The government crisis that erupted over a minister’s use of the name “Macedonia” for Greece’s northern neighbor was entirely predictable and is a clear symptom of our national inability to solve problems, preferring to procrastinate, to improvise and to be sloppy. We are trapped in an eternal dead-end: We demand the greatest gains without cost, without strategy, without making an effort. In the case in question, the unsolved issue of our neighbor’s name, and the superficial way in which Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras agreed to form a coalition with Panos Kammenos and his nationalist Independent Greeks have brought us to a point which would be funny if it were not sad and dangerous.
The negotiations with Skopje on a final name for “the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” have been going on for 26 years, since Yugoslavia began to fall apart. Now this fossil of a name, this echo of a lost country, is met only in Greece and in the official documents of international organizations. Everyone else has been speaking of “Macedonia” for years. Although Greece has many reasons to oppose its neighbor’s use of the name, the truth is its use has become entrenched. Even though the battle may be lost, many still demand total victory. As in many other issues, this precludes the possibility of compromise and results in the problem festering. This mentality is dominant on the other side of the border as well. Both countries pay the price of not compromising: one because the name issue bars it from joining NATO and the EU, the other because the distance between desire and reality leads to confusion and to the fear of defeat, which is then expressed in bursts of patriotism.
SYRIZA was not one of the political forces which determined themselves on the basis of patriotism. In its march to power, however, it kept its positions on such issues quiet, knowing that they were out of synch with the majority of voters. It hid its true nature so well that it hid it from itself, too. And so, Tsipras was able to reach agreement on a coalition with Kammenos within a few hours after the January elections last year. In other countries, coalition governments may be formed after months of negotiations and compromise, to anticipate problems and reach political consensus. In Greece, at the most crucial time for its economic recovery, a grouping of radical leftist movements rushed to sign an agreement with a party that is the political vehicle of its right-wing leader – their only common ground being their virulent opposition to the bailout agreement with its austerity and reform. On social issues, such as civil partnerships for same-sex couples, SYRIZA had to rely on the support of opposition parties. On the “Macedonia” issue, in the midst of the refugee crisis, Kammenos’s knee-jerk reaction was to demand the dismissal of the (repentant) sinner, the minister for migration policy.
The prime minister, however, seems disinclined to further alienate the core of his party by giving in to Kammenos’s demand. The latter, too, seems unwilling to deprive the nation of his services as defense minister. We can expect a rewarming of the odd couple’s passion, in yet another pantomime of cooperation instead of credible policy.