ILIAS SIAKANTARIS: The Armed Forces come out of the quarantine, I see an announcement regarding the measures to be taken – the gradual lifting of the protection measures against ‘Covid-19’ spreading. Where are we at this point? How easy will this phase be? If you like, you can refer to some of the measures you consider more important…
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: As it applies to the general situation, the phase of the imposed gradual lifting of the measures is much more difficult with regard to its management, compared to the phase of measures enforcement.
This applies to the Armed Forces as well, because we must be very cautious with regard to the means and the range of the gradual de-escalation, so that we can achieve our goal, which is to return to normality step by step, without affecting of course the previous functionalism, but also to take precautionary measures, in order to avoid what we wish against: a coronavirus outbreak. We must defend this at all costs, so that the effort made so far, which was successful, will not be made in vain – which is something I have stated before and the Prime Minister keeps repeating.
So, the day before yesterday, we set the issue on the table, in order to evaluate it once more and make the first announcements, regarding this gradual lifting of the measures that have been taken.
The first measure is long due, I would say. It is the grant of a leave of absence to the Military Schools’ cadets, who -I remind you- are confined inside the Schools for two months.
ILIAS SIAKANTARIS: These are things that the rest of us cannot comprehend. I had not realized it, but obviously the Camps had restrictions, the Schools had restrictions…
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: We had restrictions at the Camps. We had already reduced the working personnel to a certain percentage of the total manpower. We were trying to respect social distancing, from the dormitories to the mess rooms and the places shared by the cadets. More or less, all that was expected.
But in the Military Schools, we strictly imposed the cadets’ total confinement; they stayed indoors for two months. I cannot say that this was enjoyable. It sure was an annoying measure, but the outcome was really very successful, because no coronavirus case was reported inside the Schools. Now, we asked for the grant of leaves and for the gradual departure of cadets from the Schools.
What we had to consider and evaluate was the reopening of the Schools, due to the upcoming exams period, on the 18th of May. This is why we let them leave a little earlier, so that they would be granted their leave of absence and be back on time to resume the academic period and their exams.
The implementation of transfers is what will follow. We will begin with personnel assigned within their Garrison and proceed further. We will start implementing the transfers this Monday, the next series will be in a few days, reevaluating and trying to maintain balances. We continue the change of command ceremonies, the Conscripts’ oath taking ceremonies, etc, without guests and visitors. We must keep this measure.
Generally, we proceed to a status of de-escalation, trying to keep up with the general measures taken by the Government, by the competent authorities, always -as I have said- weighing the situation inside the Camps. We want the Units to be functional, to continue their work, while also trying to have our personnel not relaxed, but in an appropriate psychological state. As you understand, there is much tension and adversities have not ceased to exist.
ILIAS SIAKANTARIS: The pandemic found the Hellenic Army at a very critical stage, due to the tension at the borders, which ended well and in a positive way so far; however, you have foreseen an escalation of the Turkish provocation and I will agree with you, closely observing Erdogan’s financial policy; it looks like foreign enemies and external incidents are needed so that a strategy of concealed pauperization of the Turks can take place. Do you worry about that, given that last week we had at our borders three provocations, or– if I may – incidents?
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: Such incidents happen. I do not want to give the impression that we are used to them or that they do not matter to us due to the ‘power of habit’. On the contrary! In fact, we did expect the tension to continue. We have said that for us the alert is still on. We simply intensify the security measures at the borders and the works continue.
The attempt of shielding Evros by the construction of the fence and of some locations which were rather ‘unfortified’, meaning without a fence and technical obstacles, now continues at a quick step. We expected the other side to maintain this tension, I do not know if this is a central organised plan or independent people’s behaviors, who, on top of that, are irritated, because they realize that things were not fortunate for them at Evros, but in any case, we will continue to be there, to respond, to take measures, to be alert and fortified.
May a Frontex member be there every time a Turk shoots in the air, not towards our borders’ guardians, so as to record these behaviors.
ILIAS SIAKANTARIS: Are we in a new phase, since there was a German Frontex member in that incident as well? Have we finally reached a point where it will be needless to have to proclaim our troubles; some sort of “do you see now what we have to put through?’ mode.
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: We protested in the way we should, without being loud, without losing our temper, so as to show what is pretty self-evident. I believe all our European counterparts understood the self-evident and the obvious. The day before yesterday, we protested at the border Checkpoint in Bulgaria, at the Turkish-Bulgarian borders, where representatives of the three countries (Greece-Bulgaria-Turkey) meet, talk and exchange views, at Kapitan Antreevo…
ILIAS SIAKANTARIS: This is a cooperation among the three countries. Was there any sign they want to hear us?
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: It is a body which has been set up so that the representatives of the three countries can discuss. We expect nothing, but I believe we must not stop, we must act and protest. But Europe has understood, and this is why when the crisis occurred…
ILIAS SIAKANTARIS: But Europe is now at our borders! Isn’t that so? This is a quality difference.
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: Precisely! I remind you that following a bilateral agreement, forces arrived from specific countries -Austria and Poland- at the borders of Evros. At other locations we had floating means and air assets at our sea borders, but Frontex members came as well, along with their equipment, they took position at the borders and now they observe what happens everyday.
