Interview with the Greek Ambassador H.E. Mr. Athanassios Paressoglou

1) Prague Forum: For how long have you already been in the Czech Republic?

J.E. p. Athanassios PARESSOGLOU: First of all I would like to thank you for giving me this opportunity to communicate with your magazine readers.

I arrived in Prague in November 2020. So, I have been here for more than one and a half year. However, when I arrived, I did not have the opportunity to fully exercise my duties due to the COVID restrictions and the lockdown, which lasted until June 2021. Then, in October 2021, some COVID restrictions were reapplied, thus not allowing a normal diplomatic activity and social life. We couldn’t have any meetings or travel around the country and there were no embassies’ receptions.

At the beginning of 2022 restrictions begun to be lifted and I started organizing a reception on the occasion of the Greek National Day on March, 25. Unfortunately, due to the war in Ukraine, we got instructions from the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs to cancel all celebrations and relevant activities. As you probably know we have a large Greek community of more than 100.000 people in Mariupol, which was heavily hit by the war with a large number of civilian casualties. I think Mariupol is one of the most affected cities in this war, and its destruction still goes on. It was difficult to have here a reception when so many people suffered and died due to the war.

2) Prague Forum: What have been the main steps of your diplomatic career before coming to Prague?

J.E. p. Athanassios PARESSOGLOU: I’m a career diplomat. I joined the diplomatic service of my country in 1992. For the very first years, I worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in Athens. Then in 1997, I was posted as Consul of Greece at our Consulate General in Paris, France, where I served until 2001. Then from 2001 to 2004, I was Consul of Greece at our Consulate General in Istanbul, Turkey. And then I returned to Greece. Two years later, I was posted as deputy head of mission at our Embassy in Madrid, Spain, until 2010. Then I returned to Athens and from 2014 to 2017, I served at our Embassy to the Holy See in Rome. After that, I went again back to Athens, where I assumed my duties as director of the Diplomatic Cabinet of the Greek Minister of European affairs. And then, in November 2021, I was appointed as Ambassador of the Hellenic Republic to the Czech Republic, in my first ambassadorial appointment.

3) Prague Forum: What were you able to visit in the Czech Republic due to the pandemic?

J.E. p. Athanassios PARESSOGLOU: It was really hard to travel during the pandemic period. If you remember, it was prohibited to travel even outside Prague. Nevertheless, I had the opportunity to travel to a big part of the country last June, because I visited the town of Krnov, close to the borders of Poland. I was invited by the Greek Community of Krnov, a large Greek community there, dating back to 1948-49 when political refugees came to Czechoslovakia after the Greek Civil War, in the aftermath of World War II. I went by car, so I traveled through a big part of the country. And now I’m planning to visit, in late May, another important Greek community in Brno. I’ve also visited Terezín, which is not so far away but still historically a very important place. Now, I am looking forward to visiting the whole country, especially during summer time. The Czech Presidency of the Council of the European Union during the second half of 2022 might also organize conferences and events in different parts of the country, giving us in this way the chance to visit more places.

4) Prague Forum: Even though you could not travel much, you’ve spent a lot of time in Prague. What are your favorite places in Prague?

J.E. p. Athanassios PARESSOGLOU: Our Embassy is located in Střešovice, a very beautiful neighborhood and the residence is in Vinohrady, which is also a lovely place. It is very close to the National Museum and the National Opera, and boasts a great view of the Castle and the old town. Also, the Old town and Malá Strana are charming. Prague is a very beautiful city. You don’t have to choose a specific place because the whole city is wonderful. Yet, I prefer going close to the river, to the Charles Bridge, then to the other side of the bridge to Malá Strana, to Kampa. It’s an amazing area.

5) Prague Forum: How has Greece developed since the significant financial crisis of the last decade? How is the attitude of the international authorities perceived by the Greeks now?

