Competing claims and narratives in Eastern Mediterranean
Greece's post-lockdown hubris
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Episode 9 - Greek economy toiling under pandemic pressure
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Episode 8 - Athens: An ancient city grappling with modern problems
Name and shame
Until Sunday’s protest over the Macedonia name issue, Thessaloniki’s most recent notable contribution to Greek politics was to host Alexis Tsipras in 2014, when he set out SYRIZA’s plan for governing Greece. The Thessaloniki Programme, as it became known, proved a wish list of policies that were completely detached from the reality of the country’s situation at the time. It seems that it is the northern city’s fate to be the gathering point for politicians and citizens with unrealistic expectations.
Around 90,000 people came together in Thessaloniki on Sunday, according to the police. Organisers put the number much higher, as is usually the case with such demonstrations. Either way, the participation was substantial given the weak presence at all kinds of rallies over the last few years. But it paled next to the 1 million or so who gathered in Greece’s second largest city in 1992 to protest about the same matter.
The rally was not organised by a particular party or single group so a precise list of demands was not available. The key request, though, was that the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) should not be allowed to use the name “Macedonia” in any agreement that emerges from the talks that have just resumed between Athens and Skopje, the latest effort over the last 25 years to resolve the dispute.
This is a patently unworkable position given that the neighbouring country is already recognised by its constitutional name - Republic of Macedonia - by dozens of countries across the world, including key players in the region, such as the USA, Russia and China. Also, the temporary name under which FYROM has been participating in international organisations since an interim accord was reached between Athens and Skopje in 1995 – the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – contains the word “Macedonia.” Furthermore, there was a shift in the Greek position on the issue in 2007, when broad political consensus emerged regarding FYROM being able to use the term “Macedonia” as part of a composite name for use in all situations (erga omnes).
So, Sunday’s rally was premised on a non-starter. Expecting the new round of diplomatic talks that have begun to result in a proposal that does not include “Macedonia” – or at least its Slavic equivalent “Makedonija” – is the equivalent of Tsipras promising in 2014 to restore the minimum wage and pensions to their previous levels.
It is difficult to say how many of those who attended on Sunday chose to ignore this or were simply oblivious to the diplomatic constraints facing Athens because they have been fed pie-in-the-sky by their politicians for so long that distinguishing fantasy from reality has become too difficult. Perhaps, though none of this mattered for them and their only goal was to make a point to Greece’s political establishment, particularly the government, the country’s European and international partners, and the neighbouring country.
In respect of the domestic political scene, they had an immediate impact. By Sunday afternoon, New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who had previously taken an equivocal stance on the demonstration and the Macedonia issue, issued a statement declaring his empathy with the protestors and suggesting that their anger was only directed at the government, which is incapable of handling matters of such sensitivity.
Apart from the opportunistic attempt to side with the protesters, even though they were demonstrating against a position that is also officially shared by New Democracy, Mitsotakis’s intervention was designed to paper over the cracks within his own party on this divisive matter.
The conservative leader has had to tread carefully because he cannot abandon the stance taken by one of his predecessors, former Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis about a decade ago, which was that Greece would accept its neighbouring state having a composite name with a geographical qualifier. At the same time, though, there are many within his party, particularly those who are elected in northern Greece, that believe this is too much of a compromise and that they would be unelectable if the centre-right party backs such an agreement.
There has even been talk of a breakaway right-wing party being formed if the split grows. Former chief of the Hellenic Army General Staff Fragoulis Fragos, who has been active in public life since retiring six years ago, spoke at the rally, using derogatory language about the citizens of FYROM, and subsequently said he would be willing to lead new party if asked to do so.
Given that New Democracy is comfortably leading the polls and elections could be coming up later this year, or in 2019 at the latest, Mitsotakis could do without any internal strife or the possibility of a new right-wing grouping threatening to draw votes away from his party. New Democracy has also been damaged by this issue in the past. In 1992, the then Prime Minister and party leader Konstantinos Mitsotakis ousted his foreign minister, Antonis Samaras, for not falling in line with the government position. Samaras then quit New Democracy to form his own party, bringing down Mitsotakis's administration in the process.
So Mitsotakis the younger should know better than most that playing short-term domestic political games with national issues that have a long-term impact is ultimately damaging to all those involved and that opportunism carries a heavy cost. Yet, it appears that the concerns about disharmony within his party have prompted him to err on the side of caution as far as the Macedonia name issue is concerned. His non-committal approach, especially while a solution remains unlikely, and tactic of pointing solely to the government’s responsibility is likely to continue.
