Tsipras narrowly wins self-imposed confidence vote

EPA-EFE/YANNIS KOLESIDIS

Leader of Greek main opposition New Democracy party Kyriakos Mitsotakis (R) delivers his speech as Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (C) is seen in the background, during a debate on the vote of confidence in the government, in the parliament's plenum, in Athens, January 16, 2019.

Despite narrow victory, path to Prespes Agreement ratification clear


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Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras won the closest of confidence challenges late January 16 with 151 votes in favour and 148 against. Although at times dramatic, both the debate and the vote were far less exciting than what had occurred hours before in London, as Tsipras himself had called for the vote on January 13 after he successfully lined up the support he needed by co-opting the required four of seven deputies from his former junior coalition partner, the Independent Greeks (ANEL) party.

Although the country is now governed by a single-party minority (SYRIZA) with 145 of 300 seats in Greece’s parliament, this vote opens the path for rapid ratification of last June’s highly controversial Prespes Agreement with Macedonia/FYROM, which, once ratified, will formally change that country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia.

The vote

The actual vote came several hours earlier than had been predicted, in the late evening but not after midnight as has been the case in the tense votes over Greece’s creditor-imposed economic reform obligations seen in recent years.

The expected 151 affirmative votes for the government came from 145 SYRIZA MPs, supported by one New Democracy MP who joined the government earlier this year, four ANEL deputies co-opted by the SYRIZA government when its leader Panos Kammenos dissolved the coalition on January 13, and one deputy, Spyros Danellis, now expelled from the small centre-left To Potami, or “The River”, party for declaring his voting intentions.

Everyone else present opposed.

Next steps on Prespes Agreement ratification

The timing of the Prespes ratification debate has not yet been announced. In theory, it could be called on very short notice but statements from PM Tsipras’ office after the vote of confidence passed indicated there was no immediate rush. Tsipras invited opposition leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis of New Democracy to join in a televised debate on the accord before any ratification vote.

In his closing statement late January 16, Tsipras informed the country that Macedonia/FYROM had transmitted the required ratification package to Athens earlier that day via diplomatic note, clearly working at breakneck speed to get the documents to Greece.

Tsipras said there was an important clarification in the package, which has not yet been publicly released, in that it reaffirms that the term “nationality” in the Prespes Agreement refers exclusively to nationality (i.e. citizenship) and does not designate the ethnicity of the country’s people. Moreover, it also groups “Macedonian” in the South Slavic group of languages alongside Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, and Slovene. Tsipras also offered to make the Prespes Agreement widely available to the Greek people (it has been online since June) in the coming days.

This clarification may help resolve some confusion between Macedonian ethnicity and nationality, seen by many as an extremely weak spot in the Prespes Agreement. The Greek side has been repeatedly annoyed by official statements from Skopje and some of its state-owned media outlets stressing the word “Macedonia” and the adjective “Macedonian” will be applicable in a wide set of contexts, instead of the agreed references to the new name, the Republic of North Macedonia. To many, wide use of the adjective “Macedonian” undercuts the essence of the Prespes deal.

Whenever it occurs, the Prespes Agreement ratification vote tally will be slightly different, as several of the ANEL deputies that supported Tsipras on January 16 will likely not repeat that vote.

While the gap in support is not massive, currently Tsipras can count on only 149 of the 151 affirmative votes he just received. The votes from the small To Potami party’s deputies will be the ones to watch as they will likely make the difference.

The party is currently experiencing an internal rift over the ratification, which if handled incorrectly could result in resignations or expulsions and the party losing its status and votes in parliament. The party’s political council met January 17, and the position remains unclear except that it supports an overall solution to the issue and Macedonia/FYROM’s eventual entry into the EU.

In addition, attention should be paid to MPs from other small parties such as the Democratic Left, some of whom may shift or state their positions.

Minority government will likely call elections sooner

Greek parliamentary elections must be held by October at the latest and despite Tsipras’ narrow victory, most analysts are predicting the now-minority SYRIZA government will opt for polls sometime this spring, very possibly in tandem with May’s euro-elections and Greek municipal elections to maximise public attention. A failure to ratify the Prespes Agreement will likely trigger snap elections, so the decision on the timing of that debate/vote is highly significant.

Tsipras has repeatedly declared, however, that he intends to complete his government’s full four-year term and devoted considerable time in the confidence vote debate to explaining his long list of priorities for the remainder of his term in office, including launching the process to revise the Greek constitution, and initiatives to raise wages and extend protection for bankrupt homeowners, some of which are seen as classic pre-election “give-aways” that could put Tsipras in conflict with the country’s creditors.

Reuters reported January 17 that the five-year Greek government bond yield slipped to 3.11 percent, its lowest level since September 2018, on the understanding that immediate snap elections have been avoided, for now.

Sunday demonstrations in front of Parliament

A large demonstration, similar in scope to the one held in February 2018, is scheduled to be held in Syntagma Square in the centre of Athens on January 20. Organisers are working overtime to ensure that this demonstration and a parallel event in Thessaloniki turn out large crowds that oppose the ratification of the current draft of the Prespes Agreement. On January 17, the Holy Community of Mount Athos (based in Halkidiki) called for a referendum on the deal, a call that it will bring to the anti-Prespes demonstrations. The group is also challenging the Prespes Agreement’s acceptance of a “Macedonian” ethnicity and language, which it claims disregard both history and truth. As usual, the police are working to ensure that any violent outbursts will be quickly contained.

Time for recognition?

Another interesting development is Turkey’s January 17 recognition of North Macedonia by its “constitutional name” without specifying what that means. This is intentionally unclear and appears to be a little premature, but it was done in the context of a visit that day by the country’s Foreign Minister, Nikola Dimitrov, to Ankara. Key western countries, in particular the United States, have long pledged to recognize Macedonia/FYROM by its (new) agreed name once all parties have settled (and ratified) the bilateral dispute, so one should expect a flood of similar developments regarding the country’s new constitutional name “North Macedonia” when/if the Prespes Agreement enters into force.

Growling Russians

Lurking in the background are repeated threats by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin that Moscow would block the Prespes Agreement in the UN Security Council. It is unclear what measures the Kremlin might take beyond its Security Council authority to veto any attempt to remove the Name Dispute from the UN’s agenda.
Worried in particular by the speed with which NATO appears to be pressing for Macedonia/FYROM’s accession, Putin has focused on the lack of presidential signatures on key ratification and constitutional documents approved Macedonia/FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s government in Skopje, as well as the lack of popular support (meaning low participation) in last September’s referendum for the name change.

“What we see comes in continuation of the process to artificially change the state name, imposed from outside, with an (sic) aim of pulling Skopje into NATO as soon as possible,” the Russian foreign ministry noted on January 14.

Putin’s “rockstar” visit to Belgrade January 17 served as a platform to loudly criticize NATO’s plans to accept Macedonia/FYROM as its 30th member in as short a time as possible, potentially before the end of 2019, assuming the Prespes Agreement is ratified by Greece. He also used that trip to promote expanded Russian energy linkages across the region, and to demonstrate strong Russian support for Belgrade in the Kosovo dispute.

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