Friday, June 21, 2024
 
 

Short Greece vacation for two Balkan leaders

Visits went almost unnoticed in a country preoccupied with Turkey

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Taking the opportunity to visit Athens in conference speaker mode, the leaders of Albania and North Macedonia paid stealthy visits to Athens September 15-16 as panellists at a conference organized by The Economist.  Because of the country’s deep preoccupation with Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean and the accelerating COVID-19 crisis, the presence of these leaders in Athens, as well their side meetings, went almost unnoticed.
In view of the dramatic increase in COVID-19 infections, it is somewhat curious that the Greek government allowed The Economist to run its conference this month, but when it comes to a free platform for the standard group of senior Greek ministers to give their well-worn speeches, the country’s toughening COVID-19 rules on group assemblies were applied with amazing flexibility.  The show must go on, and this year it was titled “Reinforcing cohesion in turbulent times.”
Among the handful of foreign officials attending were Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, both of whom used The Economist’s conference invitation to tack on important side meetings with Greek officials.
Bilateral meetings for both PMs
Albanian Prime Minister Rama had a tough balancing act to juggle with his Greek hosts due to his country’s historical and cultural connections to Turkey.  While focusing his conference remarks on the immediate task of EU accession for his country, he also acknowledged his country had strategic partnerships with both (NATO allies) Greece and Turkey. Rama also stated that Turkish President Erdogan was “not an anti-Greek person.”
Rama met with Mitsotakis for a working dinner, covering the bilateral relationship, on the sidelines of the conference.  The question of defining the new maritime borders between both countries was high on the agenda since Greece recently extended its territorial seas to 12 miles along its Ionian Sea coastline.
North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s visit to Athens has been a subject of speculation for some time since it is over a year since Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who strongly opposed the Prespes Agreement while in opposition, was elected in Greece.  The two leaders have been in contact during this period, and Zaev had previously made a brief visit to Thessaloniki prior to resigning before parliamentary elections in his country.  Like Albanian citizens, most North Macedonians have been barred from entering Greece since the spike in COVID-19 cases hit the Balkans in June.
The Greek side minimized media coverage of the Zaev meetings with Greek officials which were not attention-grabbers in any event, but Athens reportedly extracted assurances from Zaev that Skopje will follow the EU approach to Turkey’s recent provocative activities in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, even though North Macedonia itself has no coastline.  While in Athens, Zaev met with Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou as well as PM Mitsotakis.
Athens retains EU accession leverage
It has always been difficult to translate Greece’s Balkan relations into anything useful or even tangible in connection with its ongoing struggle with Turkey over the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean.  Of course, it is militarily essential to secure Greece’s northern borders in case the Turkish front flares up and shared NATO membership along with improved military coordination with Albania and North Macedonia should resolve this issue.  On occasion, there have been situations where Turkish investment in the region has been quietly blocked, but that is extremely rare.
The other avenue is the longstanding belief that good relations with Greece’s Balkan neighbours is important to Washington, Berlin, Paris and Brussels and earns Athens some form of unspoken support.  But that remains largely an untested theorem that few investors would risk significant sums to verify.
Ultimately though, both Athens, as well as Nicosia, have leverage that is hard to quantify over both Tirana and Skopje as they start their EU accession negotiations.  One should not doubt that any sign of weakness within NATO councils on Turkish/Aegean issues will translate into an equivalent toughening of Greece’s position (true for Cyprus as well) on various chapters of these countries’ EU accession negotiations.
That is not a message that needs to be stated publicly but the “levers” remain.  Although officials are probably not lying awake in Skopje over this calculus, some in Tirana may well be.

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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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