All eyes in Europe have been on the men in charge of Greece’s finances but this has obscured the extent to which the country is now emerging as a serious foreign policy player under the energetic leadership of Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias.
The German-speaking Kotzias, who has translated Europe’s leading political philosopher, Juergen Habermas, together with his No 2 Sia Anagnostopoulou, educated in France, are Europe’s most European foreign ministry team.
Greece’s foreign policy is condemned to be European. Unlike the Baltic and former Central European communist states whose ministers are forever lecturing Greeks on the need to follow the example of their austerity policies, Greece has no powerful, rich, friendly European Union neighbors like Germany or the Nordic states who have helped develop the post-Soviet states into successful growing market economies.
Greece is isolated from the rest of Europe by the non-EU region of the Western Balkans from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to Slovenia. Bulgaria is Greece’s only EU neighbor but the choke point region of the Western Balkans cuts Greece off from direct business and people-to-people contact with the EU.
Nor do these EU states further north face the irredentist claims on Greece’s territorial integrity or relentless provocation of a regional power. Western defense experts rightly pay a lot of attention to Russian warplanes flying close to EU borders. The Royal Air Force and other EU airplanes have deployed to the Baltic states to show solidarity against Putin’s relentless probing of Northern Europe’s air defenses.
Yet the Russian planes rarely cross international borders, unlike the more than 2,000 incursions by Turkish warplanes into Greek air space in the past 12 months. The almost total focus on Greek economic and internal politics means that the permanent challenge Greece faces from Turkey’s very powerful military gets little attention.
Kotzias was one of the intellectual architects of the Greek-Turkey rapprochement 15 years ago which allowed Turkey to profile itself as a serious future EU partner, indeed member. The turn to nationalism, religious populism and internal authoritarianism of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken the shine off Turkey’s European opening but Greece is wise to maintain a broad pro-Turkey policy.
Kotzias has been remarkably energetic, visiting all but one of the eight Western Balkan states, including the first visit to FYROM by a Greek foreign minister in 11 years. The identity theft of the name Macedonia and the comic notion that Alexander the Great was a Slav-Albanian hero causes puzzlement in Northern European capitals and Brussels, but Kotzias is right to open a dialogue.
As he correctly says, “Greece, despite its weakness in the economic sector, remains the country with the greatest potential in the Balkans. Greece is returning to the Western Balkans.”
Kotzias can play a pivotal role if, like Alexander, he is prepared to cut some Gordian knots. The one that would have the most impact internationally would be if Greece could join France, Italy, Britain and other main EU nations and recognize Kosovo. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been very tough with Belgrade over its obsession with pretending that Kosovo will one day return to the Serb fatherland. One can only imagine the expression on her or German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble’s face if they opened their Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitungs and read an article by Kotzias saying Greece’s refusal to recognize Kosovo would end.
It would be the best foreign policy present Merkel could have as she celebrates her 10th anniversary as chancellor. Good foreign policy is about movement, taking conventional thinking and standing it on its head, as Kotzias did with George Papandreou on Turkey.
Twenty years after 1945, Western Europe was back on its feet. Twenty years after Srebrenica and 15 years since the brutal Kosovan war of liberation ended, the Western Balkans remains mired in past hates, and blocked mentalities.
Can Greece be the driving force for bringing the Western Balkans into Europe? The previous governments in Athens were locked in old thinking. Greece shares with the EU a need to move the Western Balkans out of its old hates and desire for revenge for the disasters of the 1990s which still prevail today. Can Kotzias get the Greek Foreign Ministry and its highly rated diplomats to start adding value to Greece at a crucial time in the nation’s history? A modest start which would win plaudits from Washington to Tokyo as well as Brussels and Berlin would be for Greece to normalize relations with Kosovo and urge a new deal for the Balkans aimed at creating a European future for the region.
* Denis MacShane is a former minister for Europe in the UK government and is a specialist in the Balkans.