Name Dispute: Furious reaction to Prespes Agreement expands

EPA-EFE/STR

Protesters hold Greek flags during a rally over the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) against to its use of the name 'Macedonia'.

Greek ruling coalition steadily losing ground after Prespes


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Strong public and political reactions have continued throughout Greece following the June 17 signature of the Prespes Agreement that was intended to resolve the 27-year-old Name Dispute between Greece and Macedonia/FYROM are steadily weakening the ruling coalition’s grip on power, taking it down to 152 seats in the 300-seat Greek Parliament.

In Skopje, the government of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev must deal with the political ramifications of the EU delaying the opening of accession talks until 2019, with all the disappointment that entails, while also managing the temporarily delayed ratification process of the Prespes deal.

…And it’s down to 152

At this point, it is safe to assert that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ political survival is inextricably tied to the fate of the Prespes Agreement.  Any attempt to review the back and forth of the last week in Greek politics risks degenerating into an incomprehensible grab bag of Greek parliamentary politics. But the key political shifts are important, as the ruling SYRIZA-Independent Greeks (ANEL) coalition has never been as close to losing control over political developments in as it is today.

There is no guarantee that the unexpected defection of just a few more MPs in reaction to the Prespes Agreement will not trigger developments leading to early elections, which in turn would further complicate the ratification and full implementation of the agreement, and very likely freezing it completely.

The June 26 defection of the second ANEL MP this month, tied to the Prespes deal, was clearly the main event of note. The decision to pull support for the coalition and the deal, taken by George Lazaridis from Thessaloniki, is indicative of the pressure faced by all pro-agreement parliamentarians. It is especially intense for those from northern Greece. Lazaridis’ resignation drops the coalition’s vote total to 152 in the 300 seat Parliament, and substantially increased the pressure on Tsipras, who is himself attempting to cash in on last week’s debt rescheduling deal to boost his party’s sharply sagging fortunes, which have continued to decline further in new polls taken just after the debt deal.

The Lazaridis resignation also involved some apparent miscommunication regarding the plans of ANEL leader and Defense Minister Panos Kammenos to formally request that the ratification of the Prespes Agreement require an enhanced majority of 180 votes in Parliament and not a simple majority, which itself is a major question for the coalition, as ANEL has said it will not support the agreement at ratification time.  Taking the number to 180 for ratification is seen as a deal-killer and could most likely trigger a Parliamentary no-confidence vote and/or early elections…something that the SYRIZA party is now strongly resisting.

Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias claimed mid-week that he received threats over the agreement, and a Supreme Court prosecutor has ordered a probe into the issue. The judicial decision followed comments by Kotzias to a local radio station. “I have received 800 letters threatening my life and my family. I have received boxes of dirt soaked in blood and bullets,” he said.

Amid sporadic protests against the Agreement in Thessaloniki and Athens whenever a pro-agreement group organises an event, a court challenge intended to block the agreement has now been filed.  The Panhellenic Federation of Macedonian Cultural Associations joined by 13 diaspora Macedonian groups filed the case June 28 with the Greek Council of State challenging among other things the legal authority of Kotzias to sign a deal that includes a compromise over their nationality, which is declared as Macedonian.

The centre-right New Democracy party expelled the Athens Chamber of Commerce & Industry (ACCI) President Konstantinos Mihalos on June 27, asserting that “Trojan Horses” have no place in the party.  ND noted that he failed to respect the “principles, values and basic positions” of the party but most Greek political observers think the expulsion was due to his support for the Prespes Agreement and reluctance to accept the need for immediate elections, which imply that this powerful representative of the business community is drifting towards supporting the SYRIZA-ANEL coalition (He is not an MP).

One new external variable also needs consideration, and that is PM Tsipras’ Brussels “side” arrangements.  We don’t have enough detail at this point to understand whether those side arrangements with Germany that were reported on June 28 for Athens to accept a small number of refugee returns was understood by Tsipras to translate into Berlin’s help with Greek debt issues and/or upcoming financial obligations such as delaying upcoming VAT increases/pension cuts or for German support in getting the Prespes deal through the Greek parliament.

Ratification process in Skopje hitting predicted roadblocks

The ratification process in Macedonia/FYROM for the Prespes agreement is at least temporarily stalled by the refusal of President Gjorge Ivanov to sign the ratification document.  Prime Minister Zaev had fast-tracked the ratification process and easily won with a strong affirmative vote (69 of 120) on June 20. The main opposition party VMRO-DPMNE boycotted.

In such cases, the Macedonia/FYROM constitution allows for a repeat vote, after which Ivanov would no longer be constitutionally able to block the process. Zaev may also move on his threat made in mid-June to trigger the impeachment process to deal with Ivanov.

While the path for Macedonia/FYROM’s entry into the EU and NATO may no longer be blocked by the objections from Greece over the Name Dispute, other delays remain.

The EU Foreign Affairs Council decided on June 28 to hold off opening accession negotiations with Macedonia/FYROM and Albania, pending additional reform progress, until June 2019.  Various attempts at sugar coating this bad news for Skopje and Tirana were made by senior EU officials focused on enlargement.

Nonetheless, the overall target of accession by 2025 for at least some Western Balkans countries seems quite possible and it will be up to the government in Skopje to manage the disappointment flowing from falsely high expectations, which may be reflected in the referendum results…whenever that is held.

NATO’s public messaging to Skopje about its accession prospects has been particularly confusing.   For at least a week after the Prespes Agreement was signed, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was hinting strongly, if not outrightly, saying that an invitation would be forthcoming at the NATO Bucharest Summit in July.  Only in this past week has he been clear with Skopje, stating that the ratification process for the Prespes deal and all its obligations had to be completed before an invitation to start the process to become the alliance’s 30th member would be forthcoming.

This clarification has not stopped some politicians in Macedonia/FYROM from continuing to claim that an invitation to join is coming in July, especially now that the country’s EU accession aspirations are put off by a year.

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