Letter from Thessaloniki

We spoke to Alec Mally, a former consul general, on the occasion of the clamorous change of administration in Washington. Mr Mally, you served at the American Embassy in Athens, the Consulate General here in Thessaloniki and at the Greece desk in Washington. How do you see the current state of US-Greece multifaceted relations? As an American citizen and former diplomat, resident in Greece for most of 2008, I have been saddened to see the outgoing administration steadily vaporize almost all my work aimed at improving bilateral relations when I served as a diplomat here in Athens and Thessaloniki over the last decade or when I managed the Greece Desk at the State Department. I do not want to be too cynical but it seems the term «improving bilateral relations» was reserved for countries that materially supported the Iraq war effort. In view of the global financial crisis, what should Washington do to expand bilateral economic and commercial ties? It may sound like a throwback to the times when Ambassador Nicholas Burns or Charles Ries were here in Athens, but more than ever the economic component of the US-EU transatlantic relationship is being stretched and needs major revitalization. I am sorry to see that the economic and commercial element of the US-Greece relationship tends to be downgraded when other political agendas predominate, or when Athens declared that it preferred to make its own decisions regarding its energy sources, without Washington’s counsel. To be fair, the investment climate and legal environment for business in Greece can be improved, and this is happening slowly, but Greece’s strategic location and strong human capital base cannot be ignored. Washington seems distracted from the need to show the flag at important trade shows and commercial events, unless military items are the key draw, such as the biannual Defendory Exhibition, where our commercial presence still inspires awe. It used to be said that we are natural partners in the Balkans. Our alliance has become split wide over this issue. How can that be repaired? Athens’s disagreements with Washington over the name dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) are simply distractions from the real work both countries must coordinate in order to stabilize the Balkan region. The global financial crisis – which is barely apparent at this time in Southeastern Europe but will certainly get worse – only underscores this common interest. So, how to move ahead now? We need a sharp change of direction on the name dispute. The incoming administration needs to step back and disengage, thus signaling to Skopje that its intransigence will yield no profit and that arbitration in Washington is no longer possible. A new administration will not owe Skopje any form of gratitude for its troop contribution to the war effort in Iraq, and should quietly signal the opposite. Athens may also decide that now is the right time to replace Matthew Nimetz as UN mediator to put a fresh start to negotiations, as he has locked discussions exclusively into «dual name» formulations that might not ultimately clear parliament or satisfy the opposition. I should add here that changing mediators is no guarantee of success, look at Cyprus. Faced with no «back channel» to pressure Athens for concessions through the Bush White House, as has been the operating directive for years now, Skopje will ultimately make the right choice. It will do as it must: abandon ultranationalism and its recent small-scale irredentism for a cooperative relationship that Greece clearly desires and that benefits both sides. We are in a situation where nobody listens to anybody. Is there any possible solution? Sure. Another important idea: Washington should also carefully consider steps to reverse President Bush’s controversial and secretive 2004 post re-election diplomatic recognition of the «Republic of Macedonia,» by its «constitutional name,» by declaring forcefully that Washington now seeks a mutually agreed arrangement on the name and will be governed by it in bilateral relations. Strong pressure from Democratic representatives in the US Congress to move in this direction makes this outcome a real possibility. The impact of such a «rollback» gesture (or the threat of one) on the name negotiations should not be underestimated. On the question of recognizing Kosovo’s independence, both Athens and Washington have disagreed for some time. Is any solution in sight? I believe that eventually accommodation will be found, perhaps after Serbia’s entry into the EU and NATO moves ahead. Washington should consider one other important Greek desire: admission to the so-called «Contact Group» which has handled key Balkan security decisions for over a decade now, with Greece visibly excluded. Unless there is another crisis, the Contact Group’s main body of work is winding down. Washington has always opposed Greece’s entry, although it is not the only Contact Group member to do so. Some people like their clubs small. We need to thoroughly examine the reasoning for our hard line. What about Cyprus and issues in the Aegean? We are fortunate that tensions between Greece and Turkey remain at a low level, thanks largely to the last decade’s gradual normalization of bilateral ties. This calm is pierced occasionally by the now-routine Turkish exercises over the Aegean, but neither side is currently seeking to exploit this to increase tension. In the 1990s, as we all recall, the environment was substantially worse; I remember many mornings on the Greece Desk ferociously negotiating the wording of our official departmental «press guidance» with our people in Athens and Ankara regarding the latest Aegean aerial activities. Some in Washington still blame Greece for not pushing the Annan Plan ahead with more energetic diplomacy in 2004, but these officials will soon be gone. Since then, diplomatic developments in Cyprus have lurched slowly ahead and most observers see the potential for continued progress. The incoming team might consider upgrading US diplomatic efforts to help improve settlement prospects. Under the Bush administration, the US government’s «special coordinator» and «presidential emissary» for Cyprus quietly disappeared. Admittedly these were expensive and high-maintenance diplomatic operations, but the incoming team should review the concept and consider establishing a new office/unit to get all parties closer to the finish line on a Cyprus solution, if the Cypriot authorities consider this step helpful. Without close coordination on Cyprus with the European Union and the UN, as had been the case in the 1990s, isolated US efforts can not deliver much. What role do you see for the US Consulate General in Thessaloniki? Unfortunately the American Consulate General in Thessaloniki, which I headed some years back, continues to wither. Staff cuts are quietly made when employees retire, and the American staffing pattern has been trimmed under a «global repositioning» exercise which now redeploys more senior officers to the developing world (and of course Iraq/Afghanistan). The basic policy question remains: How to best utilize the Consulate General in Thessaloniki? We are losing out on real commercial opportunities and cultural programming, while also thinning out consular support services for Americans in the north to the bare minimum. We should not forget that several important regional institutions are based in Thessaloniki and these liaison relationships remain important for regional stability. American educational institutions based there also need our support. Excessive focus on alleged «human rights» issues in Macedonia and Thrace makes a few lower- and middle-level bureaucrats in Washington feel like real achievers, thoroughly upsets our Greek hosts and keeps some journalists entertained, but otherwise has achieved little in concrete terms. With minimal additional resources and a careful review of current policy priorities, we can and should refocus and even slightly augment our operations in Thessaloniki.