Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias last week laid out the government’s intentions regarding the name dispute with Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). He also argued why a national wound which has been festering for a good 26 years must be healed by the end of next year.
“I believe this issue must be settled within the first half of 2018,” Kotzias said. “If it’s not, there will be major difficulties. If it gets resolved, it will then be a matter of three to four months of bureaucracy at the United Nations. As a result, it should wrap up by the end of 2018. If we do not manage [to reach a settlement] by the end of 2018, 2019 starts off with presidential elections in the neighboring country and then, in the summer of 2019, it will be our turn to hold an election. It would not be a good year to deal with issues of this nature because we shall be in the middle of election campaigning, whereas such issues must be dealt with in a calm atmosphere.”
I cannot remember any other Greek foreign minister, or any government for that matter, heralding the settlement of a national issue which is so complex and delicate in terms of local politics, and going so far as to outline a time frame. Sure, Kotzias is better informed following his contacts with the new government in Skopje and, most importantly, following Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s trip to the United States. The fact is that more favorable conditions are in place for reaching a mutually acceptable solution: Nikola Gruevski, a nationalist populist, is no longer a key player; the country’s new prime minister, Zoran Zaev, seems more pragmatic and flexible; the pressure from ethnic Albanians is growing; and NATO and the European Union are keen to get Skopje under their umbrella – also due to the threat of Russian influence in the Balkans. So the signs from outside are good and, reasonably thinking, we should not waste yet another opportunity. At home, however, it is not certain that conditions are ripe for a compromise that will entail pain for both sides.
There should be no delusions that Greece can achieve a take-all deal. I really hope that Kotzias will be able to strike an agreement, but I think he disregards the political implications for the government, SYRIZA and the other parties that will be expected to back the deal. I also fear that hardly any MPs from Macedonia or Thrace will offer support. Coalition partner Panos Kammenos has already fired his first warning shots.