OPINION: ‘Macedonia’ Issue is a Smokescreen for New Greek Austerity



Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (R) with his FYROM counterpart Zoran Zaev.

The fact that the Greek government opened the controversial issue of the naming of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) at a time when creditors were pressuring Athens to implement reforms was suspicious from day one.

Athens had agreed with creditors a series of harsh austerity measures to close the third review of the bailout program — and now the fourth and final — and it was time they were implemented.

From the beginning of the year, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his cabinet were boasting that the time of bailout programs — the hated “memoranda” — was approaching the end. By Aug. 21, Greece was coming out of eight dark years, Tsipras promised, claiming that the end of the program was a victory of his administration.

However, the end of the “memoranda” will be accompanied by more pension cuts in 1 Jan. 2019, lowering of the tax-free income threshold by the same date, the pawning of state assets to the new Hyper-Fund that will be essentially controlled by creditors until Greece’s debts are repaid, more unpopular privatizations, and higher property taxes (ENFIA) — a tax that SYRIZA had promised to abolish in its glorious pre-election pledges.

The omnibus bill that has been submitted to parliament for vote on Thursday includes all these unpopular requirements. On Monday, even SYRIZA lawmaker Nikos Filis criticized the multi-bill, saying: “Austerity is continuing, we have reductions in pensions and wages through the reduction of the tax-free income threshold. There are countermeasures that concern others, not those who lose money from their pension and the tax-free income.”

Despite efforts of Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos and the rest of the government to speak of social spending and countermeasures after the fiscal targets are met, Greek citizens are not convinced that their hardships will be over after August. And this shows in opinion polls, where the ruling party gets consistently around 20 percent of potential votes.

So, the FYROM naming issue was a good ploy to divert public attention away from cruel economic reality. Suddenly retirees who saw their pensions ruthlessly slashed took to the streets to complain against the use of ‘Macedonia’ by Skopje.

People who had lost their jobs or saw their incomes eaten away by a vicious tax system joined the parades against the selling-out of Macedonia. The focus moved away from their everyday economic woes and was directed to Greece’s northern Balkan neighbor.

On Monday, less than three days from the ratification of the bill that will keep the Greek economy hostage, Tsipras had a critical conversation with his Skopje counterpart Zoran Zaev on the telephone. The prime minister’s office announced that the two men would speak again on Tuesday. Inevitably, the word ‘Macedonia’ will be in the country’s name.

On Thursday, the omnibus bill will pass in parliament while the Greeks will be raging about the sell-out of Macedonia. Mission accomplished.

Opposition

The added bonus of the FYROM name smokescreen is that Tsipras also uses it to hurt New Democracy. The newest ‘revelation’ that the 1977 New Democracy administration “had accepted that there is a Macedonian language”, through some dubious documents presented by the government-friendly press, is a new argument against the conservative party.

Even though renowned linguist Georgios Babiniotis had said in 1977 that the so-called Macedonian language is essentially Bulgarian speech and that it was recognized as “Macedonian” spoken in a part of the then Yugoslavia. The Tsipras-friendly media insist that New Democracy at the time had accepted that there was indeed a ‘Macedonian language’.

The fact that the main opposition has not proposed a name has been seized upon by SYRIZA as an argument that party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis is afraid to take a strong position on the issue.

Whether the Macedonia issue will prove to be a boomerang for the Tsipras administration remains to be seen. After all, since he took office the prime minister acts as if he is buying time on all major issues. He wants to complete his four-year term at all costs.

The FYROM naming issue is definitely a gamble for him but it bought him a few more months in the seat. And whatever the outcome of the Skopje name negotiations, it is certain that he will try to sell it as another victory of his administration.