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H.E. Maria Levanti, Ambassador of Greece to Serbia

Greece’s Non-recognition Of Kosovo Remains Unchanged

Greece’s stance regarding non-recognition of Kosovo remains unchanged. At the same time, Greece firmly supports the continuation of the EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Priština and the efforts of Miroslav Lajčak, with a view to reaching a comprehensive agreement that will contribute to strengthening the stability and security of the whole region. In this context, we welcomed, along with the other EU member states, the European proposal to put the relationship between Belgrade and Priština on a new and sustainable footing ~ Maria Levanti

When H.E Maria Levanti arrived in Belgrade at the end of 2022, she set as her priorities enhancing and enriching the already excellent relations and political cooperation between Greece and Serbia. She said that she would focus on areas of common interest, such as the economy, energy, connectivity, culture and education.

One of the first visits she paid was to the Serbian National Assembly, the country’s parliament, because she believes that the national parliaments are important channels of communication between the two countries. “Greek-Serbian Parliamentary Friendship Groups are among the largest groups in both the Greek and Serbian parliaments and I am very content to realise that they are very active,” adds Ambassador Levanti in her first interview for CorD Magazine.

Your Excellency, your term as ambassador to Serbia began recently. How are you finding life in Belgrade?

I have always desired to visit your country and, even though I have only been here for a few months, I must confess that Belgrade and Serbia have exceeded my expectations by far. The people I meet are very friendly and genuine; the culture, habits and mentality are quite similar to ours and, of course, the food is excellent. Belgrade has the atmosphere of a big European capital, while – on the other hand – life has a more relaxing pace and rhythm. All in all, I would say that Serbia feels like home and I really can’t wait to explore the rest of the country and all its hidden gems.

You noted upon arrival in Serbia that relations between our two countries are “excellent and friendly, and that the two peoples are connected by a similar mentality, shared history and spiritual closeness.” What do you have planned as your priorities?

Among my first priorities will definitely be the enhancement and enrichment of the already excellent bilateral relations and political cooperation, especially in areas of common interest, such as the economy, energy, connectivity, culture and education. Given that the COVID-19 crisis led to the level of our bilateral cooperation falling significantly, it is time to redefine our priorities and work together for the benefit of both countries. In this sense, the convocation of the fourth meeting of the High-Level Cooperation Council is a top priority.

It was stated during your first meeting with Serbian President Vučić that a new session of the High-Level Cooperation Council between Greece and Serbia will be held soon. Are preparations for this session underway?

A specific date for the 4th High-Level Cooperation Council, which is set to take place in Belgrade, has not yet been set. For our part, we expect it to convene at the earliest possible opportunity, though taking into consideration that national elections are to be held in Greece in the near future.

One of your first activities in the country was to visit the National Assembly, where you spoke with members of the Friendship with Greece group. In your opinion, how important is bilateral cooperation at the level of parliaments?

It is important to develop and enhance all fields and aspects of bilateral relations and cooperation, including the parliamentarian aspect. Greece attaches great importance to parliamentarian cooperation and the Parliamentary Friendship Groups constitute another channel of communication between our countries, through which we can foster closer working relations and establish and develop relations with local communities. Greek-Serbian Parliamentary Friendship Groups are among the largest groups in both parliaments and I am very content to realise that they are very active, with many reciprocal visits.

You arrived in Serbia with the message that Greece will not change its stance regarding the unilaterally declared independence of Kosovo. However, Greece is a member of the EU, and Brussels has been increasingly calling on the government in Athens to abandon such a position. Information about diplomatic pressure being applied to compel governments to change this stance has also been confirmed by some of the other countries that don’t recognise Kosovo. Has Greece felt such pressure to conform?

Greece’s stance regarding non-recognition of Kosovo remains unchanged. At the same time, Greece firmly supports the continuation of the EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Priština and the efforts of Miroslav Lajčak, with a view to reaching a comprehensive agreement that will contribute to strengthening the stability and security of the whole region.

It has become clear that there is no unified position of member states with regard to Kosovo’s membership in the Council of Europe and that there are differing views about the timeframe in which it could appear on the agenda

In this context, we welcomed – along with the other EU member states – the European proposal to put the relationship between Belgrade and Priština on a new and sustainable footing.

How will Greece respond to Kosovo’s candidacy for membership in the Council of Europe and its application to become an EU member state?

It has become clear that there is no unified position of member states with regard to Kosovo’s membership in the Council of Europe and that there are differing views about the timeframe in which it could appear on the agenda. We believe that, in the meanwhile, Kosovo needs to engage more constructively in a substantial dialogue with Serbia, with the aim of achieving progress in normalising relations.

Do you have plans regarding ways to improve bilateral relations on the economic front, given the excellent relations between our two countries on the political level? In which areas could Greece and Serbia further develop their cooperation?

