Nicosia.- AHI President Nick Larigakis sees the Eastern Mediterranean as a boiling caldron with the potential to blow up and create more instability. So, he reminds the United States to be proactive rather than react when it is too late. The President of the American Hellenic Institute, Nick Larigakis, who recently visited Athens, Nicosia, and Israel, talks about the new developments in our region and the interest of United States vis-à-vis the region.
Larigakis underlines that Cyprus is a legitimate international player in the Eastern Mediterranean and that the EU and the United States must condemn the illegal Turkish actions and, if necessary, to impose sanctions on Ankara and ultimately, put Erdogan in his place.
What do you take from your recent trip to Israel, Cyprus and Greece?
This was our fourth trip [since when we established this biennial trip to the three countries] in an attempt to support this tripartite partnership through the efforts of Diaspora communities of these countries in the US. This time we came with delegations from AHEPA (the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association), B’nai B’rith International, and the federation of 53 Jewish organizations in the United States (Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations COP). We launched this initiative six years ago, because we wanted to show that as Diaspora organizations, we support the trilateral cooperation that has been established between Cyprus, Greece and Israel. With our visit to these three countries we also wanted to emphasize that we are available to help expand this cooperation. And as you know, this cooperation has become 3 + 1, with the added partner being the United States of America, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attending one of the tripartite meetings last March.
He also supported the signing of the statute for the creation of the East Med Gas Forum.
What came out from your meetings this time?
Our first stop was Israel where, unfortunately, it was difficult to see as many officials as we would have liked, because of the forthcoming elections. But we had a meeting in the Prime Minister’s office with one of Netanyahu’s high level diplomatic advisers. We were planning to see Mr. Netanyahu as well, but he could not attend at the last minute.
Israel is deeply concerned about Iran. However, this time the Israelis more openly expressed their concern about Turkey’s aggressive behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean. They are starting to worry about everything Turkey is doing to destabilize the region, including obstructing the energy development and cooperation between Cyprus, Greece, Israel and other countries.
How was your trip to Cyprus?
In Cyprus, we met with President Anastasiades, Parliament Speaker Dimitris Syllouris, Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides and other officials. Our discussions focused on Turkey’s provocative actions and our deep concern about its aggressive behavior which is aimed against Cyprus and international companies in violation of international law. We felt that the European Union could do much more to put pressure on Turkey. Also, the European Union and NATO should do more to support Greece, whose borders are violated daily by Turkey in the air and sea, including the recent illegal agreement that Turkey signed with Libya.
Did you discuss all this in Athens?
Yes, we discussed all of this in Athens, the last leg of our trip. Further, during Prime Minister Mitsotakis’ recent official visit to Washington, President Trump welcomed him at the White House and highlighted the importance United States’ relations with Greece and for the Eastern Mediterranean. Relations between the US and Greece are currently excellent at all levels. The US is also exploring for ways of how they can expand in other areas, such as the economy and trade, but also the signing of the defense agreement by Secretary of State Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo in Athens is a very important development and we hope that U.S-Greece relations continue to strengthen since Turkey is still very aggressive in region.
Many are afraid of a hot incident or a military conflict in Greece.
Personally, I do not believe that there will be a war between Greece and Turkey; I see this as very unlikely. Of course, Turkey continues to be aggressive, looking to gauge the reaction of the other side and thus act accordingly. It is threatening to drill in the south of Crete, and I would expect that Greece will not accept this. However, I do not believe that war will start between the two countries, but the possibility does exist for an isolated hot single incident somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean, or even in the Aegean, which could have the potential to last from anywhere between 1-2 hours to a few days. But I find that is would be very isolated and I certainly hope that it never comes to this.
Your role is to help and persuade the United States to make sure that this does not happen?
This is the role of all Greek-American organizations focusing on US interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. The American Hellenic Institute argues that Greece, Cyprus and Israel are at the forefront for peace in the Eastern Mediterranean. They are the beacons of stability, Greece as a member of NATO and the European Union, and Cyprus as a member of the European Union and a strategic partner of the United States. The same applies for Israel as well. It is important to have peace and stability in the region because Turkey is becoming very aggressive, causing instability in the region. NATO, the European Union and the United States must condemn Turkey’s actions and, if necessary, impose measures that would put Mr. Erdogan in his place. If he does not feel pressure, he will continue to move aggressively. But if he feels that there will be consequences from Europe, NATO and the United States, then he will have second thoughts.
Yavuz is already in the 8th section of the Cyprus EEZ for drilling.
Unfortunately, this has been happening for a long time, but the Turks are very careful in that they do not venture into the blocks where American companies are located. They do not seem to want to clash with American interests in the region. But this does not justify violation of international law in other areas.
You have sent a letter to US President Donald Trump denouncing Turkish aggression and provocations to the Eastern Mediterranean and urging the US government to act in order to support the rule of law and call on Turkey to stop its aggressive actions that threaten peace and stability and that are not in the interests of the United States. Did he reply?
