Name Dispute: Greece’s odd couple stays the course

EPA-EFE/SIMELA PANTZARTZI

Greek National Defense Minister Panos Kammenos attends a meeting with Greek cabinet ministers at the parliament in Athens, October 16, 2018

Prespes Agreement proponents shaken by Greek Foreign Minister’s departure


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The fate of the yet-unratified Prespes Agreement, signed last June as the vehicle for resolving the so-called Name Dispute between Greece and Macedonia/FYROM, was again called into question on October 17 with the largely unexpected resignation of Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias after a major altercation with Defense Minister Panos Kammenos in a heated cabinet meeting the day before.  The shockwaves from the Kotzias resignation hit Skopje, the capital of Macedonia/FYROM, particularly hard as the country’s parliament was debating the constitutional changes called for in the Prespes Agreement.

Since the low turnout of the country’s September 30 referendum called that exercise into question, the likelihood of passage of these amendments in the next week remains low, but not impossible, most probably requiring Prime Minister Zoran Zaev to call for snap elections focusing on the passage of the agreement with Greece and the country’s EU and NATO accession perspectives.

If it happens, this campaign will be hotly contested, sprinkled with more of the foreign intervention we are already seeing, and bring the entire ratification process for the Prespes Agreement into question.

Unexpected ministerial resignation briefly unhinges Athens  

A heated exchange with Kammenos in the Greek cabinet meeting on October 16 was the ostensible cause for Kotzias’ resignation, as Kammenos claimed to have evidence that Kotzias was mismanaging secret foreign ministry reserve funds while also charging him cooperating too closely with billionaire George Soros.

Kotzias spent time later that evening consulting with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, a constitutional law expert, to ensure that his resignation would not in any way hamper the ratification of the Prespes Agreement, which he proudly signed as Foreign Minister with his counterpart from Macedonia/FYROM Nikola Dimitrov in June.  Doubts removed, he submitted his resignation the next day and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras accepted it quickly, while personally assuming Kotzias’ responsibilities as Greece’s foreign minister in order to handle the ratification procedures required by the Prespes Agreement.  Tsipras also found the time that day to call Zaev in Skopje to reassure him of his intent to persevere in the face of the latest internal political difficulties.

Ominously, Tsipras later told the press he could not tolerate disagreements within his coalition government on the Prespes Agreement.  Appearing to warn Kammenos for public consumption, he said: “(I will) not put up with any double talk from anybody or with any personal strategies.”   He also vowed to forge ahead with the Prespes deal “I am determined to do whatever I can [to] safeguard the successful conclusion of the historic…agreement.”

As a stand-alone event, Kotzias’ resignation will not alter the electoral mathematics or trigger elections, but he is expected to give a major address October 22 in Crete, certain to be the focus of massive media attention. On October 18, Kotzias’ challenged his former colleagues in the SYRIZA-ANEL government to publish his letter of resignation.  Most of his anger appears to be focused on Tsipras’ failure to control Kammenos’ attempts to address foreign policy issues.

Kammenos’ Washington proposals lit the fuse

This sparring occurred in the context of the dissatisfaction in Athens generated by Kammenos’ Washington meetings October 9 and his call for a new “Balkan Defence Alliance,” along with expanded US base rights.  Kammenos is President of the Independent Greeks (ANEL) party, and key members of the ruling SYRIZA party have long been unhappy with the independence Tsipras allows his coalition partner; but upon his return from Washington many senior SYRIZA leaders accused Kammenos of directly undercutting the main government policy thrust of obtaining the ratification of the Prespes Agreement by the Greek Parliament at practically any cost, this week even forcing Tsipras to sacrifice his foreign minister.

