Atlantic Council

 NATO Engages 2019

“Discussion: Enlarging Security in the Neighborhood”



Linas Linkevičius,

Minister of Foreign Affairs,

Republic of Lithuania


Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze,

Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration,



David Zalkaliani,

Minister of Foreign Affairs,



Spotlight Conversation:

Nikola Dimitrov,

Minister of Foreign Affairs,

Republic of North Macedonia


Giorgos Katrougalos,

Minister of Foreign Affairs,

Hellenic Republic



Heather Conley,

Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic; and Director, Europe Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies


Location:  Washington, D.C.


Time:  12:40 p.m. EDT

Date:  Wednesday, April 3, 2019


ANNOUNCER:  Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Ms. Heather Conley.  (Applause.)

HEATHER CONLEY:  Well, good afternoon.  It is fantastic to be with you.  It’s a power lunch session with four foreign ministers and a deputy prime minister, and I’m very excited to get us started to talking about how we can enlarge security in the neighborhood. 

Let me begin by introducing Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, the vice prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration with Ukraine.  Madam Minister, thank you.  (Applause.)


CONLEY: And next we have David Zalkaliani, minister of foreign affairs, Georgia. Thank you, Minister.  (Applause.)  Please, and finally, we have Linas Linkevičius, minister of foreign affairs, Republic of Lithuania.  Thank you, Mr. Minister.  (Applause.)

We are delighted.  We’ll have you go ahead, sit right there.  Yes.  Thank you. 

Well, welcome.  Speaking of the neighborhood, I’m going to put the Black Sea neighborhood here, and Madam Minister, I wanted to start with you.  Ukraine is, obviously, the laboratory for Russian hybrid warfare, or, as I like to say, new-generation warfare.  What has NATO’s involvement in Ukraine in helping the Ukrainian defense against this Russian aggression?  Madam Minister, please. 

MIN. KLYMPUSH-TSINTSADZE:  Well, first of all, thank you for posing this question and understanding that Ukraine has become, unfortunately, a lab for the Russian Federation to work on its instruments that it’s then later on is using in other countries, and it’s important to understand that Ukraine is not the end target of Russian Federation – that Russian Federation is eager to restore the USSR 2.0 and then move on to further imposing its understanding of international order, which equals chaos in the other countries, and that’s the end goal.  It’s not – it doesn’t end at our borders.  That’s one thing. 

We’ve been happy to see the engagement from NATO allies and both from the alliances as a whole but, at the same time, also from individual countries that have been coming to Ukraine with assistance, with training of our personnel, with helping us right now to hold the – not only our security in the Black Sea and Azov Sea region but also, I think, also protecting their own security in the region. 

I’m sure that all of those efforts are very, very important and we are happy that we see them.  But I’m sure that we all have to understand that Russia only understands the language of power, the language of deterrence and unity.  So the answer is more unity inside the alliance in terms of this deterrence policy, and I think the alliance has to be ready to actually give the answer in terms of the strategic challenges that it’s facing from Russia and not be blind to those – to those particular challenges and threats that Russia is posing for the whole world and not to Ukraine or to the eastern flank of NATO at this particular point.

CONLEY: Absolutely. Strength and unity.

Mr. Minister, of course, that early laboratory occurred in 2008 when the world woke up to the – to the reality of Russian aggression.  Let me pull out a little bit on the Black Sea.  Obviously, very strong concerns about incidents in the Sea of Azov in November.  But Georgia has been facing and confronting these challenges.  Help us understand NATO’s important role to Georgia in a wider Black Sea context.

MINISTER DAVID ZALKALIANI:  Well, thank you very much for this opportunity to talk about the importance of the Black Sea in the context of Georgia and Ukraine.  I absolutely agree with you that what was in 2008 in Georgia was a repetition of events in Ukraine and the invasion in Georgia, occupation of more than 20 percent of territories which is going on, and Russia is increasing its military presence on the Black Sea in Abkhazia region, and Russia increasing its military control not only to Georgian territory but the territory far beyond the Black Sea and the region.  And it’s a fact that Georgia’s foreign policy priority is integration into Euro-Atlantic structures.  It’s already enshrined in the main document, constitution of Georgia, as well as in numerous resolutions of the parliament and the program of the government, which declares as a top priority full integration into European structures.  Georgia is recognized as a frontrunner among other aspirant countries.  And Georgia is absolutely different than it was ten years ago.  Georgia, which demonstrates significant strength on its state institutions, on building vibrant democratic society, on liberal market economy, and free media.  All of this we see in the context of the NATO integration. 