J.E. p. Athanassios PARESSOGLOU: The Greek economy recovered strongly after this crisis and also recovered from the consequences of COVID-19. The tourism recovery happened much faster than expected after this pandemic, even during this year. In April, there were more than 1 million visitors to Athens! We witness increased private consumption and foreign private investments. Large companies, like Microsoft, invest lately in Greece, especially in the fields of technology and digitalization. We support those private investments and GDP growth is expected to remain high despite the war in Ukraine and high inflation, even if the inflation in Greece is much lower than in other European countries (even lower than in the Czech Republic). The inflation rate could be higher than expected in 2022, because of the increased energy prices. But all these are predictions, and we cannot predict exactly what will happen because, with the war, we don’t know how things will eventually develop. Unemployment has declined steadily, and the Greek economy is recovering faster than other European countries. Credit rating agencies have upgraded Greece’s debt rating, citing its improving economy even as the country deals with the shocks from the war in Ukraine. The Greek economy grew by 8,3% in 2021. So we are very optimistic. Another very important point is that life came back to normal, even though we have the impact of the war in Ukraine and global increases in energy prices. Greece has paid off its debt from the financial crisis to the IMF two years ahead of schedule. The economic crisis is now something that happened and stayed in the past. We left it behind us, and now we have very good prospects for the future. All the projections are pretty optimistic for the following years and we generally expect more growth and stability in our economy. We have to remind that Greece had got important help from our European Union partners in order to be able to overcome this crisis. Some institutions like the IMF had helped us too, imposing though very tough measures. But it allowed us to get back to normal. Last week, the Greek Prime Minister announced that the minimum wage has been raised to 713 Euros from 663 Euros the previous month, that’s a lot higher than the minimum wage in many European countries. The contribution of travel and tourism to Greece’s GDP was 21,2% in 2019. We expect to have a rebooting of tourism this summer in Greece. We already had good numbers in April, and it is expected that in summer 2022 we will have the same amount of tourists as in 2019.

6) Prague Forum: I have a question connected to the war since it affects the production and export of grains and wheat from Ukraine. So when it comes to food production, is Greek self-sufficient?

J.E. p. Athanassios PARESSOGLOU: Yes, Greece is 99,8% self-sufficient in plant products , 82% in cereals with the lowest level in soft wheat (34%) and the highest in rice (171%) and totally self-sufficient in hard wheat. We used to import the 30% of soft wheat from Russia and Ukraine but now we are going to obtain it from USA and Canada. Additionally, we don’t use sunflower oil so much because we have olive oil, and Greeks are much more familiar with using olive oil. So this is not going to be a big problem for Greece. Other countries are more dependent on Russian and Ukrainian products of this kind.

7) Prague Forum: Could you please tell us about your relationship with your neighbors?

J.E. p. Athanassios PARESSOGLOU: Greece is always committed to having good relations with its neighbors, being a pillar of peace and stability in South Eastern Europe. We have resolved in good faith the difference with North Macedonia regarding the name issue. We also have good relations with other neighbors. With Italy and Egypt, we were able to agree recently on the delimitation of our maritime zones. With Albania we agreed to sign an arbitration agreement for reaching a settlement on the delimitation of our respective maritime zones. I regret to say that the only problem that we have is with Turkey. Unfortunately, for several years we have been witnessing a provocative, aggressive and illegal behavior of Turkey towards Greece and Cyprus. Turkey has chosen to behave as a revisionist, destabilizing actor that jeopardizes the security of the immediate and wider region, as well as the priorities and values expressed and promoted by the EU. Greece supports Turkey’s accession process to the EU since its inception. Therefore, we are willing to discuss a positive agenda, in a gradual approach and only if Turkey manifests, for a credible period of time, readiness to promote a genuine partnership with the EU and its member states and resolve differences through sincere dialogue and in accordance with International Law.  It is our firm conviction that this is the only lawful way to resolve our dispute with our neighbor Turkey. We want to have good relations with Turkey, we are neighbors, and we have to be there for each other. But Turkey steadily questions our sovereignty and sovereign rights on our soil and islands: Turkish fighter jets violate almost daily our airspace and fly over a large number of Greek islands, even large and heavily populated ones. Furthermore Turkey used migratory pressure for political purposes, especially in February-March 2020, by encouraging thousands of migrants to attempt illegal crossings to Greece. Turkey is more willing to apply military options instead of diplomacy. This is not acceptable. Turkey must put a definite end to its illegal actions against Greece. We are quite disappointed and concerned by Turkey’s continuous illegal, provocative and aggressive behavior, because we really want to have good relations with this neighbor country and NATO ally.

