With the Prespes Agreement ratification steamroller moving almost inexorably forward in Macedonia/FYROM, public attention to the issue in Greece has refocused and the subject is once again centre stage in view of approaching elections. Fueled by a statement by Macedonia/FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev who on December 1 referred to “Macedonian” citizens in Greece and possible education in that language in Greece, the Greek opposition has initiated an almost daily full-scale campaign to try to undercut already-questionable support for the agreement when it reaches the Greek parliament in early 2019 for ratification, and there are fresh indications that the already razor-thin base of support for ratification in the Greek Parliament may be on the wane.
Remarks intended for domestic consumption, so he thought…
Remarks by Zaev in parliament on December 1, intended to gain opposition support for the constitutional amendments currently being reviewed in Skopje, were quickly reported by the Greek media the next day, almost universally treating them as problematic if not outright irredentist. In the tense pre-election atmosphere prevailing in Greece, despite the fact that no dates for national elections have been announced, almost anything Zaev said could have drawn some attention, but the subject matter Zaev chose to raise was guaranteed to create a sharp reaction in Greece. Zaev’s “hot button” statement dealt with citizens of the “Macedonian” nationality and the instruction in the “Macedonian” language.
Responding to statements from hardline nationalist opposition VMRO-DPMNE MPs, Zaev told parliament that especially for the “Macedonians” in the Aegean, almost nothing has changed in the last 27 years – from the independence of his country – and that under the Prespes Agreement the possibility existed that the “Macedonian” language could be taught around Greece.
In Macedonia/FYROM, reference to “Aegeans” or the “Aegean” area means the part of the geographic area historically known as Macedonia that is officially Greek territory, in other words, Greek Macedonia. To a Greek listener, this implies that Skopje is asserting that the Prespes Agreement extends it new authority to protect its “Macedonian” minority in Greece, an explosive suggestion if made in almost any EU country. Since the main opposition party in Greece, New Democracy, is basing its attack on the Prespes Agreement precisely on the way the deal handles the “Macedonian” ethnicity/nationality, Zaev’s remarks were readily interpreted as justifying their arguments.
Zaev remarks ignite a fresh firestorm in Greece
Following the statement, which few in Greece see as accidental, Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos issued a terse warning, saying, “we will under no circumstances accept arbitrary interpretations, and especially irredentist ones, of the Prespes Agreement on the part of FYROM.” Press reports claim UN Mediator Matthew Nimetz called Zaev upon learning of the statement.
Beyond the President’s warning, Greek media hint that senior members of the Greek government were enraged by Zaev’s comments. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had previously warned Zaev not to undermine the Prespes Agreement with public commentary, mindful of Zaev’s tendency over the last year to raise sensitive issues publicly before consulting with partners.
Reactions from political parties and various damage control meetings played out on December 3-5 in Athens, Skopje, and Brussels.
In heavy damage control mode and possibly coached by Nimetz, Skopje issued on December 4 a statement containing two key points:
“… As a country that aspires to join the EU, we understand that countries take care of their own citizens and countries in the Balkans do not interfere in neighbouring countries on any given issue. We want to underline article 4(3) of the Prespes Agreement that we commit not to interfere in the internal affairs of Greece, including for the protection of rights of any persons that are not our citizens.”
“In that sense, it is understood that language policies in both countries are not determined by the Prespes Agreement. We understand and respect that the question of what languages are taught in Greece is an issue of internal affairs and domestic policy.”
“We regret if PM Zaev’s comments were understood in any other way.”
In Brussels, for NATO business, Macedonia/FYROM Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov met with Greek Alternate Foreign Minister Giorgos Katrougalos on December 4, with both diplomats referring to an understanding to avoid “problematic statements that create doubts over the true meaning of the Prespes Agreement.” This is not the first time both countries have tried to control statements that lead to flare-ups, and it hasn’t worked previously.