And I want to deliver brief and very explicit messages here that the aspiration of Georgian people is confirmed by the three main pillars.  First of all, Georgia is most operational partner with NATO.  Georgia contributes significantly to the NATO operation in Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan.  Biggest per capita contributor, 870 Georgian soldiers serving in Afghanistan, back to back with our allies, without caveats, although we have suffered casualties.  That is, three Georgians died in Afghanistan.  And we pay tribute to the sacrifice of these people.  At the same time, we are increasing our defense and security capabilities.  We have already met the NATO requirement 2 percent GDP spending on – military spending, as well, and 20 percent of military – major military acquisition. 

And third dimension is the Black Sea security.  And here, again, we are very actively engaged in the geostrategic dialogue with our NATO partners.  And we believe that tomorrow’s discussion, during the informal ministerial meeting, will be one of the important issue, and one of the important topic which will be discussed is the Black Sea security.  And during the NATO Brussels summit we have managed to agree with our NATO partners four, five concrete elements on how to strengthen the Black Sea security.  And right now we are working how to translate into practical reality. 

So by continuing occupation of Georgia and Ukraine, of course, the main strategic goal is to – which is to have Europe whole, free and at peace is not met yet again when we believe that we have a role to intensify our efforts and to consolidate efforts in order to strengthen the Black Sea security.

CONLEY: Mr. Minister, thank you.

As the minister was talking, minister, I went back 15 years ago as we were contemplating Lithuania’s membership into NATO.  It was act like a NATO partner in everything but.  Lithuania has been such a champion for strengthening the eastern flank and looking at the aspirant countries, because 15 years ago Lithuania was an aspirant country.  Tell me what NATO membership has meant to Lithuania looking back 15 years, and your vision for aspirants like Ukraine and Georgia.

MINISTER LINAS LINKEVIČIUS:  Frankly, I’m very happy to be together with David, with Ivanna, and in close cooperation celebrating 70 years and also 15th anniversary of my country’s membership.  For us, membership was really much more than just membership in the organization.  It was strengthening of our identity, guarantees for security, which had never happened in the hundreds of years before.  The country was not able to choose future destiny, always dependent on somebody or something.  And that was really big breakthrough – geopolitical breakthrough in the region for my country as well.  It was relatively recently.  More to say – I have to say 15 years ago, membership came.  But I was ambassador to NATO.  And I remember 1999-2000, I was told by future allies looking into the eyes that you will never be members of NATO.  Never, ever.  We like your freedom fight.  We like your country.  And yourself, not so bad.  (Laughter.)  So it’s fine. 

CONLEY: You were OK? (Laughs.)

MIN. LINKEVIČIUS:  But be realistic.  Be realistic.  You will never.  You know, that kind of encouragement and kind of, so to say, still was, you know, motivation, right?  But it was important to continue, not to give up.  What I’m telling now to Georgians, to Ukrainians.  But you have promises.  You know, you have promises.  You have mechanism, feedback.  You have everything in your possession.  Political decision will come.  But when it will come, you must be ready.  Nobody can be to blame.  So this is really, coming back, not to go far away from your question, very emotional, very important, and even difficult to believe that already 15 years passed.

CONLEY: Yes. No, absolutely. 

So in 2001, an American president in a speech said this:  All of Europe’s new democracies, from the  Baltic to the Black Sea and all that lie between, should have the same chance for security and freedom and the same chance to join the institutions of Europe as Europe’s old democracies.  Does that promise, does that aspiration, do you feel that sense from NATO capitals today that there is that security from the Baltic to the Black Sea?  Madam Minister.

MIN. KLYMPUSH-TSINTSADZE:  You know, I think we all have to go back to the Bucharest Summit of 2008 when Ukraine and Georgia have been promised that one day we will become NATO members, and but – and the next step will be mapped for both of our countries.  And we are still waiting for that map to happen.  We in Ukraine have a share of blame to actually hold for that because we have been changing the course, and finally our course is right now fixed in the constitution of Ukraine which I think is going to preserve the European and Euro-Atlantic integration for the – for the country for the future.

But at the same time then this indecidedness of NATO, where the problem is that was not there to deliver, that actually led to the situation which we see with aggression and attack on Georgia of Russian Federation.  And this weak attack – this weak response that we saw from the West, including NATO, to the attack on Georgia, that actually caused additional appetite for Ukraine and for attacking Ukraine by Russian Federation.  So therefore, I think we still see – and I’m sorry to say this – a little bit of double standards, OK?  So you have to be really good enough.

And we are also hearing some of the encouragement from some of the partners and some of the “encouragement,” quote and unquote, from some of the partners with the same, you know, line that, oh, come on, you have to do your homework.  We are doing our homework.  We are not – today we’re not coming to NATO as beggars or requiring NATO to defend ourselves.  We are not asking for the boot on our – or NATO boot on our territory.  We are actually coming as partners because I think that we all agree, whoever has actually worked with Ukrainian officers and soldiers, everybody would tell you that they are teaching as much our trainers from different allied countries as they are teaching them.  So it’s a mutually beneficial operation.