Under normal circumstances, this would have caused deep disappointment among some of Mitsotakis’s centrist or liberal followers, who have favoured a solution to the longstanding dispute with FYROM. Interestingly, though, judging by what has been written in the news and social media (which are, admittedly, not always accurate guides of wider public opinion), this group of supporters appears to have done an about-turn, viewing Sunday’s demonstration as a genuine and justified venting of frustration (even though anti-austerity protests in previous years, for instance, were not viewed in the same way by this group) and turning a blind eye to the nasty elements that attached themselves to the proceedings, including Golden Dawn MPs, the arson attack on an anarchist squat in Thessaloniki and the beating of an Independent Greeks (ANEL) MP and the vandalism of the city’s Holocaust memorial.
The impression left is that if Mitsotakis was prime minister and trying to solve the name dispute, they would decry demonstrations such as the one in Thessaloniki, labelling them nothing more than the populist manifestation of fringe nationalists intent on misleading voters and keeping their careers afloat.
Tsipras & Kammenos
These political pirouettes, though, are also being executed on the other side of the political divide, where Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his SYRIZA colleagues are trying to overlook the fact that their coalition partner is whistling a completely different tune to them.
Defence Minister and ANEL leader Panos Kammenos has said that he will not accept the name “Macedonia” being used in any solution. Never one to pass up a chance to play to the nationalist gallery and to shore up the small pool of supporters his party has, Kammenos tweeted a purported 1937 map of Yugoslavia identifying the region in question as Vardarska. He has also suggested that a referendum should be held in Greece to decide whether to accept any proposal agreed on by the negotiators during the UN-mediated talks. One would have thought that after the government’s experience in 2015, he would not have been so keen on the idea of another referendum.
Tsipras has been unable to give a satisfactory response to the question of how he hopes to negotiate a settlement with Greece’s neighbour when he cannot get his coalition partner to agree with him. In an interview with Sunday's Ethnos newspaper, he insisted that Kammenos is an "honest patriot" who would not become a traitor, like Samaras. This is meaningless rhetoric, though, because if Tsipras believes that the right thing to do for the country and its future is to seek a compromise with Skopje that would involve the term "Macedonia" being used in one form or another, then he cannot also see anything patriotic in Kammenos's behaviour if he resists such a solution.
SYRIZA’s response has been to deflect attention towards New Democracy, accusing the conservatives of being irresponsible and currying favour among nationalists. Tsipras knows that if he can chip away at the divisions within the opposition party over this matter, he may benefit. At the very least, it will move the focus from the awkwardness of his coalition partner's stance.
However, this is just as feeble a position as that taken by the opposition party. If Tsipras truly wants to try to tackle this issue, he has to force Kammenos out of his foxhole so that he catches the flack in the same way as everyone else who would take the political risk of supporting a deal. The SYRIZA leader could secure a majority in Parliament without the support of ANEL (PASOK and To Potami seem willing to back a settlement) but this would also have to mark the end of the partnership with the right-wing party.
Kammenos did not support the government’s position on other issues in the past, such as Greek citizenship for second-generation migrants, without any recourse. But on a matter of such national prominence, it is inconceivable that he would not back an agreement that has the prime minister's approval.
This highlights the main problems facing Tsipras. There is pressure on Athens and Skopje to reach a solution ahead of the NATO summit of July but the SYRIZA leader also has his eye on another milestone, which is the exit from the third bailout programme in August. Tsipras is hoping that the end of the Memorandum of Understanding will help improve, if not transform, his political fortunes. The prospect of the coalition falling apart before it has reached the finishing line is one that he dares not consider.
Of course, you never really know where you stand with Kammenos. He is capable of performing even sharper mid-air manoeuvres than the Greek air force F16s he commands. Few eyebrows would be raised if an agreement with Skopje is reached and he ends up supporting it to ensure that the coalition remains in power for a little longer.
Sadly, the upshot of all this is that a complex diplomatic issue is being handled in an opportunistic manner by the key players in Greek politics. The two governing parties and the main opposition are all guilty of being interested in the gains they can make now rather than leaving the country in a better position in the years to come, with its northern neighbour a fellow member of NATO and the European Union, where it will have to comply with common diplomatic norms.
Clearly, there is no political backing for an at-all-costs solution, nor would such an option be desirable. However, the more conciliatory approach taken so far by FYROM’s recently-installed Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who appears to be pushing aside the ridiculous and provocative myth-building efforts of his predecessor, creates a basis for discussion.
If Skopje can agree to satisfy Greek concerns regarding any irredentist ideas, regardless of how fanciful these may seem outside of Greece, and is willing to temper claims to a “Macedonian” language and identity so there is no confusion with ancient or mordern Greece, then there can be a basis for a discussion. There would still be a lot of work to do and the possibility of reaching an agreement on all these elements, as well as on the name, seem distant given that there is strong resistance in FYROM, where Zaev’s grip on power is weak, as well as in Greece.
Even if the process does not reach so far, it has already been a depressing exercise as far as Greece is concerned. The immaturity shown by its leading politicians and parties suggests that the country is not yet ready for a rendezvous with reality.