ILIAS SIAKANTARIS: And they will stay, Minister, isn’t that so? They will not leave.
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: They are still there. During my last visit at Kastanies outpost, I had the chance to ascertain it. Police forces from four, five EU member states remain there, close to our Police and Armed Forces, which stay there anyway.
In any case, we expected this tension to continue. It does not change our planning. We persist, we will not run out of forces or stamina. The others might get worn out, those living across the borders. In any case, we will not get worn out.
ILIAS SIAKANTARIS: The pandemic and the particularities of the virus spreading served, I believe, as a boost and I would like to ask your opinion regarding the closing of the borders, using, let’s say, a ‘European certification’. So, are the Europeans afraid and more sensitive? Do you believe that this way they have a more active presence at our borders and that in a way, the virus was a factor of sealing our borders?
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: I believe your estimation is right. Surely the ‘pandemic’ factor is an additional disturbing, if not threatening, dimension in this case of organized migratory transfer from Turkey to Greece.
Of course we are deeply concerned, the Europeans too. I had the chance to put on the table, when we discussed the issue in Brussels last autumn, the dimension of terrorists or jihadists intruding refugee and migratory flows, when the Turks had passed into North Syria and had liberated prisoners from the region of Idlib. This comment was recorded as an additional dimension of the problem.
Accordingly, I had the chance now to put the health dimension on the table, meaning that possibly there are patients in the flows directed to Greece and by extension to Europe. This risk must be jointly evaluated.
I am not ready to speak of an organized plan, that Turkey will launch this biological weapon. We do not have such information. There is some indistinct information about patients among those who want to pass to Greece, both through land and sea. I remind you that last night we had many deterrence actions at Evros, after the incidents of the previous days…
ILIAS SIAKANTARIS: I guess that we share this information with the Europeans, don’t we?
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: Precisely! These days there was an influx in the islands as well, as we had predicted, depending on the weather conditions.
In any case, we have to deal with this issue as well. I do not know if Turkey’s behavior is organized or this influx would occur any way, given that Turkey is one of the countries severely hit by the pandemic outbreak in its interior. ..
ILIAS SIAKANTARIS: It is still severely hit…
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: As many others! In any case, we must calculate it and make a joint estimation.
Besides, it is standard policy that the personnel on board Turkish coastal patrol vessels on a mission to forward or to control (we hear both aspects) the boats coming from the coast of Asia Minor to our islands, wears hospital-like uniforms, probably when there are coronavirus cases…
ILIAS SIAKANTARIS: Those full protection uniforms, the…‘suit of armour’.
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: The full protection uniforms, those worn by spacemen. So, if this is how the Turkish authorities think and operate, I guess this applies to us too.
ILIAS SIAKANTARIS: Therefore, we have two open fronts. Allow me to conclude with questions coming through email. We have reports that in addition to the Military Schools cadets, all soldiers of the D Army Corps are confined since 23 March. Will they be granted a leave like the Schools’ cadets? In general, we have a lot of questions regarding the leaves of absence and the soldiers, so could you comment on that a little…
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: As I have said before, we start implementing the leaves tomorrow. Surely, I had to give priority first to the Schools’ cadets, since they have been confined for two months, but now we start granting the leaves, as we have stated before.
We will evaluate the facts. You should know that, one way or another, the Units’ personnel -I do not want to separate the Conscripts from the career personnel- had the opportunity to exit the Camps for a few hours. The locals of course had an advantage, because they could go home. This was not easy for someone who lived far, yet we used this system. Now of course, we will start granting the necessary leaves as well. In a month we expect the new Enlistment Series, which was suspended due to the coronavirus and was not materialized in early May.
ILIAS SIAKANTARIS: Mr. Panagiotopoulos, has any Enlistment Series ever been suspended before in the Army?
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: I don’t think so. As you understand, I cannot follow what had happened in the past decade, but after discussing the matter with staff officers, its occurrence is absolutely unusual. We had to take this measure, since the demand would be low. Surely, having to endure this situation, only a few would have wanted to enlist in May’s Enlistment Series. I don’t know if there will be a change of facts until June yet, I think, if the situation will remain under control, the people’s psychology will change too.
In any case, it is really worth mentioning that we only had a few coronavirus cases in the Armed Forces as a total, and very few throughout Greece.
ILIAS SIAKANTARIS: Besides, it is a field with many people involved and the morning meetings are…
NIKOLAOS PANAGIOTOPOULOS: Everything was fully functional; career personnel could not stay at home and not do their everyday work.
For instance, the day before yesterday -and I would like to mention it because it did not receive enough attention- the Italians were unable -and I point that out- to perform Search and Rescue flights for the Canadian helicopter that crashed in their waters, close to Kefallonia island but within their waters; and they asked for our contribution. The Greek helicopter was there. A C-130 aircraft was also there yesterday to perform overflights, in search of clues about the crash.
Unfortunately, this tragedy had no happy ending. It was a tragic military accident. The Hellenic Armed Forces were there, at a region outside their area of responsibility, if you may. This means that they maintain their operational capability, their effectiveness, and that those who planned and implemented the measures to reduce the dispersion of the coronavirus in the interior of the Armed Forces, did it the right way.
Now we must be very cautious because -as I have said before- the de-escalation phase hides numerous risks and we must proceed carefully.