Friday, June 21, 2024
 
 

Zelensky Athens visit eclipses Mitsotakis’ informal Western Balkans Summit

Athens Summit coincided with major fire emergency in northern Greece

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Receiving a full house of Western Balkan leaders, as well as several EU luminaries, in Athens on an evening when much of northern Greece was desperately battling a fire emergency that had already claimed 18 lives, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis hosted a protocol-focused event to mark the 20th anniversary of “The Thessaloniki Declaration,” which the EU had intended as a verbal framework to open the European perspective for Western Balkan countries, most of whom are still clamoring to join.

Two decades on, the question still remains as to whether they will ever manage to qualify.

The only important developments from the August 21 dinner relate to the not-quite-surprise attendance of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was already touring Europe, and whose arrival at the last minute provided Mitsotakis the opportunity to raise the visibility of his otherwise forgettable gathering by at least one notch. In fact, many have characterized the Zelensky visit as the only element that prevented the entire Athens event from being seen globally as yet another example of Greek political grandstanding and regional isolation.

Other than providing a bit of work for Athens-based foreign correspondents to cover Mitsotakis’ extremely vague promises of aid for Ukraine, and getting a few Balkan journalists off the beaches, the event generated few “deliverables” for any of Greece’s northwestern neighbors.  There was certainly no indication of any kind of Greek economic assistance to the Western Balkan region, just talk of political support, which of course is almost free.

Public opinion in Greece, meanwhile, focused on the unfortunate timing of this diplomatic gala as it coincided with major fires burning in Thrace and the Evros region near the strategic port city of Alexandroupolis, where some government facilities had to be evacuated that same night.  Greek cyberspace was accordingly filled with memes of Mitsotakis fiddling while Rome burned, and the talk shows repeated their July focus by asking what, other than summer vacations, was keeping Mitsotakis from the important task of reforming the Greek state, in this case upgrading the country’s fire service to a minimally acceptable standard and hiring the previously promised new recruits.

To make matters worse, during the day of August 22, before a number of Mitsotakis visitors could depart, a new set of fires had started on Athens’ outskirts, threatening heavy population centers.

Mitsotakis meets with Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic (2-L).

Aid for Ukraine

The major news from the Athens dinner/event was both non-Balkan and largely non-EU related. In a joint press event with Zelensky, Mitostakis announced three areas where Greece intended to assist Ukraine:

Greece will join a coalition of 11 NATO members in training Ukrainian F-16 pilots, most likely in Romania and Denmark, although Greece itself possesses adequate training facilities.  No further details were provided.  The first operational F-16 planes for Ukraine are said to be coming from the Dutch and Danish respective air forces.

Athens will assist, wherever possible, in the export of Ukrainian grain, through any ports available but with an emphasis on developing the so-called “vertical axis” from Ukraine terminating in Alexandropoulis. In this case, the low-capacity rail network across northern Greece remains the key impediment.  Greek-owned ships already carry a significant percentage of Ukraine’s grain exports.

In connection with reconstruction efforts for Ukraine, Greece intends to focus its post-war energy in the port city of Odessa, which Mitsotakis noted had deep historic connections to Greece and therefore special significance.  The last point was quickly seized upon after the dinner by Greek opposition parties claiming that the Mitsotakis government was again making more empty promises, being widely understood to be unable to effectively manage domestic reconstruction work in the areas devastated in July’s massive island fires.  In this, they are not incorrect.

The single black spot on Greece’s otherwise positive Ukraine military assistance record remains unremedied.  Mitsotakis has not agreed to transfer Greece’s aging Soviet-made S-300 air defense missiles, based on Crete, to Ukraine, noting a replacement the air defense system must be put in place first due to high tensions with Turkey.  These missiles were originally acquired from Cyprus as part of a complex deal to reduce regional tensions in 1998 after Nicosia purchased them from Moscow, and Turkey threatened war, but NATO demanded the Soviet/Russian weapons that Greece bought not be interconnected to the allied air defense systems used in mainland Greece.

The Hellenic Armed Forces have tested the S-300 missiles but never used them.

Is Greece allowing “Putin’s Secret Navy” to operate freely?

It is also not yet clear whether Mitsotakis and Zelensky discussed privately the unhelpful role that numerous Greek shipowners continue to play in transporting Russian oil worldwide, skirting EU sanctions at every opportunity.  Within the last series of EU sanctions negotiations, Athens worked hard to defend the interests of its shipowners by carving out broad exceptions for its tankers to operate, placing it clearly in the crosshairs of major Western powers as an unhelpful actor.  In fact, some observers have even labeled the privately-owned Greek tanker fleet as “Putin’s Secret Navy.”

No forward movement for the Western Balkans, but why worry?

The hastily planned “informal” dinner event was intended to discuss the Western Balkans region’s future in the EU, 20 years after the road was theoretically opened for them at the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003.  Despite the presence in Athens of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council head Charles Michel, no significant developments regarding EU enlargement were noted.

Of course, the group issued a document now called “The Athens Declaration,” since there is no way to gather so many leaders together without issuing something for the record.  The interesting point in the Ukraine-focused document’s text is the gradual blending of the ongoing EU accession process for the Western Balkans with the newer, faster course set for Ukraine and Moldova.

Full text here: https://www.primeminister.gr/en/2023/08/21/32363

Even so, it simply isn’t clear what actually prompted Mitsotakis and von der Leyen to move ahead with the informal dinner, which appears to have been cooked up when von der Leyen visited Mitsotakis at his home in Crete earlier in August.  Surely the need to generate the Athens Declaration was not the driving force here.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama was not invited to attend the dinner. Greek-Albanian relations have deteriorated sharply over the jailing of ethnic Greek minority leader Fredi Beleri, the mayor-elect of Himara, who was arrested before local elections in May on vote-buying allegations.

In fact, Beleri was elected mayor of Himara despite being in pre-trial detention. Beleri, who does not hail from Rama’s ruling Socialist party, is seen as a potential impediment to lucrative tourist development projects by Rama cronies around his coastal city.  Accordingly, overturning his election is a question that interests a number of players in Albania.  This appears to be Rama’s objective.

Athens insists his detention is politically motivated and has called for his release, frequently hinting that Albania’s EU accession prospects could be in jeopardy if the rule of law situation does not improve.  But with Mitostakis working so hard to demonstrate that Greece is a positive regional power, using any of the EU membership levers available to Athens would come at a major cost to his personal political legacy.

The presidents of Serbia, Montenegro, and Moldova, the prime ministers of North Macedonia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania, and the head of the council of ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina attended Mitsotakis’ dinner. He also met several of them individually.

A little work on the sidelines

After meeting with Moldovan president Sandu, Mitsotakis indicated that both countries had agreed Athens should open a new embassy in Chisinau.  Also, Greek and Croatian foreign ministers worked feverishly on the sidelines of the August 21 dinner to smooth over the frayed relationship caused by rampaging Croatian soccer hooligans in Athens earlier in August.

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CEO/Editor-in-Chief.  Former US diplomat with previous assignments in Eastern Europe, the UN, SE Asia, Greece, across the Balkans, as well as Washington DC.

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