And also, I think Ukraine can bring a lot right now to the table of dealing with the hybrid threats that we should be actually confronting all together.  And we can work together on the territory of our country, but then also bring back this experience to the other countries.

So I’d like to see more of the sincere dialogue with Ukraine, with Georgia, on how the strategic decision that these countries will be members of the alliance, how will this further vision we are working together on and not looking for a pretext why and when to turn away from these countries.  This is not going to serve a goal of getting security in the region, in Europe and in Eurasia.

CONLEY: Mr. Minister, I wanted to ask you – and I’m going to now start going – roving around here, going to our audience – Mr. Minister, how important it is that NATO has created a joint training and evaluation center, that there is a piece of NATO in Georgia? How important is that physical presence there?


CONLEY: I think you’re going to need that, yeah.

MIN. ZALKALIANI:  (Comes on mic.)  This is really very important, and this is important decision taken during the Wales Summit.  And I believe that a NATO presence in Georgia and all practical tools Georgia has for its eventual membership is really – include not only joint training center, but also other means through which NATO is increasing its military presence.

We were talking about the Black Sea security and more frequent port calls and more military exercises and the recent military exercise which took place in Georgia with the huge number of participation of NATO allies and partner countries.  This also demonstrates the importance NATO attach to cooperation with Georgia.

And I also would like to echo what my colleague minister told about the membership of Georgia and Ukraine.  Yes, we have Bucharest Summit decision that there is a consensus among all NATO allies that Georgia will become NATO member.  There was a reiteration of this decision during the next summits and reconfirmation that Georgia has all practical tools for eventual membership.  Only decision now that remains is the political one, and we have to ready for this moment.  We are doing everything possible.  We are not discouraged by the fact that there is no political decision taken yet.

Meanwhile, we are developing our very strong bilateral cooperation with allies and with one of the main strategic partner, with the United States.  The relationship with the United States is at all-time high right now.  We are developing defense and security, which increases our defense and resilience.  We are developing bilateral cooperation with France, with Germany, and with other NATO allies.  And I hope that, by doing this, we are approaching this process and we are approaching time for political decision to be taken.

CONLEY: Thank you.

Now, I’m going to look around here.  Who has questions?  Let me take a quick poll of hands in the audience here.  Raise your hand if you think the Black Sea is an issue of vulnerability for NATO’s security and defense of all its neighbors?  Hand raised – Black Sea is a concern for you, certainly.  Good, we’ve got a lot of hands going up.

I see a question over here.  And then, Mr. Minister, I’m going to come with you with another question.

Sir, please identify yourself.

Q:  Hi.  My name is Sebastian Dannhoff.  I’m a German national but I’m a grad student here at Johns Hopkins SAIS University.

It’s a question for you, Mr. Minister.  You had your opening statement talking about unity and internal cohesion inside of NATO.  Yet just this morning we had a pretty blatant example of how that internal cohesion is putting under strain.  And I could see that you definitely had some feelings about those statements.

So my question is, how do we rectify that internal strain going forward or, keeping with the theme that we had, thinking the unthinkable, do we maybe need to rethink our internal alliance structure on a greater scheme of things?  Thank you.

CONLEY: I’ll take a quick answer to that and then I’ll turn to Minister Linkevičius.

MIN. KLYMPUSH-TSINTSADZE:  You know, I think that facing reality with the consciousness and clarity of your sight, that could actually help to fix all these frictions that so far have been emerging within or between NATO allies.  And that requires a very sober and very sincere conversation among allies and actually meeting the worries and concerns of one another.

And I think that should lead for NATO to come strong out of this uneasy times and concerns that are coming from different directions.  We believe in that, and we are there also to help to keep this unity and not to divide NATO further.

CONLEY: I’m remembering again – I feel like I’m going down memory lane – 15 years ago. What was essential for NATO enlargement in the 2004 was the Vilnius 10 process, where the aspirants joined together to fight for each other and for that security.

Help us understand how the solidarity – Georgia, Ukraine; I would even put Moldova and those other aspirant countries that are trying to find a way towards the West, not to harm relations necessarily with Russia, but to find that balance.  What are some advices you could give from your experience?

MIN. LINKEVIČIUS:  Same advice as we’re giving now; just to compare notes, try to do that together as much as possible, when appropriate.  It’s nice wording, right?  We did that together also, all 10.

By the way, one of these all 10 countries just about to join, Northern Macedonia, it was also a member of Vilnius 10.  Can you imagine how long it took for them?  But maybe – can I also –

CONLEY: Please.

