The timing Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras brought to the issue of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia name looks suspiciously like it has been chosen to serve himself and his party, not necessarily for the benefit of Greek people or the national interest.
The problem with the name of the small Balkan country to the north of Greece started in 1991. The Greek administration at the time failed to resolve it from the start, and the issue kept dragging on for years.
Meanwhile, the irredentist behavior of the FYROM government created more problems, as Skopje tried to usurp Greek history to the point that they claimed to be the true ancestors of Alexander the Great, while at the same time they drafted maps that reached all the way to the Aegean.
Over the years, the name ‘Macedonia’ became globally known as the name of that small Balkan country north of Greece. Scattered, feeble efforts by Athens during the 25 years failed to change things, crashing against an irredentist FYROM government that lobbied its cause throughout the world.
However, the new FYROM administration that was elected in late October showed a different, moderate face. Suddenly Skopje appeared willing to compromise on the national heritage issue and sit down with Greece to discuss the differences between the two countries.
The Greek administration, inexperienced in matters of foreign policy, probably did not notice. However, after the visit of the Greek prime minister to Washington to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump, he returned to Athens and a little later raised the issue of the FYROM name.
It is true that FYROM wants to become a NATO member and join the European Union, and the interest is mutual. Greece’s refusal to accept the name of ‘Macedonia’ for FYROM blocks accession to both. So it is likely that the Greek prime minister was advised by the U.S. president to resolve the issue of the FYROM name as soon as possible so that accession procedures commence.
Furthermore, in a recent meeting with Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris, U.S. Ambassador to Athens Geoffrey Pyatt expressed the view that now is an ideal time to tackle the thorny issue and resolve the FYROM name problem.
So it is obvious that Greece’s NATO ally wants a solution; a composite name that includes the word ‘Macedonia’. After all, United Nations mediator Matthew Nimetz stated that, for 25 years, nations have used the name ‘Macedonia’ for the Balkan country and that cannot change now.
It was a great opportunity for Tsipras to reap multiple benefits from the FYROM name issue.
First, he would divert attention from the harsh austerity measures he imposed on the Greek people since Jan. 1.
Second, he would damage main opposition New Democracy by grouping them with the “nationalists” and “right-wing extremists” who oppose the use of the word Macedonia in the name.
Third, he would separate his party views from those of his Independent Greeks junior coalition partners who also oppose the use of ‘Macedonia’ in the name, thus appeasing his leftist voters.
Fourth, he can claim that he achieved a foreign policy triumph by resolving an issue that several administrations before him could not.
Fifth, he would divert attention from Turkey’s continuous territorial claims in the Aegean.
As of Jan. 1, Greeks face a new tsunami of taxes and security contributions along with other unpopular measures such as confiscations of their property for debts to the state and so on. Diverting their attention to the national issue of the FYROM name is important for the administration that is criticized for not being true to its pledges to end austerity.
The name issue and the huge rally in Thessaloniki were used by Tsipras to launch a continuous attack against the main opposition and leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis. New Democracy is leading steadily in polls, often reaching double-digit differences. By branding the New Democracy lawmakers who participated in the rally as extreme rightists who severed ties with the political center, SYRIZA is trying to deal a blow to the conservative party. At the same time they accuse the conservative party of harboring nationalist tendencies which try to sabotage a “national effort”.
Regarding the Independent Greeks and its chief Panos Kammenos, who declared that they oppose the use of the word ‘Macedonia’ in the name, Tsipras does not seem worried. There are lawmakers from other parties who will vote in favor of the name chosen, so his majority in parliament is not threatened.
At the same time he would send his leftist constituents the message that he maintains his ideological opposition to the right-wing views of his junior coalition partner.
Defeat is victory
With his clever propaganda tactics, Tsipras can claim that a defeat is actually a victory. For instance, when he signed the bailout agreement full of harsh austerity measures in 2015, he claimed that it was a victory because any other government would have signed for an even harsher program.
In the case of FYROM, he will claim that he succeeded where several administrations in 26 years failed regardless of the fact that — as polls show — 68 percent of Greeks oppose the use of the word ‘Macedonia’ in the name of the Greece’s northern neighbor.
Greek government officials are already celebrating the fact that FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said he will rename the Skopje airport – Alexander the Great – and several streets of the country’s capital plus a major highway.
Finally, as Ankara presses Athens to extradite the eight former Turkish servicemen who sought asylum in Greece after the 2016 coup, and continuously violates Greece’s borders in the Aegean, people’s attention is on the north, to that little Balkan country that claims Alexander the Great as its own.
So the indications are that the name for Greece’s neighbor will definitely include ‘Macedonia’ and it has already been decided by powers higher than the governments of the two countries. So the negotiations between Tsipras and Zaev seem to be mainly for show.
(With English subtitles)