Thinking beyond the crisis? Greece and the Balkans

Recent developments – particularly a proposal to recognize Macedonia as the ‘Republic of Vardar Macedonia’ – have demonstrated that, contrary to the fears of some, the debt crisis will not impede Greece’s capacity for resolving regional disputes.

By Spyros Sofos

Commentators have recently been expressing concerns over the impact that the Greek debt crisis will have on the ability of the country to play an active role in resolving a number of outstanding issues in its relationship with neighbouring countries. It is quite true that Greece may be distracted by the magnitude of the task of economic restructuring in hand. It is also not unreasonable to assume that the embattled PASOK government might not be willing to open any new fronts by taking foreign policy initiatives that its opponents may consider or represent as undermining the country’s national interests.

Against this backdrop last month’s visit to Athens by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was greeted by a mixture of anxiety and curiosity. Anxiety as many predicted that the Greek government would be willing to compromise on key issues of disagreement between the two countries and curiosity as this was the first major post-crisis meeting between the Greek prime minister, George Papandreou and his Turkish counterpart. And although the visit did not resolve outstanding disputes – that was not part of the visit agenda in any case – it culminated in the establishment of closer cooperation structures between the two countries and a much improved atmosphere. But the relationship with Turkey is not the only one to watch. Greece has yet to decide what to do in the case of the recognition of the independence of Kosovo and, perhaps more importantly, has not managed to reach an agreement with neighbouring Macedonia regarding a mutually agreed and internationally recognized name for the latter.

Regarding Kosovo, sources within the Greek Foreign Ministry seem to be indicating that Greece has accepted the fact that there is no chance of a return to the status quo ante and that the recognition of the young republic is inevitable and even desirable. It is expected that recognition might be an issue of timing and no longer the foreign policy taboo it was before this autumn.

As far as Macedonia is concerned, a few months ago I had argued that the socialist government in Greece had indicated that it was prepared to be more flexible than its predecessors in its southeastern European policy. I had suggested that initiatives such as the meeting of the prime ministers of Albania, Greece and Macedonia in the Prespa lakes border region to discuss cross-border environmental cooperation in November 2009 hosted by Greece provided alternative settings for the building of good will and the normalization of communication between the parties in the Greek-Macedonian dispute. The decision of the two prime ministers (and their foreign ministers) to treat this as an issue of political substance and to engage in face-to-face discussions instead of letting the process languish through the deliberations of lower-level diplomatic personnel seems to have been crucial. Despite the wooden language used by the parties since that meeting, it is becoming clear that discussions have continued and that the parties have been less intransigent than originally thought. US, EU, Greek and Macedonian sources seem to be optimistic of an impending solution that might not require a constitutional upheaval in the Republic of Macedonia.

Although information is closely guarded, it seems that a formula whereby Greece will recognise Macedonia as ‘Republic of Vardar Macedonia’ is currently seriously considered by both parties and actively encouraged by US and EU diplomats, although the Macedonian government still has reservations for obvious reasons. This is indeed an imperfect compromise in what I would characterise an unnecessary dispute that has alienated the two parties and has made it difficult for both countries to establish a healthy relationship with their past and with each other. However, it demonstrates that the Greek debt crisis may not impact negatively in the process of regional reconciliation and normalization.

It should nevertheless be clear that in the event of an agreement in the Greek-Macedonian dispute, this will be the start of an arduous process of closing the wounds, not only of the past couple of decades, but of the best part of the last century. And, given the current political and economic instability experienced by both societies, it is important to ensure that any progress in the dispute resolution process enjoys considerable legitimacy by the constituencies that will be affected by it. This effectively rests on the commitment of the two parties to support citizen diplomacy and an open and honest exchange regarding mutual fears and aspirations. It also involves addressing the issue of the Macedonian refugees from Greece in a sensitive and constructive way that involves a reconciliation process as well as the exploration of restitution/compensation avenues. It finally will rest on an unequivocal commitment to the protection of the human rights and the cultures of minorities in both countries. Although Greece’s Agenda 2014 inaugurated by the socialist government last autumn may have sounded like a primarily rhetorical device, it may after all prove to have much more substance. Time will tell.

Spyros A. Sofos is a Senior Research Fellow in International Politics at the Helen Bamber Centre for the Study of Rights, Conflict and Mass Violence of Kingston University, London. Editor of the ‘Journal of Contemporary European Studies’ and of ‘Southeastern Europe: Charting an Emerging European region’, his publications include ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’ (with Brian Jenkins – 1997), ‘Tormented by History: Nationalism in Greece and Turkey’ (with Umut Özkırımlı -2007) and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks’ (with Roza Tsagarousianou, 2010). He has been director of Kingston’s MSc in International Conflict Programme and is currently teaching Conflict Management and Resolution.

