George X. Protopapas
The partnership between Russia and Greece is a unique case of international relations, in that Russia and Greece have no serious mutual claims that might impede further development or enhancement of their cooperation. Nor are there any permanent irritant factors hindering initiatives on either side. Even so, despite the historical and cultural proximity of the two countries, for the last few years Russian-Greek relations have stagnated and have lost significance, in part due to the abandonment of the Burgas-Alexandroupoli oil pipeline project and the suspension of military and technical cooperation between the two countries. The 2009 Greek debt crisis also relegated Greek-Russian ties to the background, focusing the government’s efforts on economic recovery.
To a large extent, the current task facing Russia and Greece of developing a new agenda might be fulfilled using the tools of public diplomacy: intensifying expert interaction on matters of policy, security, history and culture, and holding research conferences and seminars in close contact with the media. Research centres could provide the basis for formation of a Russian-Greek lobby, which could become a key factor in the development of bilateral relations. To that end, the experts of RIAC and the Research Institute for European and American Studies (RIEAS) in Athens have put forward 15 proposals for developing Russian-Greek cooperation in the short- and medium-term perspectives.
1. Intensifying expert interactions
The current year could be dedicated to finding points of leverage to activate Russian-Greek contacts, while maintaining a view towards revitalising bilateral relations and identifying all areas of maximum development potential. Through joint efforts of Russian and Greek research centres, resources and opportunities should be identified for reviving and enhancing the cooperation between the two countries at governmental level, as well as at the levels of business and research communities, NGOs and youth organisations.
2. Implementing projects involving teaching of Greek in Russia and of Russian in Greece
To a great extent, the development of the Russian-Greek relations is hamstrung by the language barrier. To eliminate this, we need to expand the educational activities of the Russian cultural institutions in Greece (primarily in the Athens Office of the Russian Centre for International Scientific and Cultural Cooperation); and to use the potential of the Pontic Greeks who have recently received Greek citizenship, but the majority of whom are Russian speakers. In order to promote the Greek language in Russia, we could leverage the resources of the Greek Cultural Centre in Moscow, as well as those of other organisations supported by the Greek diaspora, in closer cooperation with the Greek Ministry of Education. Intensifying the educational and research ties between our countries will involve enhancing exchange programmes allowing Russian undergraduate and graduate students to attend Greek universities (including the existing international scholarship programme of Athens State University) and introducing similar programmes for Greek nationals at Russia’s leading universities and research institutions (Moscow State University, Moscow State Institute of International Relations, the Institute of World Economy and International Relations of the RAS, RIAC, etc.).
3. Launching early preparation for the Russian-Greek cross-year
At the request of the Greek Government, the Russian-Greek Cross-Year has been moved from 2014 to 2016. These additional two years of preparation will enable us to scale up the planned events. In addition to cultural and awareness projects (exhibitions, festivals and presentations), it would be a good idea to hold an extended Russian-Greek business forum, aimed at identifying new opportunities for economic cooperation, as well as a series of themed events dedicated to particular cooperation avenues (energy, transport, agriculture, tourism, etc.)
4. Continuing inter-parliamentary cooperation
Inter-parliamentary cooperation, with its long-standing traditions and elaborate legal framework, has always been a vital component of Russian-Greek relations. The MPs of both countries should continue coordinating their approaches on the key issues involved in the work of the parliamentary assemblies of the Council of Europe, the OECD, the BSEC, and other organisations. They should also continue inviting representatives of businesses, research institutes, their respective Orthodox Churches, and members of civil society to inter-parliamentary meetings. Another feasible step would be to include a statement on the value of developing Russian-Greek relations in the programme documents of the leading parliamentary parties of both countries. This would direct the MPs’ attention to the topic of the Russian-Greek relations, particularly in the area of economic cooperation.
5. Facilitating tourism
Over the last few years, Greece has become one of the most popular tourist destinations for Russians: in 2013, over 1 million Russian holidaymakers visited Greece. To attract even more Russian tourists to Greece, Greek hospitality businesses need to diversify their products (some promising areas are medical tourism, agricultural tourism and religious pilgrimage), while attracting foreign investments (including from Russia). Another measure would be to step up promotion of Greece as a holiday destination in the Russian regions, with the support of the Greek Embassy in Moscow, Greek consulates, and Hellenic cultural and educational organisations present in Russia.
6. Simplifying visa procedures
An effective way to increase tourist traffic from Russia would be to provide Russians more opportunities to take short trips to Greece on national visas, within the limits set in the European and Greek legislation. Greek consulates should expand their practice of issuing visas (e.g., for real estate owners), continue the practice of granting short-term visas to Russians arriving on Greek islands from Turkey and other non-EU countries, and start issuing long-term multiple-entry visas (for a term of over a year) more actively. Russia, in turn, could liberalise its visa policies with respect to Greek nationals. In particular, it would be advisable to: 1) extend the term of tourist visas from 30 days to six months 2) simplify visa procedures for tourists not using travel agent services (making online reservation confirmations acceptable confirmation of place of stay, in addition to paper hotel vouchers) and 3) extend working hours for submitting visa applications to Russian consulates.
7. Enhancing transport links between the two countries
Even though the number of flights between the major cities of Russia and Greece has been gradually increasing, it is still not enough. Since the current average price of a flight to Greece is still considerably higher than those of flights to other European countries (e.g., Germany), many Russians use connections (in Istanbul, Belgrade, Chisinau, etc.). A promising line of work here is to develop low-cost flights Moscow / St Petersburg – Athens / Thessaloniki. Should the railway connection between Greece and Bulgaria resume, the Moscow–Thessaloniki passenger service via Sofia could be restored.