MIN. LINKEVIČIUS:  – make the point about Georgian faith, Ukrainian faith, and our, so to say, attitude, our assessment, that sometimes it’s not about them but about us.  In 2008, we didn’t pass the exam, not because we were guilty for what happened, because Russia occupied 20 percent of Georgian territory, but we were among those few who said, look, it’s not acceptable.  We have to really be more tough in reacting.  But very soon we came back to business as usual; I shouldn’t say forgetting what happened, but just appeasing, you know.  And that was also – and we didn’t pass the test.

This is about values.  And when the secretary general spoke in this historic speech in the Congress, he mentioned values.  We will stick to the values in the future.  We will be free.  But it’s not a given.  We have to fight for that.  So it’s not just empty words and slogans.  What is happening now in Georgia and Ukraine is also kind of test case how we’re able to react, because after non-reaction, it was annexation of Crimea.  Now we have events in eastern Ukraine.

Countries have a right to choose, we are saying.  We said this today.  And this alliance is standing for that quite firm.  But it’s not only about us and our, so to say, opportunity to defend ourselves.  But we shouldn’t be ignorant or just, so to say, neutral when others are fighting for the same values.

So this is also something to think about.  And this is about solidarity, definitely, those 10 or these countries now who are trying to get into alliance.  But we should remember that the alliance remained not only most successful alliance in the world, the strongest in the history, only because it was built on foundation of values, principles, commitments, like rule of law, like freedom of speech, like democracy.  This is nothing to do through the first glance with the – with the military power and might, but this is most essential.  And if we are not able to keep this as the foundation for our alliance, we’ll not live so long and successful as it was so far 70 years ago.  And as the secretary-general said these 70 years what we invested and did was nice, but it’s no guarantee for the future.  So let’s think about that together with the partners who are also coming, and one day I believe – and I believe you deserve to join our community, and because of your motivation, because you’re sharing these values/principles, risking your soldiers and dying for our values.  So this is not nothing.  This is much to be said.  So this is also something to be – to be – take into account today when we are celebrating this jubilee.

CONLEY: Absolutely. Yes, please, then I want to take that question.

MIN. KLYMPUSH-TSINTSADZE:  Maybe just add one sentence there.  I actually also noted this particular phrase of secretary-general in the Congress, that value, this is the basis, and he believes that the values will bring alliance to further stages.  And I think that sometimes we have – in Ukraine we have a feeling that in the kind of so-called old Europe, in the old democratic and civilized world, people have forgotten that you actually have to fight for values.  People have already relaxed and are taking them for granted.  And this is something that we in Ukraine right now probably can teach others to fight for because that’s what has been happening since the revolution of dignity and that is what is happening right now on the – on the touchline between occupied and Kyiv-controlled territories in the east of Ukraine.

Just yesterday we have lost two soldiers – one woman, one man – and that just gives you the understanding that the war is ongoing.  Two have been wounded yesterday, two have died.  It’s in the center of Europe.  It’s right there.  And these people are standing there for freedom, for freedom of choice, and for this opportunity to choose a better life for the nation.  And that’s what matters, I think.

CONLEY: Well, and I think the common theme here is we become immune to this – 11 years of occupation, five years of annexation and occupation. Other things get into our way that keep that focus.

I’m going to take two questions.  Sir, General, I’m going to start with you.  Thank you.  And then I’m going to turn over here.

Q:  Thank you.

CONLEY: Please. Thank you, General Clark.

Q:  So this one is for our – great to see you here, and congratulations on your NATO membership so many years ago.  Wes Clark.

So question is this.  Senator Murphy – Senator Murphy mentioned these Russian fight clubs and the other things that Russia does under the table to sort of organize and prepare for conflict and to exert its power over the countries in Eastern Europe.  Obviously, each of the countries in the Baltics – and I’m sure Georgia and Ukraine are also very concerned about this and looking at it – but are you sharing within NATO these internal security measures?  Are there lessons learned that are shared with allies?  Because it strikes me that the Russians can use one or two countries as laboratories, push on them, and then apply the techniques and they look new to other countries that haven’t seen them yet.  So can you talk a little about internal security?  Thank you.

CONLEY: Thank you, General Clark.

Do you want to take that one?

MIN. LINKEVIČIUS:  The Eastern countries are not laboratories; they are sovereign territories and nobody can test anything, weapons or behavior, and this is obvious.  But this is happening, you are quite right.  Russia always testing our unity, trying to split us.  It’s not a big secret.  It’s openly known.

Not only in NATO but also in European Union, yes, we are discussing these issues.  You are right, General.  And we will be doing that in the future.  Not too much time for these discussions.  Always we need to do that.

