In view of ongoing tension between Turkey, the EU and Washington, it was completely reasonable for the new Greek government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to focus primarily on Cyprus and the Aegean, not the Western Balkans, for as long as Washington allowed that subject to top the agenda, which as it turns out was not long at all.
As the US-Turkey relationship continues to deteriorate, Greece is increasingly seen as a front-line state, although clearly not the source of current Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean tensions, which primarily derive from Ankara’s decisions on military procurements and energy policy.
While it was expected that Washington would quickly engage the new Greek government, the speed at which incoming Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias catapulted to Washington was surprising, and hopefully significant in terms of getting a message to Ankara, although the timing of his Washington meetings was to a large extent serendipitous.
Unfortunately, Washington seems less interested in Greece’s immediate security needs and more interested in pressing the incoming Mitsotakis government to adhere to the terms of the Prespes Agreement with newly renamed North Macedonia. Its parliamentary members – the New Democracy party – strongly opposed the Prespes Agreement while in opposition, forcing successful but nonetheless bitter no-confidence votes on two occasions, knowing that the majority of the Greek population opposed the deal.
Dendias blasts off for Washington
In the last article prior to the 7 July Greek election, New Europe had predicted Greece would be the recipient of a warm American “bear hug” for several reasons. First, the developing situation with Turkey and Cyprus would require immediate open lines with the new government in Athens.
Washington also had its work cut out for it since its relationship with former leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was seen by most Greeks, and certainly by New Democracy, as too close for comfort, with some in Athens and even Washington mistakenly claiming the bilateral relationship had reached its historical zenith, while loudly celebrating US-Greece cooperation in Southeastern Europe even though Greece under the former Syriza government had no financial resources to contribute or investors to deploy.
Accordingly, after this display, earning the confidence of the Mitsotakis government will take some time, although it should be easier now that Greece has elected a Prime Minister closely identified with liberal economic policies and strongly supportive of private sector development, essentially putting Athens on the same ideological and economic policy frequency as Washington.
Even before the Mitsotakis government had the time to complete the required program/policy debate and hold the procedural vote of confidence, which passed on 22 July, Dendias needed to participate in a wide range of meetings as Greece’s new Foreign Minister, but that is all a normal part of that portfolio and is doubly important as the EU prepares for its August holiday period.
Dendias’ Washington meetings would not have happened so quickly after he assumed office had US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo not been spearheading a high-profile conference on religious freedom in Washington, the second such event and clearly an emerging and somewhat divisive focal point, for US diplomacy in the future.
Accordingly, Dendias was able to arrange his initial bilateral meeting with Pompeo July 17 on the sidelines of that major event, while also earning positive reviews with the Trump Administration for his participation in the conference just 10 days after Greece’s election. Dendias’ visit had a strong focus on issues surrounding the Eastern Mediterranean and included meetings with National Security Advisor John Bolton and Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, one of the Senate’s strongest supporters of deeper US engagement in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Little has been said publicly about issues involving Southeastern Europe.
I had a good conversation with Greek Foreign Minister @NikosDendias. Greece is a pillar of stability in the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkans and an important @NATO Ally. We look forward to continuing to working closely together to promote stability & prosperity in the region. pic.twitter.com/MaqOqK44rz
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) July 17, 2019
Reeker to Athens and Skopje, why now?
In view of the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, it is indeed curious that Acting Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Phillip Reeker hastily scheduled a trip solely to Athens, Thessaloniki and Skopje for 22-27 July, officially announced only late July 21. Reeker’s appointment to replace former Assistant Secretary Wess Mitchell earlier this year was viewed with trepidation in Greece as Reeker had a strong career association with the country now known as North Macedonia.
Reeker has not been formally confirmed in his position at the State Department, raising questions about the half-year long delay. He previously served as US Ambassador to Skopje and as a Public Diplomacy Officer in Skopje earlier in his career. Although Reeker is well known for his tussles with hardline nationalist former Prime Minister and now-fugitive Nikola Gruevski during his time in Skopje thanks to Wikileaks, that political dynamic firmly established his very close relationship with then-opposition politicians of the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, and others, who govern North Macedonia today.
The State Department’s 21 July trip announcement describes the Greek portion of Reeker’s trip as such:
“Acting Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Philip T. Reeker will travel to Greece and North Macedonia July to engage with government representatives, civil society, and business leaders. In Athens, Ambassador Reeker will meet with Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and other new government leaders to discuss core issues for the bilateral relationship including trade and investment, security and defence cooperation, regional stability, and energy. He will also participate in a roundtable discussion with entrepreneurs and business leaders. In Thessaloniki, Ambassador Reeker will meet with local government, religious, and business leaders.”
Clearly, there was no appetite at State for an open challenge to the new Mitsotakis government over the Prepes Agreement, but the use of the term “regional stability” in Washington’s listing of so-called bilateral core issues should be understood as keeping that subject high on the bilateral agenda. It is interesting to note that as of 23 July, the central day of Reeker’s Athens meetings, there has been no particular uproar emerging from Reeker’s encounters, including with now head of the main opposition party former Tsipras.