This policy clearly risks a split in the ruling coalition and earlier-than-planned elections, which most analysts now assume will happen in May 2019, if the sputtering coalition can hang together for another 4-5 months with the country already in a tense pre-electoral mood.  In this dire situation, any talk of calling for an enhanced majority of 180 deputies in the 300-seat Greek parliament to ratify the Prespes Agreement is a non-starter, although the opposition has occasionally raised the issue.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the leader of New Democracy, the country’s main opposition party, which has developed a widening lead in election preference polls this month, was in Brussels for a European People’s Party (EPP) conference meeting when the news of Kotzias’ decision arrived.   He said October 17 “a few days ago I had described the Tsipras-Kammenos government as a cynical ruling coalition, and I’m afraid today’s developments have proven me right. Mitsotakis added “It’s perfectly clear that Mr Tsipras is not just a weak prime minister, he is a hostage [to his alliance with ANEL]. The sooner this farce ends, the better it will be for the country.”

Washington and Skopje react

Perhaps understanding that encouraging Kammenos’ to travel to Washington earlier this month and giving him a high-level platform there actually precipitated the crisis, Washington was ready to react to the news of Kotzias’ resignation when queried on October 17 by Greece’s state-run press agency ANA-MPA, although not in published form.  “We note the resignation of FM Kotzias and thank him for his dedicated service to strengthening the U.S. – Greece relationship and his contributions to achieving the historic Prespes Agreement.”  State also offered a frequently-heard refrain “the US strongly supports the (Prespes) Agreement’s full implementation, which will allow Macedonia to take its rightful place in NATO and the EU as the Republic of North Macedonia. We urge leaders to rise above partisan politics and seize this historic opportunity to secure a brighter future for the country.”

Kotzias’ negotiating partner in Skopje, Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov, tweeted in response to his colleague’s resignation: “We managed to achieve what was considered impossible for 27 years, we brought our countries closer and we signed the historic Prespes Agreement.”

Focus in Skopje remains on passing constitutional amendments

The focus in Skopje continues to hover closely on PM Zaev’s efforts to move ahead with the implementation requirements for the Prespes Agreement.  Following the low turnout for the September 30 referendum, which opened several new issues, the next phase involves a number of major changes to the country’s constitution, and these amendments require a 2/3 majority in the country’s 120-seat parliament.  Debate on the changes began in parliament on October 15; Zaev and his allies confidently count 71-72 of the 80 votes needed with the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party steadfastly opposed to compromise, although discussions have been ongoing for two weeks.

The first of several potential votes on the amendments took place on October 19 with several unscheduled breaks and media reports of a small number of defecting VMRO-DPMNE deputies.  If the amendments ultimately are not approved, Zaev will probably need to call snap elections, most likely to occur in early December, in the hopes of increasing his voting strength in parliament to pass the constitutional amendments.  These results will then determine if and when the Prespes Agreement will be sent to Greece for ratification, with all the ramifications for coalition unity and snap elections there.

Direct US intervention in Skopje, essentially just more of the same

The citizens of Macedonia/FYROM were treated to another heavy-handed example of direct foreign intervention in their politics when US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell, now a household name in Skopje, wrote to the main opposition party leader Hristijan Mickoski on October 16 asking him to create the space to allow his party members to vote freely on the constitutional amendments, free from coercion or threats of violence.

While it’s not clear if the letter actually boomeranged, it was given wide play in the local media. Mickoski quickly replied by letter to Mitchell, and VMRO-DPMNE said in a press release on October 17 “the Prespes Agreement is legally and politically dead.” Following that reply, the State Department announced it plans to dispatch one of Mitchell’s senior deputies to Skopje on October 22 for consultations.

NATO moves forward

On October 18 NATO officially launched accession talks with Macedonia/FYROM after inviting the country to join the alliance at its summit in July. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has been seen as bending over backwards to take every possible step to facilitate the early accession of the alliance’s potential 30th member, at times embarrassingly omitting to mention in his public declarations that without the ratification of the Prespes Agreement in both countries his efforts will have been wasted.

Accession talks usually last around three months before an accession protocol can be finalized; with Stoltenberg in such a rush to expand the alliance in Southeast Europe it is possible NATO may cut corners to save time.  Finally, the protocol needs to be ratified by all other NATO members, a process that takes around one year.

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