Macedonia, Greece: Russia Wades Into the Fray Over a Balkan Name Dispute

4 MINS READJul 12, 2018 | 15:34 GMT
The Big Picture

Stratfor's 2018 Third-Quarter Forecast describes how great power competition between the United States, Russia and China is shaping global politics. NATO is a key player in that competition. The alliance’s decision to reach out to Macedonia has generated concern in Russia, which is opposed to NATO’s enlargement in the Western Balkans. Now, accusations by Greece and Macedonia that Russia is interfering in their respective domestic affairs could foment new instability in a traditionally fragile region.

Macedonia took a step forward in its attempt to join Western organizations on July 11 when NATO formally invited it to begin talks to join the military alliance. NATO's invitation arrived barely a month after Macedonia reached an agreement with Greece to change its name to "Northern Macedonia" and end a decadeslong dispute. If implemented, the agreement between Skopje and Athens would remove one of the main obstacles preventing Macedonia from joining NATO and the European Union. Skopje's road ahead, however, will remain bumpy, because opposition groups in both Macedonia and Greece have heavily contested the deal. And to make things more complicated, both countries' governments have accused Russia of trying to undermine the agreement.

The Macedonian parliament approved the name deal on July 5, meaning the name change will now go to a referendum in September or October. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has staked his political future on the deal, threatening to resign if people vote against it. While opinion polls show that most Macedonians are in favor of joining NATO and the European Union, they remain divided on the name issue, suggesting that the referendum result will be hard to predict. Moreover, the main opposition party, the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE, will campaign heavily against the agreement.

The political situation is also complex in Greece. The Greek Parliament will decide on the agreement in the coming months in a vote that will also determine the future of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras' government. Mirroring Macedonia, Greece’s main opposition party, New Democracy, has also expressed its opposition to the name change, arguing that it does not put an end to potential claims by Skopje over Greek territory. What's more, even the junior member of Tsipras' government coalition, the nationalist Independent Greeks party, has spoken out against the agreement. Should the Independent Greeks leave the government in protest at the agreement, Tsipras' administration could fall, triggering an early election.

And then there's the Russia factor. Balkan countries have previously alleged that Russia is trying to undermine their accession to NATO. Moscow has argued that their accession to the alliance jeopardizes the geopolitical balance in the region. In late 2016, Montenegro accused Russia of trying to orchestrate a coup in the country to prevent it from joining the alliance, although Montenegro did join NATO in early 2017.

Macedonia sees the name deal, and membership in NATO and the European Union, as key components in its strategy to normalize its relations with its neighbors and become a more active player in the global arena. It follows, then, that scuttling the name deal would be an effective way of preventing Skopje from entering the alliance. Indeed, Zaev has also pointed a finger at Russia, accusing it of trying to destabilize Macedonia and suggesting that it was behind recent protests against the name deal in the country.

Athens is making similar accusations. On July 6, the Greek government expelled two Russian diplomats and barred entry to another two. According to Greek media, Athens believes the Russians had attempted to undermine the name deal, organized protests in northern Greece against the agreement and sought to deepen ties with nationalist organizations and business leaders in the country.

The diplomatic frictions between Greece and Russia are notable because the two countries have traditionally had close ties, to the extent that Athens has previously threatened to veto EU sanctions against Moscow. But according to Stratfor sources in Greece, relations between Greece and Russia have cooled in recent months, as Greece's relations with the United States improve. The ongoing frictions between Athens and Moscow do not necessarily mean that the bilateral relationship has worsened, but they do suggest that it's going through a period of turbulence.

The announcement last month of the deal between Greece and Macedonia to finally bury the hatchet over the latter's name opened the door for Skopje's path toward greater integration with the West. But in addition to the domestic opposition in both countries over the agreement, external players might also complicate efforts to finally resolve the quarter-century-old dispute.

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