And more and more, drawing attention to these hybrid threats, basically, which are not known to many.  We have to review our manuals, playbooks, and to take into account strategic communication, brainwashing, propaganda issues.  Not yet taken adequate in my view because resilience – everybody know this works, now it’s very important, but resilience means something.  You know, it’s – first of all, in my view, it’s warned us that some threats can come from some direction that’s not yet known because it’s taken too easy, too liberal sometimes.  This is weapon when the media is weaponized, the soft media.  And lie is not freedom of speech.  Lie is something else.  If it’s liberally spread, this is something else.  So we have to do that.

Same with regard to the energy security, which was not the issue if you, General, remember before 2006.  We were not taking this as a priority for the alliance.  Now it’s Center of Excellence in Vilnius on energy security.

Cyber defense nobody questioning is a future challenge and will be growing, and we need to invest.

And this has nothing to do with tanks, missiles, naval capabilities.  This is something new.  And we are discussing about these issues.

Understanding is improving, but obviously, frankly, we need to do more, definitely.  There are some divergence of views, let’s put it like that.

CONLEY: Well, I think it’s so vital that information sharing, because we’re seeing these tactics they’re rolling out, the role that you play in helping the alliance is so critical.

I’m going to throw the last question to Ambassador Kurt Volker.  Kurt?

Q:  Thank you very much.  And executive director of the McCain Institute as well.

I want to pick up on a couple things that Linas said.  And greetings, Madam Minister and David.  I want to pick up on a couple of things that Linas said that I think are fundamentally important for us.  When I say “us,” I’m thinking about the United States, I’m thinking about the West.  First off, this is not only the 70th anniversary of NATO’s creation, it’s the 20th anniversary of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary joining, and the 15th anniversary of the Baltic states, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania.  I had the privilege on working on all of those enlargements.

And I think for any of us who did so, we look at that as the most important things we have done in our lives so far.  That this has made a difference in the lives of over 100 million people who now live in free, prosperous, and safe societies, when that was not the case before.  And so as a – as a question of who we are and what our values are, why should that be true for people in Berlin, or Paris, Vilnius, or Washington, and not true for people in Tbilisi, or Kyiv, or Chisinau, or wherever?  This is a human set of values and I think a responsibility that still lies with all of us.

The second thing I would say is I don’t think that we should make this only a question about Russian aggression.  I think we know everything about Russian aggression that we need to know.  It’s there.  They’re doing it.  We see it.  Now what?  NATO was founded at a time of great risk.  We know that it was dangerous.  The Soviet Union had flipped governments, was occupying territory.  And we made a commitment in this country to the defense of Western Europe, to the defense of Germany – western Germany, to Paris, to Italy, and so on. 

Now, it sometimes seems like NATO is only willing to talk about defensive countries if it’s without risk.  And I think that that is a huge mistake.  It is risky, but we owe it to everybody to make sure we keep building a Europe whole, free and at peace for all of its people.

CONLEY: Thank you. Ambassador Volker, I think really to sum up, we have strength, unity, and values.  And we can enlarge security in Europe’s neighborhood.  Please join me in thanking all three ministers for a fantastic discussion.  (Applause.)  Thank you.

I will ask our ministers to exit.  And, as I said – but wait, there’s more – we have Nikola Dimitrov, minister of foreign affairs in the Republic of North Macedonia with us.  And he’s coming – I feel like “The Price Is Right” – come on down.  You’re the next foreign minister contestant on NATO engages.  Come on down!  Yay!  (Laughs, applause.)  Nikola is such a good friend I knew he wouldn’t mind that.  And, whoops, I think you dropped a card there.  Pick that up.  No worries.  And then we also have Minister Giorgos Katrougalos, the minister of foreign affairs from Greece.  Welcome, welcome my friend.  (Laughs, applause.)  Fantastic to see you.


CONLEY: I have to say, I’ve got an unfair advantage. I saw these two at work at the Delphi Economic Forum in February.  So you are in for a treat.  I’m so excited to talk about something extremely positive and possible.  Twenty-seven years we have the Republic of North Macedonia, we have the Greek parliament ratifying—the first country to ratify North Macedonia as a member of NATO.  We’ve got some more countries to go.  So help us to understand – and I’m going to ask this question for both of you and, Mr. Minister I want to start with you – how does the Prespa agreement really ensure stronger stability and security in the Western Balkans?  And Greece has been such a leader in that – in that department?

MIN. KATROUGALOS:  Because it sends a clear message that we can resolve disputes through dialogue, by good faith and, as my predecessor was saying, using history not as a prison but as a school.  And so now not only we have between the two countries the best-ever bilateral relations, but I think could be a blueprint for the Balkans, the powder keg of Europe in the past, so as to resolve the other very, very difficult disputes that still exist in our area.

CONLEY: Fantastic. Mr. Minister, what does – what does this mean for your country?  Obviously now, as Minister Linkevičius said, you know, you were part of the Vilnius 10 15 years ago.  Now today, on that road.  What does that mean?