No, but the point is that we sent this letter to have it on the record, and we copy other important people in the State Department who do read it. I have been told by officials at the State Department that they value our [AHI] view. We sent two letters, one prior to Mr. Erdogan’s visit to the White House and the other when Prime Minister Mitsotakis visited the White House in January. We also stressed that Turkey is also threatening Greece’s economic development, as it exploits its control over the flow of migrants to Europe. And that it is a factor of instability in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the wider region that is damaging US interests. We called on the US to show strong and unequivocal support in Greece by continuing to strengthen the relations in all areas and by applying the rule of law to Turkey’s illegal actions.
The Eastern Mediterranean is a “boiling cauldron” and is changing, do you see the geographical data changing?
It is definitely a “boiling cauldron” with the potential to blow up and create more instability, unfortunately this is undoubtedly true. That is why the United States must pay attention to the region to be sure that this will not happen. You must be able to anticipate and prevent the crisis, otherwise when you have to react to the crisis, it will be too late. This is also a message we continue to send to the State Department and to the White House, in that they must watch what is happening here and not let this escalate into a crisis.
By condemning Turkish provocations?
The United States, which is where [AHI’s] mandate is, is showing interest in the region but is very careful in the way they handle Turkey. In my opinion, they are not willing to publicly condemn Turkey strongly, they say, however, they are doing it behind the scenes. The US and the EU should press Turkey to stop its aggressive behavior.
Do you see prospects for a solution to the Cyprus problem in the way Turkey is acting today?
I cannot see how it is possible to resolve the Cyprus issue now with the aggressive disposition of Turkey. Crans Montana failed because Turkey insisted on maintaining an illegal army on the island and being a guarantor power. I do not know how the negotiations for the reunification of Cyprus can be resumed. I do not see anything in the near future for negotiations to begin.
Now that you are back in America, what will be your next step?
We will convey to policy makers what we learned, namely that this is a very unstable region, and that Cyprus, Greece and Israel promote peace and stability in the area. Because of the volatility in the Eastern Mediterranean we want to make sure that we are on top of the issues as they develop. An important part of our objective is to inform and try to engage with people in key policy positions in the US in order to make them aware of the developments of the region.
Do you mean educating policy-makers on natural gas development in the region?
Educating policy-makers on everything. How many people on Capitol Hill last year knew there were 4, 813 violations by Turkey of Greek airspace? People here do not know these facts and, how dangerous Turkey’s actions are. We are trying to inform them about Turkish aggression and Turkey’s provocative actions in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Are they easily persuaded or suspicious?
If it was easy we would have solved these issues 45 years ago. There is now a greater understanding especially in Congress about the troubled nature of Turkey. It’s easier for them to understand Turkey, but that doesn’t mean they’ll come tomorrow and say they don’t want to have anything to do with Turkey. We argue, however, that Turkey should not be treated differently from other countries…or other NATO allies. We cannot, for example, condemn Iran, the Russians, etc. and yet when Turkey conducts itself in a similar belligerent way we react differently. We cannot have double standards in how we conduct our foreign policy, because what credibility will you have with your allies?
How do you see Cyprus in 2020?
Keep doing what you do. You have shown the world that despite 45 years of occupation you have established strong international relations; you are a member of the European Union, now a strategic partner of the United States and an energy partner with Europe. You are a legitimate international player in the Eastern Mediterranean. God bless you and my congratulations that you are always moving forward despite the constant pressure that you have to endure from a much larger country, as Turkey.
You were born the same year the Republic of Cyprus was founded.
Yes, in 1960, in Volos. When I was two years old I went with my family to America. I studied political science. And I did post graduate studies in international affairs. For 19 years I was the Executive Director of the American Hellenic Institute, a think tank and lobby based organization in Washington, DC and have been its President since 2011.
When was the American Hellenic Institute founded?
It was created in 1974 by Gene Rossides following the illegal Turkish invasion. Mr. Rossides served under the Nixon Administration as an Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. He felt that the Greek American community needed to have a professional lobby in Washington to promote U.S. relations with Greece and Cyprus. We always express ourselves as American citizens, not as representatives of the Greek or Cypriot government. In our contacts with the White House, Congress, and the State Department, we emphasize that our views are based on American interests in the wider region, which we believe are also closely related to the same interests of that of Greece and Cyprus.
What is your intervention in American politics?
We reach out continuously to the State Department, the Congress, the White House, the Security Council, etc. We are an entity that is both a think tank and lobby, providing advocacy through our research of the issues and being up to date on developments in the region, and within Greece and Cyprus in order to be able to present these issues to U.S. policy makers. However, it is important to note that we are an independent organization, and not agents of Greece or Cyprus.
**** Published in Greek at the Cypriot daily “Phileleftheros” on February 9, 2020.