Friday, 3 February 2006

Faith, Hope and Security

US Ambassador Charles Ries discusses terrorism, Cyprus, the Macedonia issueand private higher education

Is Condi a good boss? 

Yes, she's a very good boss. What you want in the State Department is a secretary who has a vision, is close to the president, and has good relationships with her colleagues all around the world and Secretary Rice has all of those things.

You know that there has been a very costly Olympics security system which has been paid for - it cost a quarter of a million dollars - and never worked. Are you involved in resolving what is essentially a trade dispute?

My understanding is that the system does work, it works every day. It was used with respect to the events down in Piraeus [a bank robbery on January 31]. There are a number of contractual issues related to the fact that the contract was let quickly, at almost the last moment it would be possible to design such a state-of-the-art system prior to the Olympics. The contractors have been working to refine the system to meet the ministry's needs and I am hopeful that the commercial aspects of this can be worked out.

We had a violent, high-profile bank robbery a couple of weeks ago. Is that of concern in counter-terrorism? Is it a disturbing new trend?

It's worrisome if the purpose of robbing banks is to fund groups that plan more violence against property or persons. I think we're all looking to see what the prosecutors believe is the motive and background of the group. But if it comes out that these robberies are linked to some group that plans further acts of terrorism or violence, that would be very worrisome indeed.

You are on the record as saying that Greek authorities are still trying to track down tail ends of 17N. Is that something that you're still helping with?

Five of the victims of 17N were members of my mission and we owe it to their memories and their families to find out all that can be done to see that those responsible for those killings are put behind bars. I have said previously that all of the investigatory leads will be followed to the very end and my understanding is that the ministry of public order and ministry of justice are doing just that.

Can you comment on the Turkish offer to open ports in northern Cyprus, which Greece has reacted coolly to?

The Turkish government would open its ports and airports to Greek-Cypriot vessels and aircraft and reduce the isolation that you can't reasonably get from Nicosia to Ankara or Nicosia to Istanbul; and also the Turkish government has proposed that a way be found to open the ports and airports in the northern part of the island to reduce the isolation and also allow somewhat more normality in the north. That is a proposal that we think is a positive one and can give new momentum to the process. This process needs to emphasise the positive. I don't like to look at Cyprus in terms of who's up and who's down and the trench warfare of little tiny moves one way or another. We have to have bigger thinking and more positive thinking if we want to see a solution that is based on the common future that I think we'd all like to see.

We've recently had the prime minister announce a constitutional amendment which would allow charitable trusts to open independent recognised universities. Are you supportive of that?

I would say that I am very supportive of several institutions here that have a deep and longlasting presence in Greece with American ties - particularly Deree College, Athens College, Anatolia College and the American Farm School. Each of these is over a century old and has contributed in measurable ways to the education and success of generations of Greeks and increasingly those from the entire region; a lot of Balkan countries send students to Greece. These institutions I would expect would qualify if such an amendment were adopted and could continue to contribute to the benefit of the country.

What's your view of plans to create a government online procurement system? You've spoken in the past about stamping out corruption and such a system would in theory be capable of being used even for arms purchases, conducting auctions in a very open and transparent way.

The US has had considerable success with what we call e-government, and e-procurement has been a part of e-government. It is a streamlined process for acquiring all kinds of things and reduces the costs involved while increasing the competition. Elsewhere in Europe the Dutch, the Finns, the Swedes, are doing similar things and also realising enormous savings. This is clearly the wave of the future in public finance around the world, and it is emblematic of developments here in Greece that they are increasingly becoming cutting-edge in these high-tech areas.

Another security issue: Are you at all worried about the obvious laxity in the immigration service regarding the number of people that are allowed in, who permeate the borders, especially from Central Asia? You yourself raised the alarm a few weeks ago saying that there is a cell of Islamic terrorists in Athens - are you alarmed that there is a security issue?

Greece is the easternmost country of the Schengen group. Anyone who enters Greece has entered twelve European countries. All 12 have a common interest in making sure that the decisions made in the airports at the borders are consistent, are fair and meet the needs of the security of the group. It is obviously incumbent on all the governments that have border services to coordinate and improve the way they make decisions, but to do so in a way that doesn't make it difficult for travellers.

When you pass on information to the Greek government from your intelligence are you satisfied that there is a response?

Yes, we're satisfied that there is a response. Indeed, we're close allies with Greece and we have a very good relationship in the public safety arena.

The US unilaterally recognised the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as Macedonia, citing fear of instability in the country. But this was done at the expense of Greece. Do you plan to offer Greece some form of compensation, or is this an instance of life being unfair?
We did take a decision to use the country's constitutional name in our bilateral relations with Macedonia in November last year in order to support the centre and to support the Ochrid framework process, under which the communities of that country, which is really quite a complex interethnic mosaic, will work together in a positive way. There was a referendum being proposed by the extreme nationalist right that would have the government walk away from this inter-ethnic accord and particularly give up on the aspects of decentralisation to the community level that were the core of it. We knew, of course, that it would not be popular in Greece. What we did after November was to say we support UN special envoy Matthew Nimetz's effort to find a solution between Skopje and Athens. The US government was pleased that both parties were prepared to proceed with Nato and the EU process under the 1995 interim agreement. I think that brings out the fact that all of us share in the European and Euro-atlantic aspirations of Macedonia, and we don't want our differences on the name issue to get in the way of that.

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