Hoping to resuscitate the stalling diplomatic initiative to resolve the Greece-Macedonia/FYROM Name Dispute negotiations this year, the prime ministers of Greece and Macedonia/FYROM met for three hours in Davos, Switzerland on January 24.
Taking advantage of the annual Davos World Economic Forum Summit where Greek PM Alexis Tsipras has been a regular for the last years, both countries took the opportunity to try to put on a good show and to convince hardliners in both countries that progress was both possible and necessary over the next year.
Providing clear evidence that the leadership in Skopje is aware of the stakes involved, PM Zoran Zaev announced a series of unilateral Confidence Building Measures designed to lower Greek apprehension about long-term irredentist ideas in Skopje.
Zaev announced unilateral decisions to rename Skopje’s Alexander the Great Airport and a similarly named national highway. The Greek side had less to offer, since it has no roads or facilities in the “irredentist” category to rename, but reciprocated by promising to allow the Greek Parliament to ratify the second stage of the EU-FYROM Association Agreement and by advancing the candidacy of FYROM/Macedonia for membership in the Adriatic-Ionian Initiative (AII), which dates back to 2000, and in which Greece plays a leading role.
Tsipras also promised to do all possible to open a new border crossing in the vicinity of the Prespes Lakes. Both sides agreed to a largely cosmetic “elevation” of the Name Dispute talks from the current level of “Special Envoys” to the respective Foreign Ministers, theoretically allowing for an intensification of the dialogue.
The Davos meeting and Zaev’s announcements helped to somewhat smooth the turbulent waters both PM’s have been facing in moving ahead with the negotiations, with substantially more resistance to any agreement seen in Greece (so far).
UN Mediator Matthew Nimetz is due in both capitals next week and his welcome in Athens is expected to be anything but warm from the nationalist-leaning segments of Greek society, including the main opposition New Democracy party, which has accused Tsipras of “secret diplomacy” and recalled the strong US pressure Athens felt in 2008 from the Bush Administration to admit FYROM into NATO even without a resolution of the Name Dispute.
Like it or not, the Name Dispute is already an important issue in Greece’s next election campaign, whether national elections come in 2019 as scheduled or earlier.
Perhaps missing the attention Cyprus received in previous years at Davos, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades threw a new depth charge into the mix on Wednesday in a domestic radio interview.
The main thrust of Anastasiades’ argument was that Greece primarily needed to secure the removal of all irredentist references in the FYROM/Macedonia constitution. If this could be done, the name was of little relevance.
“If there was a way to overcome the state’s (FYROM/Macedonia) constitutional provisions that speak of irredentism, then the name doesn’t matter,” Anastasiades said, before adding, “If Greece is able, through investments, to exert influence and control a Lilliputian state, a neighbor, then I wonder why the row about the name. Does a name matter?”
Needless to say, his next visit to northern Greece, if ever, will be eventful. A significant number of Greeks are now wondering why Anastasiades, clearly dependent on Greek goodwill, felt the need to intervene so dramatically in a Greece-focused dispute that does not significantly impact Cyprus.