Competing claims and narratives in Eastern Mediterranean
Greece's post-lockdown hubris
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After an international agreement comes the domestic politics
Only time will tell if the agreement (whose details have yet to be confirmed in writing) announced by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) counterpart Zoran Zaev will hold.
In the short-term, Zaev has committed to putting the deal to a referendum and then (if he gets the public’s approval) making changes to FYROM’s constitution, which will need parliamentary approval. In Greece, Tsipras will have to pass the pact through Parliament while knowing that SYRIZA’s coalition partner, Independent Greeks (ANEL), will not provide any support.
If these obstacles are overcome, the longer-term challenge will be to ensure that relations between the two countries progress smoothly and that nationalists on either side do not find a platform to whip up hatred.
Like any diplomatic deal, the one presented by Tsipras and Zaev contains some compromises on both sides. Skopje has apparently accepted that it will have to change the country’s name from Republic of Macedonia to Republic of North Macedonia and that the new one will be used erga omnes, in other words domestically and internationally.
Furthermore, Zaev has agreed to review his country’s constitution and remove references that Athens feels imply territorial claims or cultural appropriation.
This means that based on the position that Greece has had since 2008 on the name issue, a number of boxes have been ticked.
The concessions from the Greek side are that the language in its neighbouring country will continue to be known as Macedonian and that its citizens will be identified as Macedonian (Citizens of the Republic of North Macedonia). This will be a hard one for many Greeks, especially in the north of the country, to swallow.
The Greek government recently became embroiled in a row with leading linguist Giorgos Babiniotis over whether FYROM’s language should be called Macedonian (the academic argues it should be called Slavo-Macedonian at best) and if Athens had ever officially recognised it as such, making the whole debate redundant.
The coalition’s position is that Athens accepted the existence of the Macedonian language at the Third United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names in 1977. The linguist argues that this was not the case.
One of the potential benefits of both countries moving ahead with the agreement is that such debates will become academic rather then part of the national political agenda. In the Greek case, over the last 25 years significant diplomatic capacity has been devoted to the name issue and much goodwill has been expended vis-a-vis its European and international partners, most of whom have recognised Greece’s neighbour as the Republic of Macedonia.
For now, though, everything related to the Macedonia issue will dominate the political debate in Greece. Tsipras will try to hail the agreement as a diplomatic victory which will resonate with left-wing voters and moderates who have been in favour of a solution. New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis will seek to counter this by presenting the agreement as a failure because of the concessions made to Skopje and the lack of effort by the prime minister to create a unified position at home.
These strategies have become clearer over the last few months, as the prospect of an agreement became more likely, and were cemented in the comments made by the two leaders on Tuesday evening.
Tsipras said that his government had reached a “good” agreement with Skopje and underlined that there is an opportunity to settle a matter that has dragged on for decades. The implied message from the Greek prime minister, which was spelled out more clearly by his aides, is that he has succeeded where his predecessors have repeatedly failed.
This is a theme that the SYRIZA leader will stick with throughout the summer, when he will also argue that he led Greece out of the bailouts, back to growth and the markets, and to a debt relief package that previous prime ministers had promised but failed to deliver.
Mitsotakis’s response to the Macedonian issue will also mirror his take on the government’s bailout exit by arguing that Tsipras has failed to deliver. In his initial comments following the announcement of the deal with Skopje on Tuesday, the opposition leader described it as a “bad” deal that involved “unacceptable national concessions” regarding the neighbouring country’s language and the identity of its citizens.
The conservative chief added another element to the debate that is set to rage for months in Greece. He claimed that Tsipras does not have the “democratic legitimacy” to sign the deal as SYRIZA does not have ANEL’s support, which means that there is no parliamentary majority.
Mitsotakis followed this up with a visit to Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos on Wednesday, when he asked the former New Democracy politician, who has mostly a ceremonial role, to intervene so that the agreement is tabled and debated in Parliament before the government officially signs it.
There is a fine line here regarding whether Tsipras can claim to have negotiated on behalf of the Greek government when his coalition partner has made it clear that he will not support the agreement, leaving SYRIZA (which has 145 MPs) with less than the 151-seat majority needed. The prime minister will argue that centrist To Potami (which has six MPs compared to ANEL’s nine) has indicated it will back the agreement so a parliamentary majority exists. Centre-left PASOK has said it will wait to see the final text of the deal before deciding its position.
The diplomatic, political, constitutional and emotional complexities of this issue make a dangerous mix that will trigger some nasty reactions in Greece over the coming weeks. Already, one far-right newspaper has called for Tsipras and Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias to be executed, while New Democracy MP and former prime minister Antonis Samaras has labelled the agreement “an unnecessary and humiliating compromise” and suggested that Pavlopoulos should have stood in Tsipras’s way.
The stakes are high and there is great responsibility on the shoulders of Tsipras and Mitsotakis to ensure that what is a political difference over an, albeit sensitive, national issue does not spiral into something much more explosive and divisive.
Tsipras missed his chance to create at least some basic consensus when he launched this effort several months ago, perhaps hoping that New Democracy would split over the different views within the centre-right party over what an acceptable deal would look like. However, he now appears to have delivered a settlement that would have probably been deemed acceptable by the conservatives when they were in power between 2004 and 2009 under the premiership of Kostas Karamanlis. The current prime minister has a responsibility to highlight the common sense behind the agreement rather than use it as a stick to beat his main political opponent with.
Maturity is also required from Mitsotakis, who has tacitly stoked public fervour over this issue, even suggesting recently that Kotzias was negotiating with FYROM’s interests at heart, rather than Greece’s. New Democracy also provided indirect support for the public rallies on this matter, while failing to clearly and consistently isolate the extreme views that were expressed by some of the participants.
The first signs from New Democracy, which is apparently considering a censure motion against the government, suggests that Mitsotakis has opted for direct confrontation. Perhaps he feels that this is the best way to keep his party united and to pick up the extra votes he needs at the next elections to ensure the conservatives get a clear majority.
It could be, though, that he feels there are genuine weaknesses in the agreement which mean that Greece should not accept it. However, after a quarter of a century of negotiations which failed to result in common ground, there have to be very clear reasons for rejecting the agreement that has been reached. Unsubstantiated references to looming irredentism and promises of a better deal in the future will not suffice. The onus is on Greece’s leaders to be guided by something greater than their party’s interests.