Greek political scene close to the boiling point
As noted earlier, Zaev’s statements dovetail nicely with the main flaws the New Democracy party has so far focused on to weaken domestic support for the Prespes Agreement. New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis cited the Zaev statement as further proof of continuing irredentist claims not resolved by the Prespes Agreement and has continued to press for all Greek parties to vote against ratification early next year. Mitsotakis had no problem asserting his continuing, deepening opposition to the deal, and repeated this forcefully when he spoke at an American Chamber of Commerce event attended by the US Ambassador to Greece on December 3, after being asked how his party would deal with Washington on this issue which divides them deeply, if, as polls indicate, New Democracy is elected in 2019.
The vice president of coalition government partner Independent Greeks (ANEL) party, Panagiotis Sgouridis, reiterated on December 5 his party’s intent to withdraw support for the coalition with SYRIZA if/when the Prespes Agreement is brought to parliament for ratification. Earlier this week, ANEL leader and Defense Minister Panos Kammenos made clear that there will be no agreement with those who express irredentism towards Greece. ANEL continues to dance around the issue of supporting SYRIZA in any future no-confidence vote New Democracy might request, which analysts see as largely negating the threat to PM Tsipras of the ANEL party leaving the coalition over the Prespes Agreement.
The new threat to Tsipras, according to Greek media reports, is that some of the independent and independent-thinking ANEL deputies that were considered sure supporters of the deal are said to be rethinking their positions in view of the Zaev statement. If any of these individuals shift position, that could quite possibly leave Tsipras with an insufficient number of votes to secure ratification. A few of these deputies and others have reportedly suggested the Prespes Agreement will need to be modified in order for them to vote for ratification, something the current text expressly prohibits.
On top of everything else, former Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias argued on December 5 that Zaev’s comments were a breach of the Prespes Agreement that he had personally negotiated, adding, however, that the Greek side needed to put Skopje in its place with a strong message and to view the situation calmly.
Tsipras’ Moscow visit does not resolve basic disagreement
Greek PM Tsipras visited Moscow December 6-7 with one of his major objectives being to repair severely weakened bilateral relations as a consequence of the Prespes Agreement. Tensions over reports of Russian interference in Macedonia/FYROM and northern Greece last July led both Greece and Russia into a cycle of diplomatic expulsions. The Tsipras government had been tipped off by US officials who deftly shared intelligence information about Russian funding for groups opposed to the Prespes Agreement in Greece and Macedonia/FYROM and identified the conduits (Greek NGOs and businessmen), which triggered a strong Greek reaction, producing a major bilateral rift including a temporary freeze on high-level visits.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a Greek news outlet, in an interview published December 7, that Washington’s target is nothing less than the “forced accession of Skopje into NATO.” He described pressure on the voters and government in Macedonia/FYROM as “unprecedented,” referring to last September’s blitz of high-level visitors to Skopje before the September 30 “failed” referendum, briefly making it Europe’s most popular political travel destination. Lavrov said he believes Brussels and Washington continue to “blackmail and bribe” the opposition MPs in Skopje who are needed to secure the 2/3 majority for the ongoing constitutional revision. “Now there are frantic attempts to get the process in the final stretch by early 2019,” Lavrov said.
The Tsipras-Putin meeting December 7 failed to resolve the public disagreement between the countries over Prespes or Macedonia/FYROM’s NATO accession, but that was never the expectation. Things do appear to have been put in the category of “mistakes of the past,” with the Russian side publicly reaffirming its position that the allegations heard last summer were false.
In a joint session with the press after the meeting Tsipras likened the diplomatic expulsions to “a rainy day in the middle of summer,” claiming that this would in no way negate the rest of the summer, meaning that he thought Greece’s relationship with Russia was back on track.
Finally, there is lingering concern about the threat made by the Russians on several occasions to veto the implementation of the Prespes Agreement in the UN Security Council, a subject not addressed in public remarks after the meeting.