It is difficult to know whether Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias’s resignation in itself will greatly affect Greece’s foreign policy; what is certain is that the departure of a prominent left-wing member of SYRIZA so that the marriage of convenience with Panos Kammenos can continue unimpeded will make domestic politics much more complicated for the prime minister. This will, in turn, create added problems in the exercise of foreign policy.
Alexis Tsipras has made it a personal wager that the Prespes agreement will be ratified and he is expected to focus his energy on that, as Kotzias had done. To a great extent, though, the issue is not entirely in the prime minister’s hands. The agreement’s fate depends, on the one hand, on political developments in Skopje following last Friday’s vote (which cleared the first hurdle for eventual ratification there), and, on the other, on whether enough members of Greece’s opposition parties feel the need to support its ratification. The way that Tsipras handled the issue from the time that it appeared an agreement with Skopje would be reached showed that he was not interested in forging alliances that would have supported the deal. Instead, he appeared to use the Macedonia issue as a wedge aimed at splitting the opposition parties. Now, as the fate of the deal lies in the hands of others, the prime minister could be forced to pay the price of this recklessness.
In foreign policy, the absence of Kotzias will be apparent mainly because of his powerful personality and personal strategies that often ignored his ministry’s diplomats and technical experts. There might be fewer ambitious initiatives but we may see a restoration of the ministry’s institutional functions in the service of the new minister, who is the prime minister himself. This would be a positive development.
The Prespes agreement, however, is not the only issue that needs attention. Developments in the region are rapid and the problems complicated and often interlocking. Among these: the dynamic return of the United States after years of near absence, which follows the rising influence of Russia and Moscow’s decisive intervention in Syria; the Cyprus problem with all the ramifications arising from the possible discovery of exploitable hydrocarbon reserves in the island’s exclusive economic zone; negotiations with Albania and, separately, Egypt on their EEZ delineation with Greece; the trilateral initiatives that Greece and Cyprus have undertaken with Israel and Egypt. Turkey’s aggression will most likely increase with the hydrocarbon exploration around Cyprus and over Turkey’s challenges to Greek and Cypriot rights. Migration flows (and the negligence in managing the issue of the immigrants and refugees who are already here) will also demand constant attention.
Foreign Minister Alexis Tsipras is called on to marshal knowledge and determination in a situation that is continually changing under the influence of forces that Greece cannot control. It is fortunate that after the nonsense of early 2015, Greece’s alignment with the United States and the European Union is unquestioned. These frameworks may have kept our country in the eurozone, but conditions demand continued wakefulness and flexibility.
Whether Kotzias stayed at the Foreign Ministry or not, it is clear that the government which has relied on a cynical deal with Kammenos cannot overcome the limits of this cohabitation. As long as Tsipras bases his power on Kammenos’s desires, demands and explosions, the more he will try to overcompensate by showing off his “leftist” credentials to his left-wing critics. These may mean even greater tolerance of anti-establishment attacks on the state and society and greater undermining of the education system. Despite the cost to society, which is already great, Tsipras will find himself having to fulfill the ever-greater demands of both Kammenos and anti-establishment groups. He will also have to deal with Kotzias’s heavy shadow. These problems will compound the government’s dysfunction in politics, in the economy and in society. This knot will be cut only by elections.