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 – http://triglavtocaucasus.blogspot.com/

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