Tsipras visits Skopje hoping to cement his Prespes accomplishments

EPA-EFE//GEORGI LICOVSKI

The Prime Minister of North Macedonia Zoran Zaev (R) and his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras (L) after the press conference in the Government building , in Skopje, North Macedonia, 2 April 2019.

Historic visit largely built on “selfie diplomacy” and platitudes


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Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras visited North Macedonia’s capital Skopje on 2 April, his second visit to the country since signing the Prespes Agreement.  A series of hastily-generated agreements were signed, covering economic issues, border and defence cooperation. As Tsipras’ political star is rapidly fading in Greece and national elections must be held there by October, the bottom line for both Tsipras and North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev is to work quickly to cement the new relationship before political shifts in either country allow new leaders to “freeze” the much-despised Prespes Agreement’s implementation.

A historic visit and “selfie diplomacy” – Balkan style.

It was clearly impossible for the first visit of a Greek prime minister to the newly renamed country’s capital city to be portrayed as anything but a “historic” first visit, even though most reports failed to note Tsipras actually visited North Macedonia (before it was renamed) on 17 June 2018,  the day the Prespes Agreement was signed,  for a celebration at a lakeside restaurant north of the two countries’ border.   Historic or not, it does seem that selfies, and pictures of selfies being taken, were the order of the day — “selfie diplomacy” — for Tsipras’ Skopje trip.  It has not been lost on Greek observers that Tsipras was welcomed in Skopje with open arms while jeered in Thessaloniki when he visited on 30 March to try to talk up business opportunities after the Prespes deal.

 

Important first steps

Tsipras travelled to Skopje with 10 ministers/deputy ministers and a delegation of over 120 business representatives, although some Greek business associations refused to participate in protest of the Prespes Agreement.

Agreements relating to the avoidance of double taxation, customs cooperation and transport integration were also signed; not all of these are new ideas, especially in the transport sector where the plans have existed for years.   Not all the texts have been released at this time.

The two leaders convened the first inter-ministerial co-operation council between the neighbouring countries, and they agreed to open a second new border crossing, with one inactive border station having already reopened near Prespes. Under the Prespes terms, a joint committee of experts has been formed to assess possible bias in school textbooks.

An agreement was reached for Greek military aircraft to monitor and patrol North Macedonia’s airspace, as it has no fighter aircraft; Greece (and Italy) had done this earlier for Montenegro and even Albania through NATO channels.  Turkish aircraft will not be allowed to participate in these bilateral efforts, according to press reports.

The Prespes Agreement’s designated joint committee to review the problematic issue of trademarks and product names has yet to meet, but a first meeting is expected soon.

Finally, both sides agreed to upgrade liaison offices in both capitals to full embassy status.

Economic relationship already strong, little space for improvement

Speaking at a forum on economic cooperation between the two countries on 2 April, Zaev said Greece was North Macedonia’s second-biggest trade partner in 2018 behind Germany. He claimed that since the Prespes Agreement was signed, bilateral trade has increased more than 20%, numbers not yet verified by Greek statistics.

Zaev mentioned in an interview prior to the Tsipras visit that he expected €500 million in new Greek investment as a result of the agreement, a figure most analysts believe cash-strapped Greece is unable to provide.  Records show that most Greek companies that needed to move to North Macedonia for tax purposes – since North Macedonia has extremely low tax rates — have already done so.   It seems Zaev’s optimism is overstated.

While a fairly comprehensive set of agreements was signed on the occasion of the Tsipras visit, this kind of fanfare has long been customary between Balkan countries.  Implementation of these is another matter, and in this case, Zaev has a problem, having tied himself so closely to Tsipras who is widely predicted to fare poorly in Greece’s upcoming parliamentary elections.  It is impossible to bureaucratically interweave the two countries in the time Tsipras has left in office so as to tie the hands of the next Greek government if it decides to “freeze” or “review” bilateral relations with North Macedonia, but that seems to be the intention on the part of Tsipras at least, regardless of the continued opposition of the majority of the Greek population to the Prespes Agreement.

Political risks down the road

Until Greece holds national elections, the question of a Zaev visit to Athens will remain sensitive and Zaev’s government must find a way to reach out directly to the majority of Greeks that still strongly oppose the Prespes Agreement and the divisive tactics Tsipras used to achieve ratification in January.  So-called “selfie diplomacy” with Tsipras may not help his cause.

Most important for Skopje is the need to ensure that in the probable event Tsipras is not re-elected, Greece under a New Democracy government does not take predictable and unwelcome steps to “freeze” the developing Athens-Skopje linkage which at present is closely tied to the individual leaders, not the countries’ populations.  This is especially critical when it comes to approving the next steps for eventual EU accession for North Macedonia, which Tsipras has pledged to support, and his rival Kyriakos Mitsotakis opposes under current conditions.

Nobel noises grow louder

Thirty-three MEPs have signed a letter proposing Tsipras and Zaev for the Nobel Peace Prize 2019. Specifically, 33 MEPs from 16 countries and the entire political spectrum, with the exception of the far right, belonging to six political groups in the European Parliament (Left, Socialists, Greens, European People’s Party, Conservatives and Liberals) signed the nomination letter to the Norwegian Nobel Committee.

“This is the first time that such a pioneering agreement has reached in the Balkans (…) Their nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize conveys the message that courage and progressive thinking beyond national borders should be rewarded,” the 33 wrote in the nomination letter.

European Parliament Vice President Dimitris Papadimoulis and SYRIZA MEP Stelios Kouloglou, both well-known SYRIZA activists, reportedly played an important role in the initiative, obviously keyed to upcoming Euro elections and the 2019 Greek parliamentary elections.

 

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