While Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras successfully avoided triggering national elections over the painful ratification battle for June’s Prespes Agreement with the newly renamed country of North Macedonia, the Greek political world is still trying to adjust to the changed reality and context in which it finds itself. Some small parties have been decimated. No date has been set for Greece’s national elections which must be held by October at the latest. NATO, meanwhile, wasted no time whatsoever in sprinting to get North Macedonia’s accession protocol through the required procedures so that the alliance can induct its 30th member in as little time as is possible.
NATO moves quickly, but is there a deeper political message inside?
NATO wasted no time in rushing to circulate the formal NATO Accession Protocol for North Macedonia, under the new name, on the first working day after the tension-filled Greek ratification vote for the Prespes Agreement, which occurred January 25 in Athens.
Under the terms of June’s Prespes Agreement, Greece’s ratification of the Prespes Agreement automatically constituted approval for North Macedonia’s NATO accession, under the new agreed name. Nevertheless, the Greek Parliament has indicated a vote on the same subject, North Macedonia’s NATO Accession Protocol is being scheduled for the first days in February. Details made available at that time will clarify the situation.
In any event, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, just back in Brussels from a visit to Washington DC, rushed to circulate the draft Accession Protocol for the Republic of North Macedonia to the ambassadors of the alliance in Brussels on January 28. NATO’s “silence procedure” allowed, in the absence of negative reactions from alliance members, for a date to be set for the signing of the actual Accession Protocol in the presence of North Macedonia’s foreign minister. The signing is now being planned for February 6. This signature will allow negotiations to formally commence and for North Macedonia to take part in NATO activities as an invitee.
Once invited, the actual accession process requires the completion of technical negotiations between NATO and a new potential member, in addition to ratification of its accession by the legislatures of all 29 other member states. North Macedonia will need to commit to specific policy reforms and pledge that its defence spending will reach at least 2% of GDP.
Late in 2018, US officials had publicly estimated that the full procedure for NATO admission would take close to a year to complete after settling differences with Greece, but Stoltenberg may be able to press NATO members to move faster, and he is clearly trying to do whatever can be done in Brussels to facilitate this.
Beyond trying to reinforce NATO’s southern flank against potential Russian threats, two other reasons have been mentioned to explain why NATO moved so quickly. Speculation about early elections both in North Macedonia and Greece are the currency of the day. North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, hoping to strengthen his power base, would be able to capitalize on every step NATO takes to accelerate his country’s accession, as a major “deliverable” from the Prespes Agreement in any potential snap election, especially since EU accession is a longer-term project. It is worth noting that NATO is doing next to nothing to inform the public that the upcoming signing of North Macedonia’s Accession Protocol is only a step towards joining the alliance, and public confusion on the length of the actual process would actually help Zaev claim he has accomplished more than simply launching his country’s NATO journey.
— Jens Stoltenberg (@jensstoltenberg) February 2, 2019
Stoltenberg also has a strong group of senior American officials on his staff, including his deputy, who are strategically positioned keep Washington’s concerns front and centre.
It is worth recalling that the average Greek citizen remains highly sceptical of the value of NATO membership, since most see NATO’s attempt at a balanced approach to the Greek-Turkish dispute over the Aegean islands and territorial seas/airspace as unhelpful, if not problematic.
Was Prespes the game changer Tsipras hoped for?
Compared to the political free-for-all Greece witnessed in the two weeks leading up to the January 25 ratification vote for the Prespes Agreement, the political temperature in the country cooled briefly as all parties surveyed and adapted to the new political landscape.
Seriously trailing in the polls, PM Tsipras succeeded in pulling off the ratification with a 3 vote margin (153/300) without triggering immediate elections over the issue, and this provides him with the breathing room to plan his next steps, most likely a government reshuffle that would aim to expand his base by absorbing co-optees from his former coalition partner, the Independent Greeks (ANEL) party and the other small parties and independents that supported him on Prespes deal.
One of the small centrist parties that split angrily over the question of Prespes ratification, the small “To Potami” party (The river) is in fact now little more than a historical footnote. Its MPs remain in the current parliament but the parliamentary group status To Potami enjoyed has ended as members declared their departure from the party. Similar but smaller ruptures in the KINAL (Movement for Change) umbrella party (centre-left) have left that grouping with little more than its core political component and old-line supporters, the former-ruling PASOK party founded by Andreas Papandreou. Tactically, this allows PM Tsipras and SYRIZA the opportunity to co-opt some of these displaced dissidents before the next elections, and changes along these lines should be expected.
Perhaps a bit shell-shocked from the intense ratification battle and the use by the Athens riot police of tear gas twice in one week to put down anti-ratification protests, Tsipras immediately tried to shift attention in the first week after Prespes to other fronts while work proceeded quietly on a potential government reshuffle. He has announced minimum wage increase above what creditors would have agreed, stirring international concern, whisked off to Cyprus, and plans to visit Turkey in early February.
There is still no clarity as to whether national elections will be called earlier than October, although most analysts are convinced the SYRIZA minority government will opt to call them in May in concert with the scheduled Euro elections and Greek municipal elections.
Tsipras’ opponents were able to score a few points during the last week by pointing to Tsipras comments to French President Emmanuel Macron in Nicosia, caught on an open microphone at a summit meeting of Mediterranean countries. Tsipras was recorded telling Macron that about 70,000 “extreme-right populists against the agreement” formed the core of the January 20 protest in Athens, which produced a strong reaction from main opposition party New Democracy, currently leading in the polls.
Tsipras’ task in all this has not been made any easier by Zaev’s almost-daily use of the terms “Macedonia” and “Macedonian people” in public statements and interviews, many of which are picked up by the Greek press and immediately replayed back to Greece in near-horrific coverage by Tsipras’ political opponents and many others in the media to demonstrate the folly of the Prespes Agreement, yielding no change or gains for Greece in Zaev’s behaviour when it comes to use of the term “Macedonia.”
A Nobel for bold, new democratic conflict resolution practices in Europe?
One ray of light for leaders in Athens and Skopje is a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize which many in both countries have long joked about. The nomination was made by the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ouided Bouchamaoui of Tunisia, who, in a letter to Zaev, informed him of the nomination, along with Greece’s PM Tsipras, according to press reports from Skopje. It is unclear whether nominations from previous laureates carry much if any weight when final decisions are made, and critics have said the cost of an aeroplane ticket to Athens and Skopje would be the total investment required to generate this nomination. Bouchamaoui last visited Athens in September 2018 as a speaker at the Fifth Annual Athens Democracy Forum, but clearly missed the last weeks of January 2019 when Athens police used tear gas twice to disperse anti-Prespes Agreement protesters trying to convince her personal Nobel nominee, Greek PM Tsipras, to back off.
New tensions brewing?
In a sign of potential new post-Prespes people-to-people problems, students at a rally in Thessaloniki January 30 removed the license plates from a car from the neighbouring country that was in a central parking lot, something not seen for many years. The plates carried the country code MK, standing for Macedonia, and SK for Skopje, and were politely left with the parking lot attendant. Under the Prespes Agreement, the MK designation is slated to change to NM or NMK (North Macedonia) over a five-year transition period for technical adjustments.