MINISTER NIKOLA DIMITROV:  I actually signed the Vilnius statement back in 2000.  And we are the last country that is finally about to join.  So this has been long overdue.  We promise then that we will, in solidarity, help each other to make Europe whole and free.  And finally, I think we are close to that line of certainty.  For us, this is essentially one of the two biggest strategic goals since our independence in ’91.  In ’93, the parliament said we all together consensually, we would like to be part of the alliance.  We have 84 percent of our public opinion is in support of this strategic direction.  So it really feels special that after all these years – first of all, this is unfinished business.  It’s good to finish business.

CONLEY: (Laughs.) Yes, it is.

MIN.  DIMITROV:  And I feel privileged to have a finger in making sure that the next generation will have a more reliable, more stable, more predictable country.  So we extend the zone of stability in a region that still needs more stability.  So it’s very special to be part of this process and to build friendship with our neighbors.  I don’t think there is a more natural state of play than to have the biggest support coming from your neighbors.  And as Jens said to the joint session of Congress today, it is good to have friends.  (Laughs.)

So what we did is by understanding each other, covering the basic interests, concerns of the other, and respecting the other, we managed to overcome this issue in a way that now we are in the same board.  And we would like to have a great neighbor.  And I think they would like to have a prosperous neighbor as well.  So this was not easy.  And it took leadership of the two PMs to think more about the next generation and less about the next elections.

CONLEY: Well, it was historic yesterday when Prime Minister Tsipras was in Skopje with businessmen, a huge Cabinet – I think 10 members of the Cabinet. But, you know, we have some challenges ahead, immediately.  April 21st, presidential elections.  We have the European Parliament elections in Greece, and parliament elections – European Parliament and then your own national elections very soon.  Are you concerned about backlash?  Because obviously this is controversial in both of your countries.  Not everyone shares your optimism.  How do you manage the politics of making sure that there’s strong national support for this historic moment?

MIN. KATROUGALOS:  You are right, it is a great bet.  It’s not just pass.  There is a resurgence of nationalism in Europe.  And the next European elections are going to take this form of confrontation of two different visions for Europe – open societies, respect to our values, freedoms, solidarity with the neighbors – and another version, more, let’s say, nationalistic in the bad way, the chauvinistic way that wants to return to a golden past that never existed in the – in Europe.  And in our countries, there is still a reaction.  In Greece, it is very closely associated with the, let’s say, wounded pride of the Greeks during the years of the crisis.  We lost one-fourth of our national wealth, of our GDP.  And some of our sovereignty has been really limited.  Now, of course, we have changed the page, but a lot of Greeks have an emotional reaction to the agreement. 

We hope that we are going to persuade them, exactly because, as Nikola said, the agreement is a win-win bet, not a zero-sum game.  We both ensured our vital interests in that.  And moreover, we have ensured the perspectives for the future cooperation between our enterprises and their enterprises.  That summarizes also the ambition we have as Greece for the area, not just to be a stable democracy but to export stability as well.

CONLEY: Well, thank you.

Mr. Minister, I’m going to turn to you just very briefly.  I have another question for you, because we hope the U.S. Senate will start deliberating the amending the NATO treaty, the ratification process.  So I’m going to put you on the spot.  And if you were to stand before the Senate and give a one-minute summary of why North Macedonia should join the alliance, what would you say?

MIN. DIMITROV:  I need to button up the – (laughter) –

CONLEY: OK, stand up. Suit up.  (Laughter.)  I’m a senator.  Go.

MIN. DIMITROV:  One minute.  So –

CONLEY: The elevator pitch.

MIN. DIMITROV:  We think that strength is about how strong your military is, how strong your economy is, but also about how many friends you have, how close those friends are and how willing are they to engage when you need them in times of need.  So I think even as a non-NATO member, as a country – as a partner country, we’ve been part of the burden sharing throughout these years. 

In Afghanistan, we were at one point the fourth per capita contributing nation.  So we carried more than our weight, and I think that willingness to be part of a collective effort it is what really matters.  Then not to forget that the first ever intervention of the alliance was actually in our region in ’99 and we provided logistics support for that intervention, and what we make in making North Macedonia more stable is we extend zone of stability in the region that caused NATO to intervene in ’99.  It will have a calming influence in our neighborhood. 

Back in Bucharest, we had defense spending of over 2 percent of our GDP.  Then our previous leadership lost its compass and they essentially used – George talked about nationalism.  I call it shallow nationalism because it’s usually self-defeating exactly under national interests it purports to defend and then promote.  So it dropped, and now we are committed to bringing it back over 2 percent and also making sure that how we spend is worthwhile for the alliance.

We talked about the Vilnius statement.  It’s also an uncompleted story, and I think the enthusiasm I see in the Senate is fully bipartisan – enthusiasm among many allies – and 29 is actually a less stable number than 30.

