from Arabia. They are usually middle-aged. Independent tourists find about the area by their guidebooks. An American friend of mine followed the route her travel guide offered. She flew to Trabzon from Istanbul, went to Kackar Mountain Trail, and then to Sumela Monastery. She went to Cappadocia and the Lycian Way afterwards. Visitors to the Mediterranean are usually package tourists, and people who want to visit Istanbul can find a lot of information online.

CD: In terms of the cultural tourism aspect, what is the current situation of the historic minorities of the mountains, mentioned in the Byzantine and Ottoman sources, people such as the Laz and Tzan? Are they integrated in any way yet into the tourism offering of the area, and do you seem them playing any role in the future in increasing the interest value of the area?

GBT: I have never heard Tzan. Laz and Hemşin people have their own language. It is only spoken. They are very nice people and integrated into the tourism offering of the area. They have a different life style and clothing style which increase the interest value of the area.

CD: What about the region’s main attraction for foreign visitors- the Byzantine cave monastery of Sumela, in the forests near Trabzon? When I visited a few years ago, I recall the frescoes being in a precarious state, with graffiti scrawled across them. Do you know of any restoration plans, and how does this medieval attraction play into your region’s future tourism strategy?

GBT: Whenever I have visited Sumela in the last five years, it was being restored. Sumela Monastery is the most attractive tourism value in our area and I am sure it will keep its importance in the future.

Infrastructure Development Plans

 CD: Regarding infrastructure and the wider region, I understand that a proposed Black Sea Ring Highway will be built, a four-lane motorway some 7100km in length, to connect the various countries along the coast. Do you have any news about the state of this project and when it might be completed, as well any idea how it will affect the visibility and economy of Rize and the eastern Black Sea coast?

GBT: I am not sure when it will be completed by all the neighboring countries. Turkey’s side of the highway is finished. From Samsun to Artvin-Georgia border (from mid- to east-Black Sea Region). The highway is along the coast, which may sound convenient; however, that is one of the reasons we do not have nice beaches along the coast. For example, I live by the seaside in Rize and I have to listen to the sounds of cars and trucks because there is a highway in front of my apartment.

When the ring road is completed, all the areas will benefit from this for sure. There is also another project in Turkey called “Green Road” which will connect all the plateaus in our area (from Samsun to Artvin). The road will allow tourists to visit all the plateaus easily; they do not need to go to the city center every time they want to visit a plateau. The density of the population is really high in the city center of Rize, so at the moment tourists may not enjoy the city center but the mountains. On the other hand, the locals in the mountains are not looking forward to the “Green Road” project because they are afraid they will lose their privacy. They do not want their nature to be destroyed.

CD: Again about infrastructure, I recall that it was a bit complex getting to Georgia from Trabzon and the Turkish Black Sea, requiring multiple changes of bus and minibus just to get to Batumi. How is the situation now? Are there any improvements, or is still mostly a route used by locals?

GBT: It is not complex anymore. People can go to Georgia by one bus. We [Turkish citizens] don’t need a passport to go to Georgia which makes traveling more appealing for us.

CD: We have also heard about a maritime highway plan for Black Sea ferries, but there is less information. Do you have some further information on this, and how it could affect Rize and other Black Sea ports?

GBT: I also have little information on that. I know that from Samsun, people can travel to Batumi (Georgia) and Novorossiysk (Russia); from Trabzon to Sochi (Russia); from Istanbul to almost all destinations in the Black Sea region. In Rize we do not have a suitable international port for cruise ships. Trabzon, our neighbor city, benefits from this. I believe both the highway and maritime highway plans will be beneficial economically for all BSEC member countries.

CD: At the current moment, are there any ferries from Rize, or else Trabzon, to other points on the Turkish or international parts of the Black Sea coast? If so, is this something that presents or will present a nice opportunity for tourists?

GBT: Unfortunately there is no ferry from Rize or Trabzon. Trabzon hosted some cruise ships during summer. If you want to travel from Istanbul to Trabzon by ferry, it is not possible. People prefer airlines. It is a 1.5-hour flight from Istanbul to Trabzon and it is extremely convenient, at reasonable prices. The interesting thing in our area is not the city center (the coast is the city center), it is the mountains that attract tourists’ attention to the area. So they would not prefer traveling by ferry.

CD: Back on land: in regards to the planned Baku-Tbilisi-Kars rail route, a part of the ‘new Silk Road.’ Kars of course is inland and east of Rize. But is there any chance the existence of such a line could benefit tourism in the Black Sea, given the geographical challenges and existing infrastructure, is this of any relevance to your area’s tourism development?

GBT: Some 76 km of the 180-km rail road pass through Turkey. Once the “Marmaray Project” and “New Silk Road” are finished, it will be easy to transport goods from Europe to China directly. These are very big projects. Once the railroad connects Rize, then we can benefit from it. For now, I do not think we can benefit from the “New Silk Road”.

However, Rize will benefit from another project called “Mount Ovit Tunnel” very soon; it connects Erzurum and Rize. It is said that it will be Turkey’s longest, and the world’s 4th longest tunnel. Also there is another project, the “Rize-Mardin Highway” that connects the north of Turkey to the south. I believe the abovementioned “Green Road” that connects the plateaus will be the most beneficial for the tourism in the East Black Sea of Turkey. Once it is finished, I hope both visitors and locals will be happy about it.

CD: Finally, the town of Rize is served by air from nearby Trabzon Airport. Can you tell us how this airport’s capacity is developing now and the coming years, with expansion of budget flights and other operators Turkish and foreign alike?

GBT: Trabzon Airport is developing over the years at a rate of 10 percent. People from Artvin, Rize, Bayburt and Giresun also benefit from this airport. Three million people flew from this airport last year. Turkey’s main operator, Turkish Airlines, and Pegasus, which provides low cost flights, fly to Trabzon Airport. There are direct flights from Germany to Trabzon in summer. By the way, an airport will be built in Rize in three years.

CD: Dr. Turna, thanks very much for your time and good luck with your work in working towards tourism development on the Black Sea coast.

GBT: Thank you very much.

 

2004-2009 Back Archives