DELPHI, Greece – Now in its fourth year, the 2019 Delphi Economic Forum (DEF) has grown into a true Davos-like venue, with groups from all over the planet vying to use the Forum to broadcast their message.  This year’s theme was “The Challenge of Inclusive Growth.”  Greece’s SYRIZA government has steadily warmed up to the DEF since its launch in 2016 and participated extensively this year, as in 2018, with an eye on May’s upcoming Euro elections and Greek national elections which must be held by October at the latest.

Although not the February 28-March 3 DEF’s announced topic, political and diplomatic developments in Southeast Europe were front and centre, with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras using his keynote address to announce plans to visit Skopje soon and visitors from across the region, Brussels and Washington working extensively on the sidelines to try to deepen acceptance of the Greece-North Macedonia “Prespes Agreement” in the very likely event SYRIZA is voted out of office later this year and the simmering  anti-Prespes sentiment of the Greek people is once again taken into serious consideration by the next government in Athens.

Context is for kings: the Greek political environment

It is difficult to understand much of what transpired around the Delphi Economic Forum outside of the current Greek political context.   With Euro elections in May and Greek parliamentary elections due by October but likely to be held earlier, a clear expiration date is already front and centre for the SYRIZA government and most of its political and regional commitments.  Greece’s interlocutors understand this reality acutely, making their side meetings and discussions on the DEF sidelines with Greek opposition leaders almost as essential to Greece’s regional partners as meetings with incumbent SYRIZA government officials, who most likely will not be those government positions next year.

With a few exceptions, the issue of Greece’s relations with its neighbours in Southeastern Europe rarely generates political and social passion to produce (or lose) a large number of votes.   But those exceptions are significant, clearly the Name Dispute with North Macedonia is at the top in this category and second to that is Greece’s sometimes-troubled relationship with Albania.

The prevailing view in Greece at this time is that the Prespes Agreement will cost SYRIZA a substantial number of votes, especially in Northern Greece, and also that the deal was rushed to completion on Tsipras’ direct orders based on a timeline set by others.  Accordingly, it creates serious new problems for the country, especially in regard to the “Macedonian nationality” and protection of Greek products using the product name Macedonia or items representative of that region of the country.  A number of Greek MPs expressed the view to New Europe that the deal created as many problems as it resolved.

Less substance, more show

Quite possibly because the Prespes Agreement remains a liability for Tsipras domestically, the pressure to deliver the appearance of progress is intense.  He characterized the Prespes Agreement as a “diplomatic masterpiece” and announced plans for a trip to Skopje during his keynote speech at the DEF, highlighting the fact that a delegation of powerful business leaders would accompany him.  Tsipras’ announcement of a large business delegation to accompany him is really a game of smoke and mirrors since Greek firms have invested freely in North Macedonia during the first decade after the 1995 Interim Agreement between Athens and Skopje, with problems witnessed only in a few strategic sectors, and mostly overcome.

The indefatigable Mr Dimitrov and the Prespes Agreement

Nobody seemed better briefed on the current Greek political reality than North Macedonia’s Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov, who maintained a frenetic pace of contacts with almost every conceivable player during his Delphi visit, many of which were proudly announced on Twitter.

And for Dimitrov, the cost of a SYRIZA electoral defeat at the polls could well be catastrophic, unless bilateral relations between Athens and Skopje develop a broader Greek constituency than simply the ruling party.

With the matter of an apparently renewed effort to support the “Macedonian nationality” in Greece worrying many leaders across the Greek political spectrum, Dimitrov had his work cut out for him, primarily to convince his Greek interlocutors that his country is not quietly supporting recent reports, such as one from the BBC, that highlight this almost forgotten subject.  For all intents and purposes, the issue has been kept alive by a small cadre of activists in Northern Greece working with European human rights NGOs.

Dimitrov briefly addressed the DEF plenary session in the presence of a good segment of Greece’s government, business and political elite.   Focusing on the Prespes Agreement’s potential “to open up the future” for the entire region, he thanked his Greek government interlocutors and especially PM Tsipras for “making Greece a greater country” by concluding the deal to resolve the Name Dispute.  Clearly trying to reach a wider Greek audience than just SYRIZA supporters, Dimitrov stressed the natural friendship between Greece and North Macedonia.

Dimitrov also worked diligently in Delphi to re-activate his cadre of Washington contacts from his years as his country’s ambassador to the US.

Dimitrov held a bilateral session with US Deputy Assistant Secretary Matt Palmer from the State Department’s Europe and Eurasia Bureau, the sole senior US official present in Delphi, who was also extremely active in bilateral encounters on the meeting’s sidelines.   In a Forum discussion on regional stability in the Balkans, Palmer briefly interrupted the panellist speaking and warmly congratulated Dimitrov when he entered the conference hall, reinforcing the impression of deep US involvement in the Prespes deal, something he previously noted had succeeded mostly because of “strong local ownership of the issue” and not because of American behind-the-scenes management.

A separate DEF on-camera discussion with Greece’s former Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, who negotiated the Prespes Agreement before resigning, proved revealing.  He claimed there was little or no foreign interference in the negotiating process, stating “No country, no ambassador, exercised pressure.  If the foreigners were pleased with the solution, it is because our interests coincided.”  He also explained how he had asked UN mediator Matthew Nimetz to leave the negotiations at one point when discussions hit a dead end.  Kotzias noted that foreign policy should not be a weight on any country but rather a positive force.  Especially as Greece was emerging from its own crisis, Kotzias said it was time for Greece to become a positive regional force and to propel the region forward as it recovers.

Kosovo-Serbia relations:  Belgrade hopes for progress

The DEF also provided a platform for a good deal of discussion on Kosovo-Serbia relations, although few representatives from Kosovo were present in Delphi.  Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic spent the bulk of his time on the Kosovo issue in his address to the DEF plenary, following North Macedonia’s Dimitrov.  Dacic smartly linked the subject to the Name Dispute between Greece and North Macedonia explaining that the Kosovo issue was also an identity matter for his country and thus exceedingly symbolic.  For Dacic, Kosovo was also a personal matter, having been born there, reminding his Greek audience this was a matter of “Albanian occupation” of the national territory.

Dacic made it clear that a compromise with Pristina was his country’s objective. Belgrade was disappointed that the 2013 Brussels Agreement signed with the Kosovars to establish the so-called “Community of Serbian Municipalities” had not yet been implemented.  He also criticized Pristina’s unilateral imposition of tariffs on Serbian goods, an issue that American Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Palmer also indicated — in a different DEF session — was of great concern to Washington and a matter of continuing dialogue.  Washington expected its allies in Pristina to heed its advice and remove the tension-producing tariffs.

Dacic asked the audience not be naïve about the existence of two Albanian states in the long term, hinting that Belgrade saw the unification of Kosovo with Albania as likely.  Dacic noted that Serbia feels a deep bond of friendship with Greece, noting that at this time the countries are no longer neighbours but would probably again be EU partners if the EU held together long enough for Serbia to join.