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North Macedonia and the uncertain future of Syriza

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize over the improvement of Greek-North Macedonian relations following the latter’s name change. But what if the Greek population is not as impressed as the rest of the international community?

May 9, 2019 - Michael Goodyear - Articles and Commentary

Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras with his North Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev during the historic visit in Skopje in early April 2019. Photo: Government of the Republic of Northern Macedonia (cc) flickr.com

Greece’s prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, survived austerity and the Greek debt crisis. His reputation was even boosted following the clashes with the troika of financiers that nearly led to a Grexit. But now an act that has gotten Tsipras nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize is again placing him under fire. The Prespes Agreement (also known as the Prespa Agreement), which recognised Macedonia under the title of North Macedonia and put to rest a bitter nearly 30-year-long name dispute between the two countries, has led to an intense backlash from the Greek populace despite its economic and political benefits for Greece.

Background to Prespes

Greece and the country now known as North Macedonia had been bitter rivals since the latter country achieved independence in the early 1990s under the name Macedonia. A northern province of Greece is also called Macedonia (as, famously, was the country of Alexander the Great) and Greece saw in the name Macedonia a territorial and cultural claim on Greek land. Greece, outraged by this behavior, insisted on Macedonia being called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in international organisations such as the United Nations.

At times this conflict took the form of a name-claim war, with Greece renaming Thessaloniki airport “Macedonia International Airport” and Macedonia in response naming Skopje airport “Alexander the Great International Airport.” Similarly, Greece prominently added Alexander the Great to its then currency, the drachma, and cheered when the tomb of Alexander’s father, Philip II, was found at Vergina in Greece.

But in Greece and Macedonia, it was also a serious matter of reputation and national prestige. In Athens, riots broke out repeatedly in protest of the agreement negotiations. On the other hand, Greece had prevented Macedonia from joining European and international bodies such as NATO and the European Union, keeping it economically isolated.

The current prime ministers of both countries, Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev, began discussing a mutual agreement a year ago. The two young leaders have an amicable relationship and managed to mobilise their countries to come to the table and ultimately hash out an agreement to end the acrimonious dispute over Macedonia’s name.

Under the resulting Prespes Agreement, which has now been approved by the parliaments of both Macedonia and Greece, Macedonia’s name is officially changed to North Macedonia and in return Greece will stop blocking Macedonia’s attempts to enter NATO and the EU.

Benefits of the agreement

The agreement gets a compromise for Greece despite the fact that most of the world ignored Greece’s insistence on the name FYROM. As Tsipras pointed out, the vast majority of the world already called it Macedonia instead of FYROM anyway. On paper the Prespes Agreement seemed like an efficient deal that buried a bloody 28-year-old hatchet.

The international community appeared to agree. The United States was the first to praise the agreement for peacefully resolving the name dispute. Congratulations then came from France and Germany. The agreement has raised the international reputations of both Tsipras and Zaev, including calls for the two leaders to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

This also opens up opportunities for economic cooperation between the two countries. Zaev claims that trade with Greece is up 20 per cent since the agreement was ratified by Greece in January. The deal also opens the path for Greek investments in North Macedonia. In his recent visit to North Macedonia, Tsipras brought two-dozen Greek business leaders to explore how the deal can be best leveraged to benefit from increased economic ties.

Perhaps most important from the Greek standpoint, the Prespes Agreement removes an enemy and gives Greece a friend at just the right time. Turkish aggression towards Greece has been steadily growing. Turkey has long flirted with North Macedonia and, due to the name dispute with Greece, had largely succeeded in keeping it close. Because Greece and Turkey are both members of NATO, the resolution of any conflict by this alliance would be uncertain. By building a new alliance in the Balkans, Greece can focus its attentions on any dangerous moves from Turkey and shore up its position.

Backlash at home

But significant parts of the Greek populace rejected the potential benefits of the Prespes Agreement. Upwards of 60,000 participated in protests in Athens. At the end of March, Thessaloniki, the second-largest Greek city and the capital of the province of Macedonia, greeted Tsipras with cries of “traitor” and “Macedonia is Greek”.

Back in January, resistance to the Prespes Agreement severely undermined Tsipras’ grip on power. Syriza had ruled Greece for four years, but in a coalition with the small Independent Greek party ANEL. ANEL left the coalition due to differences with Tsipras over the Prespes Agreement. ANEL is a Greek nationalist party, so although its members of parliament have split over supporting the deal, it officially sees the Prespes Agreement as anathema to Greece.

Since ANEL left the coalition, Syriza no longer had a majority in the Greek parliament, which forced a vote of confidence back in January. On January 16th Tsipras barely survived the vote, winning 151 to 148. And on January 25th the Greek parliament voted to ratify the Prespes Agreement with 153 votes against 146.

Seeping danger

Under the Greek constitution, elections have to be called by October 2019. These elections will not only decide the fate of Tsipras and Syriza, but also the future of Greece. The Greek opposition party, New Democracy, saw blood in the water and has ripped into Syriza over the Prespes Agreement, accusing the government of “betraying” the Greek people. Syriza’s announcement of planning to distribute 658 million euros in benefits showed a desperate move to stave off further loss of popularity in the polls.

The next test will be the elections for the European Parliament at the end of May. Further promises of benefits demonstrate the danger Tsipras faces at the polls. Political pundits calculate that Syriza may even be behind New Democracy by a double-digit margin. Yet despite the damage the Prespes Agreement has done to his prestige, Tsipras has doubled down on his commitment to the agreement and improved relations with North Macedonia. In January Tsipras proclaimed the Prespes Agreement one of the “most important” achievements of Syriza.

The outcome of the European Parliament elections will almost certainly influence when Tsipras calls the Greek national elections. He declined to have them at the same time as the European Parliament ones, likely using them as a test run before betting his administration.

Looking back, looking forward

Tsipras entered the political scene as a radical, but he has become one of the most iconic and stable leaders in the EU. Although Greece will not pay off its debt until 2059, Tsipras managed to stabilise the situation and restore Greece’s position among the international community. He expertly played the creditors and the EU to achieve respect in a hopeless situation.

The Prespes Agreement papers over a long-standing historical enmity at just the right time and removes an acrimonious rivalry from the equation. Is perpetuating the name dispute really worth removing Tsipras, one of Greece’s most stable leaders in recent history?

Michael Goodyear is a JD candidate at the University of Michigan Law School. He has a BA in History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, where he studied Greek history. He has been published in a variety of academic and general-interest publications, including Le Monde diplomatiqueSubaltern States and the Michigan Journal of International Law.

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