The prime ministers of Greece and North Macedonia held their first face-to-face meeting on the sidelines of the 74th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) 24 September, ending a long period since the 7 July election victory of Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who has sought to keep the issue of bilateral relations on the back burner in order to handle other challenges.

The opposite is true for North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who has staked his political career on his country joining NATO and the European Union. Zaev must demonstrate forward movement on both fronts and the EU is due to decide on the timetable for enlargement discussions with North Macedonia and Albania in October.
Mitsotakis, as the newly elected Greek PM in a period of difficult relations between Turkey and the western allies, was scheduled to meet US President Donald J. Trump in New York later on September 24, but that meeting was cancelled abruptly after political developments in Washington concerning a likely impeachment motion grabbed Trump’s full attention. Zaev was not scheduled to do so this year. In any event, Zaev will still be making history for his country as the first leader of the newly renamed North Macedonia to address the UNGA, later in the week.

Meeting readout

Greek government sources indicated an energetic but positive discussion ensued, in which Mitsotakis told Zaev he would never have signed the Prespes Agreement if he was in power and had done all he could while in opposition to block it, but now that it had been ratified, the document would have to be respected. Mitsotakis warned that the deal’s commercial clauses — mainly impacting the use of the name Macedonia for Greek products — needed to be fully respected. These comments are fully consistent with Mitsotakis’ position over the last several months.

Zaev was focused on his country’s EU accession, as to be expected. Zaev also claimed the implementation of the agreement would help Greek investors increase their profile in his country but Mitsotakis noted that was not quite accurate, as Greek companies faced no real barriers to investment in the years before the Prespes deal was signed.

No mention was made of any discussion of any form of official visit to Greece by Zaev, returning former Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ April then-labeled “historic” visit to Skopje.

Given that Zaev’s government had developed remarkably few lines of communication with Greek politicians other than from Syriza — Greece’s former ruling party and the one that signed the widely despised Prespes Agreement in 2018 — expanded contacts between top elected leaders in both countries makes perfect sense, especially in view of the looming increase in the flow of refugees from Turkey (both countries’ foreign ministers have met once in August).

US role in the meeting?

What is not known at this point is which side took the initiative to request the bilateral meeting in New York. It is of course quite possible the US offered its good offices, and it is very likely some kind of bilateral “heads of state” meeting was discussed during the July visit to both Athens and Skopje of US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Phillip Reeker. American diplomats traditionally spend the summer months arranging high-level UNGA bilateral and regional group sessions and may have quietly suggested in Athens that the meeting with Zaev would help build the case for scheduling the all-important Trump-Mitsotakis New York meeting which never came to pass.