Now that the ratification procedures for June’s Prespes Agreement between Greece and newly-renamed North Macedonia are complete, the focus has shifted to a wide-ranging and quite possible coordinated effort to build broader support for the deal.
While diplomats and media experts may gain limited ground in third countries, the deal still faces strong opposition both in Greece and North Macedonia. In the former, the main opposition has said it may not implement all elements of the agreement.
An important award to North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, as well as congratulations to both leaders from Washington, kept some media attention on the Prespes Agreement, but public attention to the issue will likely fade to just a popular conference and seminar topic until elections in Greece are called, at which time it will be loudly portrayed as Tsipras’ Achilles heel, sure to cost him massively in Northern Greece and most probably lose his party votes on a national level as well.
Kudos in Munich
The Munich Security conference provided the venue for the awarding of the “Ewald-von-Kleist Award” to Zaev and Tsipras on February 16 for “their successful diplomatic efforts to settle the long-standing name dispute between their two countries.” Not quite a household word at this point, the Munich Security Conference has awarded the Ewald-von-Kleist Award since 2009 “to honour outstanding personalities who have made a special contribution to peace and conflict resolution.”
The award highlights the political life and work of Ewald von Kleist (1922-2013), who founded the Munich Security Conference in 1963 under the name “International Defence Customer Meeting.” The Greek state media covered the award ceremony live, as did North Macedonia’s.
Attendance by Zaev and Tsipras at the conference also allowed them to engage in useful side meetings with a large number of foreign and US attendees, including former US Vice President Joe Biden and members of Congress. Curiously, there was no official meeting for the lucky awardees with the official US delegation headed by Vice President Mike Pence.
A double-barrelled salute from Washington
Washington has long since given up any attempts to deny its critical role in delivering Tsipras and Zaev to the negotiating table in 2018. And for a few weeks after Greece ratified the Prespes Agreement on January 25, senior-level congratulatory messages from Washington were embarrassingly sparse while NATO and the EU took centre stage. This quiet period for the Trump Administration seems to have ended, finally.
Four American congratulatory messages reached Southeastern Europe over the past week – parallel messages were sent to both Greece and North Macedonia. The first one, specifically for Greece, was a combination of Prespes support and congratulations to the new Greek Foreign Minister, George Katrougalos, who was elevated from Alternate Foreign Minister slot he occupied to the ministry’s top job in a mini-government reshuffle in Athens February 15. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan called Katrougalos February 19.
Deputy Secretary Sullivan spoke today with Foreign Minister @gkatr to congratulate him on his appointment as FM and to commend #Greece's Parliament’s ratification of the Prespa Agreement and the @NATO Accession Protocol for the Republic of #NorthMacedonia. pic.twitter.com/9QOFbKviGl
— Robert Palladino (@StateDeputySPOX) February 20, 2019
Deputy Secretary of State Sullivan, who visited Skopje in December, called Zaev in Skopje the same day.
DepSec Sullivan spoke with PM @Zoran_Zaev & congratulated him on implementation of the historic Prespa Agreement, which will lead to greater stability in Western Balkans. DepSec Sullivan emphasized the U.S. looks forward to welcoming #NorthMacedonia as the 30th member of @NATO. pic.twitter.com/N9e6A7HVvk
— Robert Palladino (@StateDeputySPOX) February 20, 2019
Trump’s signature was attached to the second round of American messages, addressed not to his “Presidential” counterparts in Skopje and Athens but in individual letters February 20 addressed to Zaev and Tsipras. There is no explanation why these messages took so long to emerge from the White House after Greece ratified the Prespes Agreement on January 25, but things have been rather hectic in Washington.
The Greek state-run media outlet published the Trump letter sent to Tsipras, while the text of an almost identical but personalized letter to Zaev has also been released to media in Skopje. The letters were largely filled with presidential platitudes, with one exception. Clearly forgetting much of important historical note that has transpired in the Balkans over the past two decades, these Trump letters describe the Prespes Agreement as “the most historic achievement in the Balkans since the Dayton Accords.” Historians will likely be debating this new and unexpected re-invention of Balkan history for another few decades.
Border controls easing
Border control bureaucracy between Greece and North Macedonia has been reduced, as Greece began accepting existing passports February 21 held by citizens of North Macedonia that include a new stamp stating “This passport is the property of the Republic of North Macedonia.” This replaces the previous Greek entry requirement for these passport holders to use a separate form issued by Greek passport control officials.
North Macedonia is currently preparing for presidential elections on April 21. In a worrisome development, North Macedonian police have arrested the former Speaker of parliament and two ex-ministers from the country’s previous government, claiming they were involved in a violent invasion of the country’s legislature in 2017. Calling this a “terrorist conspiracy,” prosecutors had police question them until after midnight on February 21. They are now appealing a Skopje court’s decision to hold them in pretrial custody for 30 days.
The politicians arrested were former speaker Trajko Veljanovski, former Education Minister Spiro Ristovski, and ex-Transport Minister Mile Janakieski. Veljanovski, who is a current MP, has parliamentary immunity and was released.
Former hard-line Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is reportedly under investigation in the same case, but he has since departed the country and has been granted political asylum in Hungary. Around 33 people were originally charged in the matter, but after the government amnesty Zaev approved to help win some opposition support for the Prespes Agreement, the number subject to trial fell to 15.