8) Prague Forum: What relationship do the Greeks of 2022 keep with their glorious past? How much of Ancient Greece is still living today?

J.E. p. Athanassios PARESSOGLOU: It is strange to have this kind of question because living in Greece, speaking Greek, which is the continuation of ancient Greek, living at the same places and using them for the same purposes as in ancient times, all this makes us feel that time has stopped. Living in Athens, you see and live around of all these monuments. We have the impression that we have never lost touch with the past. This is very nice because we feel that we are the continuation of that. The language has survived for centuries since ancient times, as I told you. Even some rituals in Christian religion come from Ancient Greece, and we use them even nowadays in our religion. And this connection to the past also passes from our education, culture, and every day life. We feel that modern Greece is the continuation of Ancient Greece. In Greece, it’s not about how you look or which color your hairs are. Greek is considered every one who accepts and embrace the Greek culture and education. It’s not about being ethnically Greek. Even in ancient times, you were welcomed to the Greek societies if you accepted the Greek culture and lived according to the Greek way of life. This is the most important thing.

9) Prague Forum: What are the drivers of the Greek economy?

J.E. p. Athanassios PARESSOGLOU: As I mentioned earlier, tourism is one of the most important drivers of our economy. Then we have agriculture, we have the pharmaceutical industry, and we also have steel and aluminum production. We also have a very developed food industry. We have a lot of services and now many investments in technology. Many foreign companies invest in Greece in the fields of digitalization and IT. The Greek commercial fleet is one of the biggest worldwide and many Greek shipowners are based in Piraeus or London. We try to improve everything, especially services. We do that through digitalization and technologies, as mentioned. We have an excellent instrument such as the “Next Generation EU fund” which supports member states and we are trying to use it as better as possible. If conditions permit it, Greece will be a different country in ten years from now.

10) Prague Forum: Related to the above, the COVID pandemic has certainly affected tourism, which is an essential resource for the Greek economy. How would you see the prospects for the near future?

J.E. p. Athanassios PARESSOGLOU: As I told you before, we have recovered very quickly. For this summer we have a large number of hotel reservations and many direct flights from the USA, at least 63 direct flights a week!  Many people come from the United States and many tourists from Europe and Israel. We were also expecting many tourists from Ukraine and Russia, who will not come this year because of the war. But since there are much more tourists from the USA and other countries it will manage to counterbalance our losses. We are very optimistic that this year we’re going to reach probably the figures of 2019.

11) Prague Forum: What is the position of the Greek government towards the war going on between Ukraine and Russia? And how do the Greek society and public perceive this war?

J.E. p. Athanassios PARESSOGLOU: Greece, from the very first moment, strongly condemned the Russian invasion to Ukraine because it constitutes a flagrant breach of international law, violating the integrity and sovereign rights of Ukraine. No country is allowed to invade another one in order to change unilaterally the existing borders. We regret and condemn Russia’s aggression because it is not only against Ukraine but also against the whole world. Greece, along with its partners in the EU and its NATO allies, has applied all sanctions adopted against Russia. Even if the price is heavy for our economy, we had no other choice but to react against Putin’s illegal and aggressive behavior. We hope that Russia stops this war as soon as possible.

Prague Forum: Thank you for the interview. It was a pleasure to meet you.

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