With Greece currently distracted by a wide range of political issues and debates, legislators in Skopje are hard at work debating the constitutional amendments proposed by the government of Macedonia/FYROM, as required under the Prespes Agreement signed with Greece last June to resolve the bilateral Name Dispute. Direct flights resumed between Athens and Skopje on November 1, after a break of over 11-years.

Work advances in Skopje on constitutional amendments

Attention in Skopje remains focused on the procedure to debate and approve the constitutional amendments required under the terms of the Prespes Agreement signed with Greece in June.   On November 2, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev presented the four draft amendments to parliament as required by the country’s constitution.   Debate on these amendments will continue at various levels and a plenary session with a vote is scheduled for December 1.

The amendments largely deal with changing the country’s official name to the Republic of North Macedonia and modifying references in the constitution that Greece has objected to as irredentist, and a few other minor modifications.  Not all observers in Greece appear to be satisfied with the amendments that have been made public, so there could still be some discussions on this topic.

A parliamentary committee voted November 7 to recommend the full parliament revoke parliamentary immunity for former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, facing immediate imprisonment on corruption charges.  Gruevski served as PM from 2006 to 2016 and is a key figure in the main opposition VMRO-DPMNE party. It remains unclear whether two-thirds of the parliament will support this recommendation in view of Gruevski’s own party support base.

Athens -Skopje flights resume

Direct Athens-Skopje flights resumed November 1, made possible by the renaming of Skopje’s airport earlier this year.  Flights between the two countries were terminated in 2007, as Greece reacted sharply to the naming of the airport after Alexander the Great by the ultra-nationalist government lead by then-Prime Minister Gruevski.

For now, Greece’s Aegean airlines will operate two flights weekly.  The route had been both popular and profitable for Greece’s Olympic Airlines in its early years, transporting substantial numbers of travellers from Skopje to Athens and onward to Australia.  In its final years, as bilateral relations deteriorated, the Athens-Skopje flight lost popularity while passenger volume fell dramatically and flights were subject to frequent cancellations.

Greece temporarily distracted

The Name Dispute has briefly fallen off the radar in Greece, but its ultimate impact is now factored into most all the political scenarios of the day.

A majority of Greek analysts still project national elections will occur in May, timed with the Euro elections and the already-programmed municipal elections.  They also factor in a split in the ruling coalition government comprised of SYRIZA and the Independent Greeks (ANEL) party, some months ahead of this, triggered by the arrival of the Prespes Agreement in the Greek parliament for ratification.

ANEL has promised to vote against ratification, but SYRIZA leaders believe they have found a number of independent and small party deputies to support the deal’s ratification even after ANEL pulls out of the coalition. If so, passage will happen with a razor-thin majority and the impact of this divisive vote will be amplified by the tense pre-election atmosphere already present in Greece, which Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is trying to temper with promises ranging from massive new government hirings to a limited set of rollbacks of reforms already agreed with Greece’s creditors such as the politically explosive cut in pensions set for January 2019.

 Personnel move may reveal Washington’s intentions

In a diplomatic personnel assignment that will surely raise eyebrows in both Athens and Skopje, the White House finally revealed November 7 who would be its next Ambassadorial nominee for the US Embassy in Skopje, Kate Byrnes.  Observers will undoubtedly find this to be a curious follow-on assignment in view of the nominee’s current assignment as Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Athens and will draw appropriate conclusions.

While not a Balkan expert, the nominee’s previous service at the US Mission to NATO and the US Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe guarantees she will arrive equipped to handle most issues at the expert level.