CONLEY: You were arguing for round numbers? Awesome.

MIN. DIMITROV:  So – (laughter) –

CONLEY: I think that worked, Mr. Minister. Thank you so much.

MIN. DIMITROV:  It’s a good number.

CONLEY: Round numbers. Round numbers.  Keep going.

You know, I think what strikes me, even looking back, and I’m thinking about the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit when Greece, using its EU presidency, was saying the work in the Balkans is unfinished and being such a champion, this really brings us forward.  What is Greece’s future role in securing and stabilizing the Western Balkans?  Obviously, the Prespa Agreement is such an important piece, but don’t stop there.  There’s so much more work to be done.  We’re seeing growing instability in the region.

Mr. Minister.

MIN. DIMITROV:  You’re absolutely right.  In 2003, we have also put the agenda for the EU enlargement of the Western Balkans.  We support that.  Greece does not want to become a hegemonic force in the Balkans.  But we are the oldest NATO, the oldest EU member state.  We would like to have anything that’s positive in developing common progress and welfare in the region.  Already we are among the biggest investors in the Balkans.  Despite the crisis of GDP is still bigger than the aggregate of all – of all the countries’ GDP north of our frontiers. 

So what we wanted to do to help them catch up with the European – (inaudible) – that is, reform of their own countries for the interest and benefit of their own peoples.  Second, to try to develop the Balkans as a unified economic space.  Fifty million market, it is a challenge – good challenge for all the countries in the area.  So we want to promote political stability – what I said before, exporters of what we have – but also help the neighborhood to catch up with the European average.

CONLEY: Fantastic. I’m going to turn to our audience for any questions with the – with the ministers.  As you’re collecting your thoughts and your questions, I want to talk a little bit about – sort of bringing the conversation from the last Russian influence.  We saw where there was Russian attempts at influencing the referendum that was held prior to the decision to reach about NATO.  We’ve seen Russian intervention that required the Greek government to expel Russian diplomats.  Again, you have important elections.  How are you both managing the specter of Russian malign influence within your countries through this very both promising but still very dynamic and challenging political time?

MIN. DIMITROV:  This – as I said, this is about our people and I’m actually offended when some countries or analysts they say that we are doing someone else’s agenda.  This is about making our own country more stable in the company of the countries that care about individual liberties, about the rule of law, and about democratic institutions.  That’s also strength, how democratic and how functional checks and balances are and institutions are – judiciaries’ independence, media freedoms.

So we do this for ourselves.  We have the full support of our people.  Eighty-four percent of our citizens support us joining NATO, and while back in 2008, for instance, this was not quite an issue for Moscow, it is not a secret that we have had a steady stream of press releases, public statements coming from Moscow saying – against the agreement, that this was not – you know, all kinds of criticism.  I tell them openly – I speak this publicly and also behind the scenes – this is good for the stability of the region.  It is our decision, and at some point we all – it’s going to be a question of leadership and time. 

We need to talk to each other and we, the alliance, as the next 30 member states – I’m hoping I’m going to have that right by December this year to speak also on behalf of the alliance – and this understanding will have to be, of course, based on some important principles of international law.  But we have to engage, and even if we don’t improve the relationship we still need to talk. 

So I’m going to also mention only one point in the – on the referendum campaign.  We don’t know where this came from, but I learned this word from digital experts.  We had a lot of nongenuine internet traffic in the social media, and the perception – in the bubble of the social media there was a huge gap between the reality on the streets in terms of protests, et cetera, and the tension and the boycott campaign, the euphoria against the agreement in the social media.

CONLEY: I think the French government had a very similar feeling in the gilets jaunes movement.

MIN. DIMITROV:  So this we noticed.  There’s some new political players with some Russian flacks protesting against the agreement.  They’re very marginal.  So this is what we’ve seen.  But we know where we’re going to go.  The direction is there and we are moving in that direction, and this is good.  Stability is good for the Balkans, it’s good for Europe, and we will continue to convince everyone that this is a good thing.

CONLEY: Mr. Minister, obviously, the Greek-Russian relationship has always been one that’s very close, particularly under this government. But this was an extraordinary move.

MIN. KATROUGALOS:  Well, if you look at the map you can easily see that Greece is a physical bridge between Africa, Asia, and Europe, and it is not just about geography.  Our history – never been a colonial power, having an important diaspora in northern neighbor counties that was conducive to peaceful relations – makes us a natural mediator, a political bridge.  And we wanted to play this role for our political home, which is European Union, at major countries like China, like the Arab world, also like Russia.  But that presupposes mutual respect, respect of international law, and above all a respect of our sovereignty. 

