The Prespes Agreement – the latest attempt to end the quarter-century-long Name Dispute between Greece and its neighbour FYROM/Macedonia by renaming the latter ‘the Republic of North Macedonia’ – is back in the international headlines only three months after being signed by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his counterpart in Skopje, Zoran Zaev.
The issue over the ratification of the Agreement had, through most of the summer, temporarily fallen from the top tier of public debate after Greece was deeply preoccupied with the tragic deadly fires that struck near Athens in late July, a mini-government reshuffle, and the country’s emergence in late August from the eight-year financial bailout programme.
This changed on September 3 with the curiously-timed Wikileaks release of an American diplomatic cable sourced from the US Embassy in Skopje in 2008 asserting the then-hardline Macedonian/FYROM government could accept a name switching deal that is remarkably similar to what was agreed earlier this year, which served to deeply undercut what Tsipras has up-to-now portrayed as a major success. Rumblings over the cable’s significance continued in a series of tense exchanges between the main opposition party, New Democracy, and the ruling Syriza-Independent Greeks coalition.
In Skopje, the Wikileaks release was portrayed as a form of vindication, especially when it comes to the nationality issue, but the real focus has been elsewhere. The carefully-structured ratification process included in the June 17 Prespes Agreement appeared to proceed steadily throughout the summer, with Zaev skillfully overcoming a series of tough obstacles.
Zaev has received strong support over the last months from Berlin, Washington, and NATO, with several high-level visitors in tow. Even if all the hurdles laid out in the Prespes Agreement are cleared in Macedonia/FYROM over the course of 2018, the deal still faces a painful uphill ratification battle in the Greek parliament sometime in early 2019, quite possibly leading to a government collapse and early elections.
Greek attention shifted from Balkan issues over the summer
Nobody expects much policy debate during the month of August in Greece. This was especially true this year with the country so deeply preoccupied with the aftermath of the massive fires that resulted in 96 deaths. This was followed shortly thereafter by the official end of the Eurozone bailout program on August 20 and an unimpressive mini-reshuffle of Tsipras’ increasingly embattled government. The debate over the Prespes Agreement would likely have returned to centre stage for the launch of the Thessaloniki International Fair (TIF) on September 8, where the United States is the “Honoured Country” this year for its commercial and technological prominence and positive role in the region, but this is not directly tied to its role in helping to reach a deal with Skopje.
Wikileaks strikes again
In what appears to be an attempt to upstage the opening of the international fair in Thessaloniki, the controversial whistleblower website WikiLeaks released on September 3 a telegram not included in its previous troves that brought the Prespes Deal into question, effectively minimising the alleged diplomatic achievements of the recently-reshuffled Tsipras government.
The classified cable, titled “What the Macedonians need to resolve the name dispute”, is dated July 29, 2008, was a compilation of discussions with the then-leadership of Macedonia/FYROM, including their demands to retain use of the constitutional name (Republic of Macedonia) at home and for retention of a “Macedonian” nationality.
Following the release of the WikiLeaks cable, New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who is widely favoured to win the next election, issued a highly-critical statement that cast doubt over earlier claims by Tsipras that the Agreement – which was named after a lage freshwater lake located on the borders of northern Greece, Albania, and FYROM/Macedonia – was a major foreign policy success for his government.
“Today’s revelation from Wikileaks, that Skopje had been asking since 2008 to name their country “North Macedonia” and their people ‘Macedonians’ who supposedly speak the ‘Macedonian’ language confirms in the most tragic way what I have been stressing all those months. That [PM Alexis] Tsipras, [Defence Minister Panos] Kammenos and [Foreign Minister Nikos] Kotzias wanted to present their extremely damaging agreement for Greece as a success, which satisfied what Skopje demanded for years, and which had been rejected by all previous governments. I reiterate my commitment: New Democracy is not going to ratify this agreement”, said Mitsotakis.
Greece’ Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias responded tersely to Mitsotakis’ claims, saying, “It is known that (then-FYROM/Macedonia PM Nikola) Gruevski did not want any solution to the name dispute. In order to mock the international players, he pretended to be forced to accept a compromise. No one believed him. Except, in retrospect, Mr Mitsotakis”.
Kotzias noted that the Wikileaks cable show how Skopje still demanded the use of its constitutional name “Macedonia” (unmodified) for domestic use – a condition that he claims New Democracy had accepted at the time and which is far less than the changes required by the “erga omnes” (one name for all uses) conditions as spelled out in the Prespes Agreement.
Calm on the Russian front
The Greek-Russia spat that coincidentally surfaced just as the NATO Brussels Summit convened on July 11-12, steadily increased in intensity over the month of July with a series of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions. The public has still not seen the evidence justifying the expulsions that the Greek Foreign Ministry claims to possess, as do some officials in Skopje, regarding Russian support for Greek nationalist and religious organisations that are currently protesting the Prespes Agreement.
While high-level Moscow-Athens visits that were in the planning stages have now apparently been postponed, there is no indication the mid-summer “chill” in relations will continue for much longer or impact major strategic decisions between Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Tsipras, whose governments are regarded as being closely linked on many regional issues.
Major demonstration planned for Thessaloniki
Greek groups who oppose the Prespes Agreement have called for demonstrations to begin on September 8, ostensibly to get Tsipras’ attention while he is in Thessaloniki for several high-profile TIF inaugural events and speeches. Questions over whether there will be any kind of anti-American focus to the protests due to the fact that the event is highlighting the US’ role in Greece and the Balkans. US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross is also expected to attend the opening of the international fair.
The US Consulate in Thessaloniki has already taken the precautionary measure of warning its citizens that thousands of demonstrators are expected in Greece’s second city over the course of the international fair scheduled for September 7-16.
Hard work needed to deliver a positive referendum vote
The summer preparations in Macedonia/FYROM have largely focused on intensive preparations for a September 30 national referendum on the Prespes Agreement. After first setting the date, Zaev faced problems getting a new election commission established and in setting on a question for the referendum, which the hardline nationalist opposition VMRO-DPMNE will likely decide to boycott. A potential boycott by the nationalists could be significant as a 50% participation figure is needed for the referendum to be declared successful.
Ultimately, and once again without the support of the political opposition, Zaev was able to ultimately resolve the issue over the referendum question with voters being asked: “Are you for EU and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?”
Zaev’s ability to settle on a single question for voters to decide on, once again, had to be done without the support of the opposition. The willingness to do whatever is needed to keep both the vote and the Prespes deal on track has drawn daily criticism of Zaev, both at home and from various diaspora groups, due to what they say is the contentious wording of the referendum question.
“The question is ambiguous and multifaceted, and above all manipulative,” one leading VMRO-DPMNE party leader said. Observers have also spotted increasing numbers of “#Boycott” T-shirts on the streets in Skopje.
Local polls in Skopje are currently showing a slight movement towards a “YES” vote. Perhaps because of the difficult battle Zaev faces, foreign support for the referendum is seen as essential. In what looks amazingly like a coordinated “save the referendum” project by pro-NATO and pro-EU enlargement leaders, a flood of key visitors has been announced. NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visits September 5 before heading to Athens to discuss the NATO accession path for Skopje; Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s Chancellor will arrive two days later on September 7, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be in Skopje to meet with Zaev on September 8.