Name Dispute: Prespes ratification issue is front and center

EPA-EFE/YANNIS KOLESIDIS

Greek Prime Minster Alexis Tsipras talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a meeting at the Maximou Mansion in Athens, Greece, 10 January 2019. Merkel arrived to Greece for a two-days official visit to discuss the bilateral relations as well as European and international issues with the Greek leadership.

Foreign pressure increasing on Skopje and now Athens to ratify the Prespes Agreement quickly


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Like the slowly ticking time bomb it actually represents for the Greek political world, the Prespes Agreement ratification procedure rolls almost inexorably towards completion in Skopje.  The deal signed by Greece and Macedonia/FYROM last June was a western-supported attempt to close the so-called “Name Dispute” between the two neighbours, frozen in place for over 28 years.

As the final phase of the ratification approaches in Skopje, all political parties in Greece are preparing for the long-anticipated debate and tempestuous ratification vote which many expect to fracture the current ruling coalition in Greece, with still more hoping for immediate elections instead of waiting until the fall of 2019 when the current government’s term expires. Key decisions in the coming days and weeks will finalize the Greek political timeline for 2019.

Ratification work in Skopje moves into the final stretch

Before the Christmas holidays, the Macedonia/FYROM parliamentary speaker had estimated the entire ratification procedure would be completed by January 15, 2019, and his projections are proving fairly accurate.  Debate on the final phase of the ratification process – approving the constitutional amendments required under the Prespes Agreement — began January 9, after being delayed by protestors outside parliament, and debate should last until January 11.  The anti-Prespes Agreement protesters say their demonstration was aimed at what they called “the greatest national treachery.”

A crucial vote remains, which constitutes the last true hurdle for the deal in Skopje, requiring a two-thirds majority or 80 MPs.   Most analysts assume the nine opposition and independent MPs which crossed the line in late 2018 to vote once before in support of the amendments, sometimes under threat of prosecution by the government of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, will repeat their previous actions, but this is not guaranteed and there are reports that last-minute problems emerged January 10 in rounding up a few needed votes for passage of the amendments.

The governments of the key western powers supporting the Prespes Agreement have remained curiously silent about the tactics and pressures Zaev’s government has applied to secure the votes of the opposition VMRO-DPMNE MPs that broke ranks with their parties, some of whom now expect amnesty for actions taken before the Zaev government came to power in 2017.

All of this marks a remarkable turnaround for Zaev and the country’s Euro-Atlantic trajectory after the September 30, 2018 referendum on changing the country’s name fell well short of the 50% target set for that consultative referendum to be considered successful, despite the overwhelming “Yes” vote by those who participated.

Despite deadlines, Greek political developments remain confused

Decisions taken in the coming days and weeks should help analysts and political parties flesh out the Greek political timeline for 2019, in large part hostage to the handling of ratification of the Prespes Agreement.  In advance of new developments, what we do know now is that Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has repeatedly stated he will serve out his full four-year term in office meaning national elections will be held no earlier than September-October 2019.

Since the Prespes Agreement was signed in June 2018, the Greek political world has reviewed ad nauseum potential scenarios for early elections in March 2019 triggered by a meltdown of the ratification of the Prespes Agreement or possibly in May, tied to the Euro elections and Greek municipal elections.

The coalition government of SYRIZA and the Independent Greeks (ANEL) party, in power since January 2015, is widely expected to come close to fracturing over the parliamentary ratification process for the Prespes Agreement.  The exact timing of ratification procedures in Athens is still unknown but it is clear to all that since Macedonia/FYROM is close to finalizing its obligations, the work and pressure will shift to Athens, turning the country from a basic “pre-election mode” political rumour mill to a true pressure cooker.

Related to this, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg reportedly sent a letter early in January to both Skopje and Athens, expressing hope that the deal will be approved in both parliaments by February 15 in order that Macedonia/FYROM can join the alliance without further delay.

Independent Greeks fading into insignificance

President of the ANEL party, Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, has himself repeated every possible election scenario since the Prespes deal was signed, making his party’s objection to a compromise over the Name Dispute obvious.  What remains unclear is how many of his small party’s seven deputies will vote with him against ratification of the deal, how many will vote with SYRIZA as a few have hinted, and finally whether ANEL as a party will support its SYRIZA coalition partner in a no-confidence vote which opposition New Democracy, widely favoured to win the next national elections in most polls, is expected to launch but cannot currently win without support from ANEL and most other opposition parties. Current polls show that the ANEL party itself will likely fail to win sufficient votes in the next elections to qualify for seats in Parliament (3% is needed) unless something changes the current calculus which has ANEL rapidly careening towards political oblivion.