When we have been facing a situation which we consider that there was a breach of our sovereignty we have, indeed, expelled Russian diplomats exactly because the relationship of the states must not be based on things like that but on mutual respect.  We still hope – and this is the biggest challenge for NATO and for the European, let’s say, defense and security in general – that we could reintroduce Russia in the European system of regional security.  If we manage to do that with Soviet Union through the Helsinki agreement, having a much more aggressive, much stronger, let’s say, challenge, why not to become possible with Russia as well?  Of course, I’m repeating the obvious, having as precondition full respect of international law and lack of any kind of aggression. 

CONLEY: Thank you. OK, we got a few minutes.  Questions from the audience.  Yes, Ambassador Sandy Vershbow.

Q:  Sandy Vershbow at the Atlantic Council, former NATO deputy secretary general.

Congratulations to both ministers and to your countries from solving what seemed to many of us to be an insoluble problem.  But where there’s a will, there’s a way.

But looking ahead, migration continues to be a major challenge facing Europe.  And it seems that the EU is becoming more and more divided on the subject, with the decision to scale back Operation Sophia.  I’d ask the minister from Greece in particular, what would be your recommendation as to the future NATO role in maritime security, and in particular how to help keep a lid on the illegal migration problem?

MIN. KATROUGALOS:  Thank you.  It’s really a very pertinent question.  NATO could help, and it helps, but it is above all a European problem.  There is not any nation that can resolve this issue by itself.  We – as Greece, faced a perfect storm of crisis – economic combined with migration.  But we still remembered the time that we had been migrants and refugees.  So our reaction was very natural.  We opened our country to those in need.  Other countries in the European Union did not do that.  And above all, they did not agree to something which is fundamental in a political union – sharing of burden.  It is a clear sign of solidarity that speaking about the political union, a political and legal obligation as well.

So what it is very, very much urgently needed is a reform of the European legislation Dublin treaty.  And overall the system of rules we have show us it is not just the frontline states – countries like Greece, Italy, Spain – to receive the full burden of the migration flows.  And above all – and this is a challenge for the West as a whole – to help the countries from which these migrants come to have their own development.  Look at Africa.  Now we have more births in Africa than the whole of Asia.  If Africa would be a black hole in globalization, every measures that we could take here in Europe or in the states would be futile. 

So we should also face the root causes of migration, that is unequal economic order globally, a globalization that did not work equally well in some parts of the world – not for the population also in our countries, this rise of inequalities both within our states and among our states is a big threat.  So it is not an easy answer to your question, but we must adopt, if we want to be sincere with ourselves, a holistic approach, taking into account all of these dimensions.

CONLEY: Mr. Minister, I’m thinking one of the takeaways that I had from the multiple rounds of NATO enlargement is that there’s a sense that after a country enters NATO, the work is done, the mountain has been climbed. And that there’s sort of that sense of relief and sometimes there’s a sense of backsliding a little bit.  Do you have a plan for the post-membership – what is North Macedonia going to do to continue to do that strong institutional building to fight corruption, to strengthen North Macedonia to be a strong and stable partner?  Do you have a post-membership plan?

MIN. DIMITROV:  I think partly responding – but I will definitely go directly to that question as well.  I think what we bring, we have a fresh view of a country that is about to enter.  And we know that outside it’s cold.  And you feel lonely.  You walk alone.  So I think people, countries, on the inside, there is a complacency because being there for so many years you forgot how cold it is on the outside.  This enthusiasm I think we would like to spread also among founding members.

 And connected to the question of migration, we had the war in Syria that we couldn’t deal with properly – we, the world.  And this, I was then based in the Netherlands.  And the sense was that this is far and it won’t affect us.  And then the migration crisis exploded in 2015 and ’16.  So the world, our world, is getting smaller, and it’s more interconnected.  It requires more joint action.  And the responsibility is shared on all of these fronts, the root causes.  And we don’t have the luxury of not dealing with problems.  We need to face problems, invest if we need to invest in more defense spending, because we need strength to have peace and do things.

I don’t think we are very experienced in waiting now.  We have had 18 MAP cycles as a country in preparation.  I don’t think we will take this finally crossing the line, getting the membership for granted.  And the actual goal is not to become a formal member.  The actual goal is to become a country that has strong functional democratic institutions, that is a reliable, predictable partner so that Athens, Washington, D.C., Berlin can reach out to us and say:  We need you here and there in the region, beyond the region. 

So I think this is the goal.  It’s not the formal.  But it will help to finally get some benefits out of the burden-sharing as well.  It’s a two-way street, of course.

CONLEY: I couldn’t find a better way of ending that thought. But I have a recommendation to the conference organizers.  I think we need a NATO engages soundtrack.  “You’ve got a Friend,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” I think we have a greatest hits here.  (Laughter.)  But after 27 years, political courage, it can be done.  And NATO at 30 sounds really good to me.  Please join me in thanking our ministers.  (Applause.)