8. Developing joint tourism and hotel business projects
Greek entrepreneurs’ expertise in tourism and hotel industry could be used in the Crimea, the Krasnodar Region and other areas of renewed hospitality activities. Greek investors have an indisputable competitive advantage here, given their general popularity with the locals, as well as the presence of a large Greek diaspora in the south of Russia. In turn, Russia should develop a framework of measures aimed at attracting international capital (particularly Greek) into its tourism sector by, among other things, making presentations on the area’s recreational potential and providing additional investment protection guarantees.
9. Assessing the potential for enhancing business connections
To assess the potential of Russian-Greek business cooperation, it would be advisable to conduct a poll among the businesses of both countries in order to identify promising lines of cooperation (mutual investments, trade and infrastructure projects). It is important to determine the key drivers of this cooperation, as well as the primary obstacles to progress. On the basis of the study, a technical paper could be prepared in two languages, containing recommendations for improving the business environment.
10. Considering participation by Russian companies in the privatisation of Greek assets
Greece’s current gradual economic recovery, coupled with structural reforms, will open up new opportunities for Russian businesses to participate in the privatisation of Greek companies. An example of this could be the investment by the Chinese company COSCO in the Greek port of Piraeus, which will help Greece strengthen its positions in international trade and give Chinese businesses wider access to European markets. Attracting Russian investors to the Greek energy sector might be difficult owing to the tightening European regulations (the EU Third Energy Package) and the European Commission’s antitrust investigation of Gazprom. Yet, in other industries, including railway transport, Russian investment could be mutually beneficial. The factors of success in these cases would be the Greek party’s presentations on the country’s investment potential in addition to the full disclosure of information about the state-owned assets approved for privatisation to potential Russian buyers.
11. stable further cooperation in the energy sector
Although Greece remains a major importer of Russian commodities (primarily oil and gas), import diversification is a top priority for political and expert communities throughout the country. It should be noted that this policy is dictated not only by the general EU strategy of reducing dependence on Russian gas, but also by Greece’s objective concerns about the reliability of energy supplies from Russia. Over the last few months, these concerns have been further accentuated by the Ukraine crisis. Russian energy corporations should pay special attention to these concerns and intensify the dialogue on oil and gas with Greek actors (the government, political parties, gas distribution companies and the expert community).
12. Monitoring the countries’ military and technical cooperation
In the pre-crisis period, Greece was a big importer of Russian weapons. However, austerity measures have forced Greece to back out of a large number of planned contracts. Given the current limitations of the Greek budget, it would be advisable to consider credit supply and other forms of military cooperation, including maintenance by Russian specialists of Russian weapons already bought, additional supply and repair bases for the Russian navy, or joint exercises for command staff.
13. Leveraging the Greek Presidency of the Council of the European Union to improve Russia-EU relations
Greece has an opportunity to strengthen its position in the EU through Russia-related initiatives. With its EU Presidency lasting until late June 2014, Greece could play a significant role in overcoming the current Russia-EU relationship crisis caused by the situation in Ukraine, in particular, by putting forward an initiative to launch an informal dialogue between EU and Customs Union structures. In this new format and with Greece mediating, the EU-Russian political interactions could continue and even be reinvigorated, despite the EU sanctions imposed on Russia. Additionally, Greece’s diplomatic support could facilitate further work by the Euro-Atlantic countries along their traditional lines of cooperation: climate change control, combating human trafficking and organised crime, as well as other global challenges.
14. Coordinating work in the Middle East
The persisting conflict potential in the Middle East (the Syrian civil war, the political crisis in Egypt, tensions in Iraq) and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism present a common threat to the safety of both Russia and the West. Since there is no sign of rapid progress in the region, it is necessary to rely on nearby states and allies for support. We must keep in mind the increasing importance of Greece in this context, as it is both NATO and the EU’s main eastern stronghold. For Greece, it is especially important to prevent the terrorist threat in the Balkans from spreading, while it is equally important for Russia to protect the North Caucasus. This challenge calls for more active cooperation between Greece, Russia, the USA, Israel, and other Middle Eastern stakeholders. Working on a joint agenda for this issue could be complemented by joint efforts along other lines of cooperation, such as fighting illegal immigration, drug and arms trafficking.
In response to the growing tensions in the Black Sea region caused by the Ukrainian crisis, it would be feasible to promote dialogue under the auspices of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organisation, in which Greece could initiate a series of joint meetings and conferences. The BSEC could become the main platform for discussing interregional security issues, as well as economic cooperation. Despite its lack of direct access to the Black Sea, Greece would thereby gain leverage to promote its initiatives in the region (strengthening control over the migration flows via the Black Sea and adjacent territories, implementing joint energy projects in the Balkans, etc.).
Dr Yuri D. Kvashnin, PhD in History, Head of the European Union Studies Department, IMEMO RAN, RIAC expert
Dr Vladimir A. Olenchenko, PhD in Law, Senior Research Fellow, IMEMO RAN, RIAC expert
Dr. John M Nomikos, Director, Research Institute for European and American Studies (Athens)
George Protopapas, Media Analyst, Research Institute for European and American Studies (Athens)