In the context of the shrill NATO-US debate over President Donald J. Trump’s demands for higher European defence spending, the situation involving the potential entry of Macedonia/FYROM into NATO as its 30th member sometime in the future doesn’t even make it into the news outside of Southeastern Europe.

In Skopje, the invitation extended at the July 11-12 Brussels Summit to begin NATO accession negotiations — conditioned on the completion of the referendum/constitutional revisions laid out in the Prespes Agreement — was seen as a lifeline to Macedonia/FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.

In an unprecedented move, Greece banned four Russian diplomats after claiming they were working to undermine the Prespes Agreement, but without providing evidence.

Summitry: The NATO invitation that still may depend on Athens

It seems Zaev got his wish from NATO after the land-locked Balkan nation received the formal invitation that it has so desperately sought since 2008 to begin NATO accession negotiations, assuming the Prespes Agreement is ratified/implemented by his country. Without any roadblocks emerging, formal NATO entry is not expected before mid-2020 due to both NATO accession negotiations, which should move quickly, and various ratification processes in the alliance’s member countries.

The NATO invitation constitutes a critical political lifeline for Zaev, especially now that the start of the country’s protracted EU accession negotiations has been delayed until next year.

“We have decided to invite the government in Skopje to begin accession talks to join our alliance,” the NATO leaders said in their Summit communiqué.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference the invitation was a “once in a lifetime opportunity and either they (the Macedonian people) support the agreement and they can join NATO, or they don’t support the agreement but then they won’t join it”. To underscore the point, he said, “they cannot get both”.

Regarding NATO, the open question is simple, if Skopje does all that it is obligated to do under the terms of the Prespes Agreement, but Athens does not ratify the agreement when/if it comes up for a vote next year, what will Skopje’s status in NATO be?

Skullduggery: Greek scene rocked by Russian interference allegations

Greece’s decision to ban four Russian diplomats (with two diplomatic expulsions and two banned) surfaced just as the NATO July 11-12 Summit convened in Brussels. Moscow had been informed several days earlier, but what is interesting about the case is that earlier in the year Greece had snubbed a request from the United Kingdom by refusing to join a unified Western response in expelling Russian diplomats after the Sergei Skripal poisoning in the UK in February.

Opposition New Democracy’s shadow foreign minister Giorgos Koumoutsakos on July 12 criticised the lack of information from the government on the rift.

The alleged reason, as leaked to one Greek news outlet, Kathimerini, was that the Russians involved have been attempting to foment protests against the Prespes Agreement at Moscow’s request. One local group, the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, is alleged to have been the Russian conduit for this and certain other Russian influence-building projects in Mount Athos in northern Greece.

Athos is the centre of Orthodox Christian monasticism and is under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople – which enjoys the status of Primus inter pares (first among equals) in the Eastern Orthodox world. That position has been widely challenged by the Kremlin-backed Moscow Patriarchate, which has long sought to play the dominant role in the Orthdox Christian nations.

Additional clarity on ratification process in Macedonia/FYROM

Contradicting information put out to the Greek press last week by Zaev, it seems the referendum could again be put on the fast track and held in late September or early October.

Zaev is currently facing delays in assembling the State Electoral Commission (DIK) to oversee the referendum. Almost two weeks after the deadline expired to appoint a new DIK, there is no sign that the political gridlock is about to be overcome. Opposition VMRO-DPMNE, currently in charge of the parliamentary committee on appointments, is refusing to start the procedure for electing a new DIK.

The constitutional revision process for Macedonia/FYROM is now being planned to start as soon as the referendum is actually completed, assuming the results are positive. The estimated time period needed is at least three months, meaning that the Greek ratification vote for the Prespes Agreement can occur no earlier than January 2019.

It all leads to Greek elections…..

This schedule leads numerous Greek analysts to project elections for a new Greek government sometime between the early 2019 ratification vote and the May 2019 Euro-elections, which are already being planned to coincide with Greece’s municipal elections and could very possibly be combined with the Greek parliamentary elections for a triple-level election.

Several analysts also predict the ratification vote will precipitate some form of government meltdown with the pull-out of the Independent Greeks (ANEL) party from the current ruling coalition, triggering the early elections in the spring, which in any event need to be called by September 2019.