This week we heard several expressions of concern from important regional powers about the developments in the Greece-Macedonia/FYROM Name Dispute. The strategy used by Skopje of scheduling high-level political visits to Ankara and Berlin is steadily increasing pressure on Athens to consider key concessions as well as highlighting the determination by the Macedonia/FYROM side to resolve the dispute before the NATO Bucharest Summit in July. With Skopje’s airport now officially renamed and a host of other “friendly” gestures underway, all observers are expecting the announcement of a date for a Skopje visit by Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias.
A series of high profile visits by officials from Skopje this week served as a kind of “mini-diplomatic offensive.” President Gjorge Ivanov visited Ankara on February 20, just eight days after PM Zoran Zaev made a similar pilgrimage. The main message received was one of Turkish support for Skopje throughout the current negotiations and in the past. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stoked the fires with his comment “We were the first to recognize Macedonia’s constitutional name. Our current position is the same as then. We are not budging left or right. Turkey has never used a double-sided game in diplomacy. We will die with the decision rather than retract it.” Skopje’s warm response is best summed up by President Ivanov declaring “The name dispute must be resolved within the framework of the UN and within the framework which is defined by the UN Charter, the UN Security Council’s decisions, the Interim Agreement and the International Court of Justice’s ruling of 2011. Addressing issues such as identity, language and the Constitution of the “Republic of Macedonia” does not contribute, but rather complicates, the process of finding a solution. I am delighted that President Erdogan during my visit has expressed his full understanding of our views on this issue and takes Macedonia’s side.” Readers should recall that Ivanov is considered a hardliner and ally of former Macedonia/FYROM PM Nikola Gruevski, thus would have little interest in supporting any revisions to the constitution.
Meanwhile, Zaev made a visit to Berlin, where he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on February 21. Taking care to dot all of her diplomatic “i”s, Merkel spoke to Greek PM Alexis Tsipras before the Zaev meeting and the otherwise routine press statements from these meetings/calls focus on Merkel’s desire for real progress before the NATO Bucharest Summit. Discussions on the Name Dispute are clearly on the agenda during Tsipras’ meetings in Brussels February 22-24 and on the sidelines of the EU Heads of State Informal Meeting, although in most cases they will simply be worked into the already long agenda of important regional issues that many senior officials and Heads of State, including Merkel, already have with Tsipras.
Underpinning this mini-offensive, was news that work had begun on February 22 to remove the first statues in and around Skopje that are considered offensive or irredentist by Athens. There are also reports of small counter-demonstrations against these “goodwill” steps in some provincial towns. It is still unclear why this work hadn’t been done earlier this year or even last year, but the need for the issuance of municipal permits has been mentioned.
While Athens remains preoccupied with the Novartis bribery scandal that many are convinced was launched weeks ago to deflect attention from the Name Dispute talks, the debate on the scandal provided Independent Greeks (ANEL) leader, Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, with the chance to restate his views on the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition government’s ultimate position. He exclaimed, during the February 21 Novartis debate, “Of course I disagree with the government’s handling of the name issue. I have said so publicly. Not only will I never vote for such a thing, but I will do everything in my power to prevent [the government] ceding the term Macedonia.”
We will see in the coming weeks whether the work done throughout February has set the stage for further progress in the Name Dispute talks. When all is said and done, it rests on two key questions, whether Macedonia/FYROM PM Zaev will agree to make an attempt at amending his country’s constitution, if he can actually muster enough Parliamentary support to deliver such a result, and whether Greece’s PM Tsipras is willing to pay the heavy political cost of taking any final Name Dispute agreement forward without a referendum in the current climate of domestic political turmoil and especially considering his party’s continuing low popularity and its reliance on a wavering coalition partner. Interested foreign parties and the UN’s Mediator Matthew Nimetz would most certainly prefer that both sides keep working energetically, but the obstacles remain formidable.