With the window for a potential agreement before the upcoming EU and NATO Summits in June and July nearly closed, efforts to reach agreement on the Name Dispute between Greece and Macedonia/FYROM are continuing at a more intense pace than seen any time in the past months. An attempt is being made to set the stage for definitive progress at the upcoming EU-Western Balkans Summit on May 17-18 in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia through a series of meetings held in Greece in the coming days.
Although little progress was reported in the bilateral discussions that were held in Thessaloniki on May 4 on the sidelines of a previously-scheduled regional foreign ministers meeting, another such regional session May 11-12 near Athens, this time between Visegrad and Western Balkan foreign ministers, has kept the channels open.
Greek media reports place UN Mediator Matthew Nimetz arriving in Greece May 12, which would allow him to meet with both Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias and Macedonia/FYROM Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov. The Nimetz game plan, according to Greek Foreign Ministry sources, is to set up the Sofia Summit as some kind of “action-forcing event” and organise a Davos-style bilateral meeting between Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Macedonia/FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev to announce progress, a framework agreement, or simply whatever emerges.
All parties understood the need for rapid progress in the first months of 2018 since the political calendar made other timelines more complicated. Initially, the objective was to hammer out an agreement in time for the summer EU and NATO summits and to open the path for the relevant accession processes in the EU and within NATO.
But by March, it was becoming clear that the Name Dispute negotiations would take longer, and some of the ideas for a so-called “Plan B” emerged, which will have negotiations continuing through the summer and possibly beyond, but with strong positive statements about the diplomatic progress achieved so far delivered at the appropriate summits in the summer of 2018.
Most observers now concede that the still-unknown dates for the next Greek parliamentary elections, either in 2018 or 2019, are already an important factor in the political calculus regarding the Name Dispute for Athens. Few, if any, analysts consider an agreement on the Name Dispute to be “vote neutral” so the current SYRIZA-Independent Greeks (ANEL) coalition will be hesitant to take such an agreement forward if it does not include all of the demands the Greek side has laid out, some of which require a time-consuming revision of the constitution by Skopje. Thus, it is hard to predict much more than continuing work on the issue — since both sides retain an interest in a settlement — and the suspension of unrealistic deadlines, frequently seen as imposed by external actors.
Relatively little has been heard from the US Government regarding the Name Dispute, beyond the standard declarations in support of the work undertaken by UN Mediator Nimetz. This week, however, we learned that a group of US Congressional Representatives sent a letter to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg supporting the immediate start of NATO accession negotiations with Macedonia/FYROM to become the alliance’s 30th member. This appears to be connected with the recent visit of respected Macedonia/FYROM Defense Minister Radmila Sekerinska to Washington for Bilateral Defense Consultations and her meeting with US Defense Secretary James Mattis May 1 who also expressed interest in seeing the country join NATO.