The UN Mediator for the Greece–FYROM/Macedonia Name Dispute, Matthew Nimetz, visited both Athens and Skopje over the January 29-February 1 period. Important issues were discussed and Nimetz was brought up to date, but it is unclear whether the emotional comments that surfaced in and around various meetings and press conferences helped move the process forward in any measurable way.
The potential for a quick resolution of the Name Dispute sent a series of shockwaves through the Greek political system throughout January. The one thing all non-governing Greek political parties could agree on was that PM Alexis Tsipras could not be allowed to reach a quick agreement with Skopje and grab another success – this time in foreign policy – to add to his pre-election record and of his main success story, the “official” end of direct economic supervision by Greece’s Eurozone and other creditors that is expected in August.
That simple alignment of factors, in addition to the fact that the NATO Bucharest Summit in July is just six months away, basically makes an agreement with Skopje in 2018 a losing proposition for all Greek political parties not currently in the government coalition whether or not a deal is in the long-term national interest.
This then opens up the question of whether widening the ruling coalition or calling a referendum – which itself will be a painful battle — on any name deal would offer a path forward or whether an agreement is even possible this year, given the narrow electoral base of the current Greek governing coalition.
After returning from his late January date in Davos, Tsipras invested a few days trying fruitlessly to build broader domestic support for a resolution of the Name Dispute. Nimetz arrived in Athens on January 29th and met with all the relevant Greek government players, as well as some in the opposition who were of course (at least publically) unimpressed with the Nimetz approach before he departed on January 30.
In Athens, Nimetz told the Greek press “We’ve been discussing these things for 25 years. Everyone knows what the issues are, I think there is a momentum here and we should seize on the momentum.”
Foreign Minister Nikos Kotsias informed the Greek press that his ministry would be submitting a package of its own proposed solutions to Skopje in early February, with a focus on removing from the constitution and other documents whatever Athens sees as “irredentist.”
Nimetz has said next to nothing about whether the Greek demand for an “erga omnes” (used by all points) application of any agreed name has been accepted in Skopje, leaving many to conclude that this key element has been quietly put in place.
As much as the ruling Syriza-ANEL (Independent Greeks) coalition would like to ignore it, attention is steadily focusing on the massive rally being prepared for Athens Syntagma Square on February 4, with organisers claiming they expect a total of one million participants. If successful in demonstrating mass public discontent with the pace of talks, and it remains non-violent, the dynamics and speed of the Name Dispute talks will have to be adjusted.
In addition, Greece’s Orthodox Church changed tack while Nimetz was still in the country on January 30, with Archbishop Ieronymos indicating the Church would support the rally after having held its support back for the January 21 Thessaloniki demonstration.
While in Skopje, Nimetz met with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, President Gjorge Ivanov, FM Nikola Dimitrov as well as DUI (coalition partner) leaders and opposition chief Hristijan Mickoski. As usual, Nimetz kept up the pressure for a quick settlement, telling the press, “This is the right time for a breakthrough on this issue, to solve it finally, and move forward in the region. The momentum is now. We probably have weeks and months.”
A controversial issue surfaced during the Skopje stop which could become a deal breaker – the issue of identity and exactly what to call the citizens of FYROM/Macedonia after the name deal is agreed. Nimetz promptly declared that the identity subject was “outside his mandate.”
A comment by Dimitrov during his Skopje joint press conference with Nimetz is particularly worrisome, as commentary from Athens indicates the Greek side will not likely accept a “name-only” deal. “If we reach a point where we need to touch the identity [of Macedonia] in order to reach a solution, there will unfortunately not be a solution. However, it will be very sad if two European countries in 2018 are not big enough to acknowledge this.” He also said “We have full understanding regarding this aspect. We want this issue to be solved in a way that is considered as dignified in both countries. We understand citizens in Greece who identify themselves as Macedonians, but our Greek neighbours and no one else in 21-century Europe can deny our right to be Macedonians and speak in the Macedonian language, part of the Slavic group of languages.”
There is no need to analyze these remarks further to parse how much of the message was solely for domestic consumption. Suffice it to say these comments will reverberate wildly in the February 4 Athens demonstrations as “proof” there is simply no intention in Skopje to reach a lasting solution.
The US’ diplomats have so far remained relatively quiet on the issue. Although one of Greece’s leading television channels ran a pre-recorded interview with US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt while Nimetz was in Athens, and led off with the Name Dispute, the US Ambassador said nothing beyond the age-old mantra of strong US support for the Nimetz-UN process.
Washington may be preoccupied with other major global issues now, but other explanations for the lack of visible US activity are beginning to circulate. Balkan journalists in Washington have been aggressively pressing American officials whenever possible about reports of the resignation in January of State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Hoyt Yee, formerly responsible for US policy in the Balkans, who had been rumoured as the next ambassador designate either to Skopje or Sarajevo.
Needless to say, any confirmation hearings for a new US ambassador going to the Balkan region would have provided a field day for various groups to make the Name Dispute a major Washington news issue, something nobody in Athens, Skopje, or New York needs right now.