Although Kammenos has strenuously denied he is planning this on several occasions, some claim ANEL will vote against the government if there is a no-confidence motion introduced, as ANEL MP Kostas Katsikis said on January 10.  Katsikis was quoted on the Greek Parliament’s television channel stating “Panos Kammenos has said it, we’re leaving. What does that mean? We stop being the government coalition partner, there is no majority, we do not give a confidence vote.”

SYRIZA maintains that Prespes ratification is a safe bet

Tsipras, and SYRIZA spokesmen, in general, deny this state of affairs exists, or even that the possibility described above might unfold.   The SYRIZA-supported scenario, repeated constantly in many formats since last summer, is that ANEL’s announced plans to vote against Prespes ratification will be offset by an equivalent number of votes in favour of Prespes from small parties and a sliver of independent deputies.   From time to time different comments from Skopje, mostly in regard to the “Macedonian” nationality question as covered in the Prespes Agreement, have generated calls from some of these potential “swing voter” MPs to revise the agreement’s reference to the nationality issue.  Accordingly, a victory for SYRIZA and its possible allies in the ratification vote remains a very open question.

In a prime-time television interview on January 9, Tsipras indicated the Prespes Agreement could come up for ratification in Athens as early as January but gave no specifics.  In anticipation of a delayed but extremely critical meeting set for January 11 with coalition partner Kammenos, Tsipras said “I believe that he will maintain his confidence in the government, and this is what I will ask of him on Friday.” The January 11 meeting between Tsipras and Kammenos was cancelled abruptly mid-day January 11, with the cause at that time being explained as “the unclear political situation in Skopje.”  Some analysts expect a Kammenos resignation to be announced whenever the meeting takes place, but most have adopted a wait-and-see attitude in view of Kammenos’ frequent policy reversals.  When Tsipras was asked what he would do if the coalition arrangement with ANEL fractures, Tsipras said “we’ll standoff in Parliament; I will ask for a vote of confidence… My partner will not facilitate the plans of (political) adversaries.”

Angela Merkel’s Athens stop seen as pressure

The January 10-11 Athens stop by German Chancellor Angela Merkel is being widely interpreted as overt pressure on the country’s political class to deliver a positive vote on the Prespes Agreement.  The German media have focused on comments from senior officials in Berlin just before the Merkel visit that now characterize Tsipras as a “pragmatist” for his actions in regard to the Prespes Agreement and especially on the Greek economy, and accordingly view him as worthy of direct engagement.

Cynics note that Merkel ultimately gave Greece – and Tsipras – nothing more than what any set of Eurogroup technocrats would have routinely done for Athens on technical debt reprofiling earlier in 2018 and are attempting to portray Tsipras as little more than Berlin’s and even Washington’s lapdog in the Balkans, grateful for whatever scraps are thrown his way.  In remarks last October, former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras actually accused Tsipras of trading away the Macedonian nationality issue in the Prespes Agreement for a six-month or one-year deferment in the already-legislated and creditor demanded pension cuts that ultimately did not take effect on January 1, which most believe would have devastated SYRIZA in this year’s election cycle.  In the final months of 2018, Berlin sat quietly on the sidelines instead of pressing for these cuts in the Eurogroup, which had been labelled as essential structural reforms for most of 2018 by IMF technocrats and some in Brussels.

Sure enough, the Prespes Agreement ratification issue was front and centre in the Tsipras-Merkel press conference on January 10.  Merkel stated that Prespes “creates clarity” and will be beneficial not only to Greece and Macedonia/FYROM but also for the whole of the European Union.  Merkel was asked about the alleged trade-off between the Prespes deal and the cancellation of the 2019 pension cuts Greece’s creditors had previously insisted on.  Being sure to refer to Skopje’s new name of “North Macedonia,” Merkel denied the alleged tradeoff existed and expressed surprise the question had been put to her. 

Merkel discussed the Name Dispute with New Democracy President Kyriakos Mitsotakis at their meeting January 11 just prior to departing Athens. “No matter how much pressure Mrs Merkel were to exercise on Kyriakos Mitsotakis, he would not change his mind over the Prespes Agreement,” said New Democracy spokesman Lefteris Avgenakis after the meeting. He added “Mr Mitsotakis uses the same language on the domestic front as he does on the foreign one,” hitting back at unsubstantiated reports circulated in the Greek media that Mitsotakis had informed various EU officials in meetings throughout 2018 that he would be able to accept the Prespes Agreement.

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