You can read more of Spyros Sofos’s analysis by visiting his blog –

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0 Response

  1. Regarding Greece and Kosovo: You report that sources within the Greek Foreign Ministry are suggesting that recognition by Greece is just a matter of time as it accepts the “fact” there can be no return to the status quo. But this has been true since 1999 and not the real issue. The real issue is the process by which the new status quo is defined, the outcome of that and what precedents that establishes. Greek national interests may still merit waiting before jumping?

  2. response to Gerard Gallucci:
    You are right, this has largely been the case since 1999. What I think represents a change is that the previous governments were not prepared to make the leap towards recognition as long as there were other EU countries that withheld recognition (as well as Russia and other third countries). In addition, I think that what was lacking until now was the political will to address outstanding issues and a framework that represents Greece’s foreign policy initiatives in a positive and coherent way. Despite being customarily cynical and sceptical of grand gestures, I think that the Agenda 2014 might serve as such a framework. Finally, what is rumored is that there is a concrete timeframe in place for the recognition of Kosovo although I cannot confirm that.

  3. Anon

    With all due respect to Mr. Sofos, he does not speak for the vast majority of Greeks. Mr. Sofos isn’t even Greek (as his own statements suggest he doesn’t see his identity as related to ancient Greeks). He’s just an occasional spokesman for FYROM apologists to hide behind so they aren’t accused by other Greeks as involving themselves in an attempted ethnic cleansing of Greeks.

    Mr. Sofos seems to have has a modernist (arguably post-modernist) perception of identity (as opposed to a cultural/linguistic association made by individuals – see Jews for perhaps the best example) Some kind of Hellenization is normal part of Greek culture (which occurred both in antiquity and even during the “Roman” nomenclature era of Greece).

    Mr. Sofos unfortunately interpretes Hellenization as “proof” of not being “real” Greeks.(whereas Greeks interpret him as failed Hellenization due to his extreme anti-nationalist ideological views)

    To Mr. Sofos a “real” Greek seem to be some ancient race of people (a eugenics like perception of ethnicity not too unlike Nazis). Since no such thing as pure ethnicity exists he causality wisks away the identity of Greeks today (those that that have a different feel for history and ethnos than he does) He then incredibly hypocritically and self-righteously brands himself a supporter of minorities. (while frankly I consider him prejudiced against Greeks despite that he was born in Greece)

    What FYROM apologists like Mr. Sofos seems to lack a fundamental understanding of is that his deconstructionist approach to ethnicity (what some frame as “imagined communities”), could be used to invalidate ALL other ethnic groups on a whim too (a DNA test will quickly validate their are no pure ethnic groups). So if someone is going to frame history in the manner they do Greeks.. why not equally argue it of the “English-speakers”, “German-speakers”, “Chinese-speaker”, etc.. etc..?

    There is a quiet showdown occurring between “Greeks” like Mr. Sofos, and Greeks that consider their ethnicity related to ancient Greeks. Mr. Sofo’s aloof soft-Marxian attitude reminds me very much reminds of the far leftist “Greek” pseudo-intelligentsia of the Greek civil war. Those “Greeks” also supported “ethnic Macedonians” (at the time communist terrorists who thought Stalin was a good idea… back when the US government officially claimed no such ethnic group as “Macedonians” exists)

    Mr. Sofos is also seemingly oblivious to the fact that his past theories that calling FYROM “Macedonia” was “harmless” have clearly been proven wrong. (as evidenced by rampant irredentism and claims by FYROM nationalists that they now are related to ancient Macedonians!)

    Spyros, you will find if most Greeks have to chose between your personal ideological outlook.. and our culture and identity…many Greeks are fully prepared to part ethnic ways with “Greeks” like you. If you do not identity with ancient Greeks by all means stop confusing yourself and others by not referencing yourself Greek. Greeks will happily recognize you as Albanian, Turkish, or whatever other ethnicity you see fit. As a self-described non-Greek you do not speak for Greeks though.

    What you fail to grasp is Greeks like myself will never recognize FYROM as “Macedonians” irregardless if so Greek government decides to do so under the pressure of foreign critics (imo racist unprincipled hypocrites that contradict past positions by their own nations… and that typically have far far left in common with their claimed roots than we do).

    We genuinely see ancient Macedonians as part of our cultural patrimony not FYROMs. It’s unfortunately you choose to peddle the myths of the former self-identifying ethnic Bulgarians of FYROM instead of protecting the aspects of authentic Greek culture that remain in Greece. It’s Thessaloniki not “Solon”. Ancient Macedonians identified with Hellenism not as Slavs. Greek is language of Macedonians not Slavic.

    If FYROM apologists wish Greeks to believe your claims that you respect minorities, stop pushing “Greeks” like Mr Sofos in front of you and disrespecting Greece. Otherwise we will call a spade a spade. You are prejudiced against Greeks.

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