Fighting a rearguard action

These are days of great change in the Balkans. The Kosovar Albanians are breaking away from Serbia. At the same time, the effort to find a name for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia appears to be in its final phase: UN mediator Matthew Nimetz is due here today and he does not appear to be bringing anything that will make Athens happy. If we add the presidential elections in Cyprus, we can say that this week will, to a great extent, determine the future of Greece’s relations with its neighbors but also with distant powers that affect the region, namely the United States and Russia. One year ago, though we barely noticed at the time, the Balkans underwent the greatest single change since the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, with the EU accession of Bulgaria and Romania. In one day, Greece lost an advantage that it had held for decades, when it was the only country in the region that was a member both of NATO and the European Union. Now, without this edge, Greece is called upon to chart a new course in very difficult and unpredictable waters, a course that will determine its future. So far, things look grim. Greece, like Cyprus and a handful of other EU members (most notably Spain) do not agree to the recognition of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence. They fear that the Serbian province’s secession will open the way for other such secessions. But these objections will draw the ire of the United States and other countries that have taken the lead in creating an independent Kosovo. On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin made things a lot more difficult for Greece and Cyprus. Arguing against Kosovo’s independence, he accused the Europeans of hypocrisy in pushing for the Serbian province’s independence by comparing their haste here with the fact that they had done nothing for the Turkish Cypriots who, he said, have been «practically independent for the past 40 years.» Putin may have been trying to stress the absurdity of the US and Europe pushing for the secession of part of one UN member that has been the victim of invasion and occupation while not pushing for the same in another instance, but what he did was underline how difficult it will be for Cyprus to become a single country again. However much Putin may argue that he supports the territorial integrity of both Serbia and Cyprus, his arguments will contribute to a different outcome: as soon as Kosovo is independent, the Turkish Cypriots will renew their campaign for their own independence. What will the international community then say to them, especially after a close friend of Cyprus has highlighted their situation? The winner of the Cypriot elections will have to deal with a world that has become much more difficult since the previous election. Whatever Nicosia decides will affect Athens’s relations with Ankara and, to a great extent, its relations with Washington. As Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis’s recent visit to Turkey showed, relations with our most important neighbor depend on the future of Cyprus. On the Macedonia issue, Greece has been exposed as being woefully incapable of persuading its friends of the rectitude of its positions in order to achieve any success – right from the days when it was the only «Western» country in the Balkans to the present day, when it has no special advantage. When the name dispute began, Athens demanded more than Skopje could agree to. Today, we cannot even secure the compound name that we ourselves once rejected. The United States, Russia and China – along with some 100 other countries – have already recognized our neighbors as the Republic of Macedonia. Now we expect Nimetz to propose a solution that Greece will not be able to accept, thus forcing Athens to veto Skopje’s NATO aspirations. The pressure that Washington will bring on Athens will be unbearable, especially if we consider the argument that is already being heard: Kosovo’s independence is likely to create new turbulence in the Balkans and therefore NATO accession is a necessary bulwark for our small neighbor. On all fronts, Greece is fighting a rearguard action. Its initial plan – total success with the total support of its allies – did not work out. We have not heard about any alternative strategy.