Can Skopje bring Greek polls?

By George Gilson

The government denies reports that it will use a national issue to hold snap elections, but Karamanlis blasts Skopje's 'intransigence' and 'irredentist propaganda'

FOR 15 years, Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom) have locked horns over Fyrom's insistence on calling itself Macedonia, the name of Greece's northern Greek province that was home to the Macedonian dynasty, which gave us Alexander the Great. But never had anyone dreamt of making the dispute a cause for early elections - until now.

Barely had Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis set foot in New Zealand and Australia when he was confronted with a spate of Sunday press reports on May 20, suggesting that he would call early elections on account of Fyrom's name. The similar reports - which many say are the result of a single government leak - indicated that US President George W Bush will use a June 10 visit to Albania to express support for Fyrom's admission to Nato with its constitutional name: Republic of Macedonia.

Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis - who is accompanying the PM - scampered to assure reporters that Karamanlis will not use such a national issue as a pretext for early polls. But the prime minister himself gave substance to the reports by issuing stern, long­distance warnings to Skopje.

"Our position on this issue is crystal clear. Our aim is to find a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue through the UN process. We have proven our constructive stance and done what we must. The government of Skopje must abandon its intransigence, which belongs to the past, and turn to a European future. It must abandon acts of propagandistic, irredentist behaviour towards a member-state of the EU and Nato," Karamanlis declared from New Zealand.

Australian World War II veteran Stan McDonald (R) has his medals
adjusted by his wife Mary before receiving a medal from Greece's
Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis for his participation in the Battle
of Crete during a rememberance ceremony at the Australian Hellenic
Memorial in Canberra on May 23

Less than impressed, Fyrom Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski responded with a touch of condescension that Karamanlis' warnings stem from the fact that Greece is in an electoral period.

Rice letter on Nato bid

Fyrom's hardline stance was bolstered by a letter from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to her Fyrom counterpart Antonio Milososki a few weeks ago. In it, Rice expressed support for Fyrom's admission to Nato, even if finding a compromise with Greece on its name proves impossible.

But under the US-brokered 1995 interim agreement between Fyrom and Greece on the name issue, Athens - in the absence of an agreement - can insist that Fyrom's entry in international organisations like Nato only occur under the name "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia".

High-level Greek diplomatic sources familiar with the name dispute tell the Athens News that there is nothing new from the American side other than Washington's longstanding determination to admit Fyrom, Albania and Croatia into Nato. Indeed, the Greek foreign ministry does not expect Bush to take a stand over the Fyrom name issue while in Tirana, especially since Skopje has not met other, more serious reforms required for Nato admission.

Greece favours a deal based on a composite name for Fyrom that would make clear that Skopje does not lay claim to the entire geographic area of Macedonia, which includes a large part of northern Greece. Hence, Athens was receptive to UN mediator Matthew Nimetz's second to last proposal of the name "Republika Makedonija ­Skopje", which placed the country's capital as a suffix to specify its geographic location.

"Greece is ready to accept a name that will represent that country inside its borders [and not just in relations with Greece], without monopolising the name of an entire region in which three more countries exercise sovereignty," a high-level Greek diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Athens News.

"There's no doubt that there will be no Greek government that will shoot itself in the foot, or rather in the head. What Greek government will send parliament a treaty and ask it to ratify the entry of 'Macedonia' in Nato.? Even if the government wanted to commit political suicide, parliament would not ratify it," the diplomat said.

The Kosovo issue

At the same time, Greece must also grapple with the Balkan issue of Kosovo's final status. Here, Athens is attempting a difficult balance between its declared opposition to border changes and its qualified acceptance of UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari's plan for supervised independence.

"Greece has consistently said that the Ahtisaari plan is a very useful basis. But we also say that once it cannot be tolerated by one side [Serbia], we must find something more to make it enforceable. It must be enforced in stages, gradually. To give them a glass and ask them to drink all the water right away is not the best solution," the diplomat noted.

While Greek diplomacy still objects in principle to border changes, it supports a good UN Security Council resolution that could implement the Ahtisaari plan effectively, with the acquiescence of both sides. "Clearly, [border change] is a dangerous principle and that is why many Security Council members have second thoughts. The issue will be delayed, and the Security Council decision will not be easy or quick. Everyone expected a solution by the end of May, which now seems quite doubtful," the same diplomat said.

One of the advantages that Greek diplomacy sees in the Ahtisaari plan is that it blocks Kosovo from being annexed to any regional country. In this sense it is a bar - at least nominally - to the prospect of a Greater Albania, but at the same time satisfies Albanian nationalism in Kosovo. This is of especial import for Fyrom, where the large Albanian minority in the past has shown breakaway tendencies, especially during the armed Albanian uprising in 2002.

One of the basic tenets of Greek Balkan diplomacy is that Serbia must be given a much clearer European perspective, an outlook that seems a distant dream for most Serbs today.

Greece believes that the EU has delayed greatly in standing by Serbia in its quest for membership.

Greek diplomats insist that Athens' support for Serbia's EU course is not a carrot for Belgrade to stomach Kosovo independence. "We support it because Serbia is a large Balkan country, without which security in the region is inconceivable. You could hypothetically solve the Kosovo problem. But if Serbia is isolated and continues to be a black hole of internal disability and isolationism, then we have accomplished nothing," the diplomat concluded.

(Posting Date 30 May 2007)

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