A wave of important visitors before the September 30 referendum on the Prespes Agreement — which aims to settle the Name Dispute between Greece and Macedonia/FYROM — has made Skopje the hottest political travel stop in Europe this month. Action has now begun to shift to the US as leaders head to New York for the UN General Assembly, and important side meetings involving US officials have begun. In Greece, we are witnessing increasing volume over the future handling of the Prespes Agreement ratification process, which should reach Parliament in the first months of 2019.

Western pressure for a positive referendum vote continues

Foreign support for the referendum is viewed as essential to give Macedonia/FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev the edge required to achieve the minimum 50% turnout needed for this consultative referendum. The coordinated “save the referendum” drive-by pro-NATO and pro-EU enlargement leaders continued last week in Macedonia/FYROM with additional visits.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited Skopje on September 17, in a stop officially intended to “show U.S. support for Macedonia (FYROM) during NATO accession and continued U.S. commitment to peace and security in the region”. In addition to urging citizens to vote in the September 30 referendum, Mattis said the US would be increasing cooperation with Macedonia/FYROM in the field of cybersecurity, a strategy clearly aimed at counteracting what Mattis explained as a pattern of Russian activity. Mattis said, “the close cooperation between our countries is also growing to reflect modern challenges, as we plan to expand our cybersecurity cooperation to thwart malicious cyber activity that threatens both our democracies”. This is particularly important in the context of the US 2016 Presidential elections, as a substantial number of websites operated from the country propagating negative information about then-candidate Hillary Clinton.

After Mattis, this week’s parade of stars though Skopje included German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn both on September 18. In addition to urging citizens to vote in the September 30 referendum, Maas said “Macedonia may commence the EU accession talks next year. We are committed to making the prospects of EU membership visible for the countries of the Western Balkans. It is important for the stability of the region and thus it is not only yours but ours, European interest”.

Hahn, after acknowledging that Skopje had become one of Europe’s top destinations for policy-makers, said the September 30 vote is a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity for Macedonians if they hoped to improve their daily lives. “The EU has opened its doors, but you will decide if you will take this opportunity or not. There’s no time to waste”. Hahn added.

Perhaps more important than exhortations to vote, Hahn also noted the launch of the EU’s pre-accession negotiations period “screening process” which will begin September 27, just days before the referendum.

Action on the Name Dispute moves to the American stage

As the UN General Assembly inaugurated its 73rd session on September 18, global leaders are already heading to the US to be present when the General Debate opens on September 25 in New York. It is normal that hundreds of side meetings with US officials are organized in this period, both in New York and Washington, and it has been quite routine that the Greece-Macedonia/FYROM Name Dispute is included in some of these. The first of these was a Washington DC meeting with Macedonia/FYROM Prime Minister Zaev and US Vice President Mike Pence on September 20.

While the readout below is simply a brief description of topics discussed, it is not widely known that the Washington side meetings with the Vice President are seen in the US Administration as a form of “consolation prize” for a specific leader not getting a formal sit-down meeting with the US President while he is in New York. There are many reasons which could explain that and some are simply related to timing, but Presidential priorities are also factored in. In any event, most countries are grateful for any chance to send their leaders to the White House and happily accept the invitation.

White House readout:

“Vice President Mike Pence met today (September 20) with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of the Republic of Macedonia to congratulate him on the historic Prespa (Prespes) Agreement with Greece to resolve the long-standing name issue between the two countries and to thank him for his leadership in securing the agreement. The Vice President expressed his strong support for the Prespa Agreement, which, once implemented, will lead to greater security and prosperity for the entire region. The Vice President and the Prime Minister discussed the next steps in the implementation of the agreement, including the upcoming September 30 referendum and the importance for all citizens to vote at this critical juncture for the country’s future. The Vice President expressed his support for the country as it moves forward to membership in NATO and the EU”.

Name Dispute making daily headlines in Greece, again

The Greek political scene continues to suffer from repetitive shock waves generated by the Leader of the Independent Greeks (ANEL) party and Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, who has been commenting on an almost daily basis about his plans to resist the ratification of the Prespes Agreement next year.

The latest incident of note occurred after the Athens stop of German Foreign Minister Maas, on September 20, a continuation of his Balkan travels this week which had him earlier in Skopje. Kammenos focused fire on a statement by Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias in a press conference with Haas which revealed that he believed the Prespes Agreement was on track for ratification in Athens early next year and that this process should be completed by the current government or at least before elections which must be called by September 2019 but will likely happen earlier.

The issue in question is whether Kotzias is over-confident in asserting that ANEL’s potential withdrawal from the current SYRIZA-ANEL coalition is insufficient to block ratification or trigger a government collapse and new elections. While nobody can be sure, Kotzias and the government headed by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, with 145 SYRIZA deputies in the 300-seat Greek parliament, currently believe they can garner enough support from a few independent deputies and small centrist parties to make up for any possible steps the ANEL party might take, such as withdrawal, to block ratification. Kotzias said “We need a majority of lawmakers, not a majority of parties. The majority for the approval of this deal is there”. ANEL attacked Kotzias for “trying, yet again, to create problems with the coalition” and labelled him as a newcomer to the Greek political scene, “who has never been elected”.