Ever since the May 28 Brussels announcement that the foreign ministers of Greece and Macedonia/FYROM had finished their work and had delivered their proposals to their respective prime ministers, the world has held its breath expecting to hear of an immediate top-level meeting at the northern border town of Prespes, Greece. Over 10 days have passed, and unfortunately no meeting has been announced, despite reports and leaks of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations. Serious issues were left unresolved by the foreign ministers at the end of their work, and it will be no surprise if much more time is needed to approach resolution. Questions remain about how much Athens might have to soften its basic negotiating stance to reach an agreement that its current partner in Skopje, the government of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, might well be unable to maneuver through its fractured parliamentary system. Of course, anything that appears to be a major concession by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will cause political shockwaves in Athens, potentially triggering coalition ruptures and early elections.
Progress could take more time than expected
On May 28th, both countries’ foreign ministers indicated — to many sceptics in both countries — that a deal would be clinched in a matter of days at the prime ministerial level, probably followed by a top-level meeting. That still hasn’t happened. A few “technical issues” had been left unresolved on May 28 and were referred to experts in both countries. Rumors of progress and back-channel negotiations have been flying in both capitals but there is still no clarity as to whether the core issues of “Erga Omnes” the Latin reference used by the Greeks to indicate one agreed name must be used for all purposes, or the constitutional changes aimed at removing irredentist references in the Macedonian/FYROM constitution are forthcoming. These demands from the Greek side have been particularly hard for Skopje to agree to, yet it appears the foreign ministers and UN Mediator Matthew Nimetz tackled them successfully at their levels. The hope has been to have the deal finalized before the June and July EU and NATO Summits which would allow these institutions to begin accession/entry processes for Skopje.
Keeping these important deadlines in mind, the announcement from the Macedonian/FYROM Foreign Ministry June 7 seems to dampen expectations. Two key excerpts: “Goodwill has been demonstrated and significant results have been achieved in the course of the talks. At this juncture, as in any process of this character, it is necessary that the working groups transpose said goodwill into a text of an agreement, which will most appropriately reflect the substantive parameters, featuring the political understanding reached between the two sides.”
“With that goal in mind, the Republic of Macedonia works hard in order that this is achieved as promptly as possible and prior to the meeting of the European Council. In this context, the Republic of Macedonia underscores that issues of such importance do not benefit from any hasty activities. The quality of the text of the agreement and the need to reach a lasting and sustainable solution acceptable to both sides by far outweigh the necessity of meeting any deadlines for the finalization of the process.”
Does it make sense to rush ahead?
Ultimately few — except perhaps the negotiators and mediators themselves — will disagree with Skopje’s proposition that a lasting and sustainable solution acceptable to both sides is more important than rushing to meeting the summer summit deadlines. That, of course, means the negotiations become more closely linked — if not hostage to — the Greek electoral cycle which requires parliamentary elections by the fall of 2019 at the latest. Those directly involved would consider this a failure because their entire rationale for the diplomatic push in early 2018 was to beat the electoral calendar.
Political developments in Greece are making it harder than ever to believe that a deal might still be clinched this month. This week’s flare-up in relations with Turkey over refugees and the return of alleged Turkish coup-plotters is just a short-term distraction, but it complicates the scenario for passing a Name Dispute deal through Greece’s Parliament by the poll-trailing Tsipras-Independent Greeks (ANEL) coalition government. And grassroots resistance across Greece to any deal involving a compound name using the word “Macedonia” is again on the rise, as is anti-deal outrage in Macedonia/FYROM. Demonstrations were held in 24 locations across Greece (not Athens) on June 6 focusing on the “Macedonia is Greece” theme. This was not a numbers game as witnessed in the February 2018 Athens rally, but a test of coordination. A larger rally is being planned for Athens on July 8, by which time the Greek public will know where the negotiations have landed. Demonstrations in Skopje against potential constitutional and name changes are happening routinely as well, and leaks to the media there over the last days have focused on what some in Skopje are calling “new Greek demands” (post-May 28 agreement) on the name of the Macedonian language as well as the timing of a referendum on the name/constitutional changes.