I am proud to say that not only political relations between Greece and Serbia, but also economic relations, stand at an excellent level. Total Greek direct investment in Serbia is currently estimated at approximately 1.5 billion euros. Greek interest in investing in Serbia is recovering strongly – some significant new investments have already been conducted over the last two years, i.e., the merger of Eurobank and Direktna Bank, the Athens Stock Exchange’s acquisition of 10.24% of shares of the Belgrade Stock Exchange, the construction of the new SuperVero-Jumbo hypermarket in Novi Sad, as well as the emergence of many new Greek SMEs.

The annual volume of bilateral trade in goods and services equated to around a billion euros, while there’s no doubt that it will increase significantly in the future. It is worth mentioning that, according to data of the Hellenic Statistical Authority, bilateral trade reached the amount of 700 million euros in the first 11 months of 2022.

Of course, it is undeniable that there is plenty of room for bilateral economic cooperation to strengthen and improve. The Joint Declaration for the establishment of a Strategic Partnership between Greece and Serbia, signed in December 2019, highlights this potential. Greece is ready to support the Serbian economy, not only by encouraging investments in traditional sectors, but also by contributing to its growth through the sharing of the knowledge and experience gained through its own green transition path and technological advancement. Moreover, Greece is ready to support Serbia’s energy diversification efforts by all means – through the Bulgaria-Serbia Interconnection and its connection with TAP and the LNG terminal in Alexandroupolis.

There is strong interest among Greek companies in cooperating with their Serbian counterparts in sectors like infrastructure and construction, recycling, wastewater treatment, information and communication technologies, tourism, food and beverage trade and agriculture. And we have already taken concrete steps to enhance cooperation between the institutions of our countries in scientific and innovation sectors.

Finally, as stated recently by Prime Minister Mitsotakis, the completion of the Piraeus- Thessaloniki-Skopje-Belgrade railway line is of great importance, as it will facilitate not only trade and transport, but also communication in the region.

Serbia has been criticised harshly for its failure to comply with the EU’s common foreign and security policy when it comes to Russia. How have you, as ambassador to Serbia, understood the arguments of the government in Belgrade?

I can understand the rationale behind the Serbian government’s decisions, as it is faced with a particular situation: it is dependent on Russia for energy, has the open issue of Kosovo and a large part of its people feel close to Russia. However, Serbia has stated repeatedly that EU accession is its strategic priority and aligning with the EU’s foreign and security policy has been a requirement since the beginning of accession negotiations. Being clear about one’s positions, especially during times of war, is important. Having said this, I would like to stress that adherence to the sanctions regime should be required from all candidate states, without exceptions.

Greece has also faced a situation that threatens its own territorial integrity in recent times. What is the current situation in the Aegean Sea and are tensions with Türkiye easing?

In the context of its strategic priority of consolidating its position as a pillar of peace, stability, security and cooperation in the wider region, Greece is pursuing the constant improvement of its relations with Türkiye. However, it has faced an unprecedented escalation of provocations and aggressive rhetoric from the Turkish side, which embraced the concept of an anachronistic revisionism aimed against our country’s territorial sovereignty and sovereign rights.

Some significant new investments have already been conducted over the last two years, i.e., the merger of Eurobank and Direktna Bank, the Athens Stock Exchange’s acquisition of 10.24% of shares of the Belgrade Stock Exchange, the construction of the new SuperVero-Jumbo hypermarket in Novi Sad, as well as the emergence of many new Greek SMEs

Greece’s position is clear and firm; it cannot be threatened on issues that concern its sovereign rights, which are guaranteed by International Law and the International Law of the Sea, and will not accept any fait accompli in the region. At the same time, Greece is clearly committed to maintaining open channels of communication with Türkiye. In this regard, I would also like to mention that Greece, in the spirit of solidarity, was one of the first countries to mobilise its resources and provide immediate assistance to Türkiye following the devastating earthquakes that hit the country in early February.

As ambassador, you’ve also inherited the tripartite dialogue between Greece, Cyprus and Serbia. How important is this form of cooperation in today’s world, when the crisis in Ukraine has led to increased talk of the possibility of nuclear war and the consequences of the crisis – not only economic, but also political – are also being felt in our region?

Greece deeply values regional cooperation, as an important instrument that actively promotes dialogue, coordination and development at a peripheral scale. The first trilateral meeting between Serbia, Greece and Cyprus was held in Belgrade in 2021. Our foreign ministers discussed the prospects of developing multilateral cooperation, promoting synergies and establishing joint activities in a number of areas, such as energy security through energy diversification and transport connectivity. I believe that, in the current complex geopolitical framework, the tripartite dialogue can be of even greater added value, serving as a tool to strengthen our collaborative efforts and actions in a broad range of economic fields and upgrading political communication and coordination among our three countries.

PARLIAMENTARY COOPERATION

Greek-Serbian Parliamentary Friendship Groups are among the largest groups in both parliaments and I am very content to realise that they are very active, with many reciprocal visits

INVESTMENTS

I am proud to say that not only political relations, but also economic, stand at an excellent level. Total Greek direct investment in Serbia is currently estimated at approximately 1.5 billion euros

EU FCSP

Being clear about one’s positions, especially during times of war, is important. I would like to stress that adherence to the sanctions regime should be required from all candidate states, without exceptions

Interview was held on 14th February 2023

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