Tensions Escalate Between Greece and Russia, With Macedonia in the Middle

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Summary

 

On Wednesday, there was a worded exchange with the unusually fierce rhetoric between Athens and Moscow, which was caused by their dispute over some issues about Macedonia. Macedonia agreed to change its name to North Macedonia after the negotiations with officials in Greece in June, and then Macedonia was invited to join NATO. However, Moscow has been opposed to Macedonia’s accession to NATO during months of United Nations-mediated negotiations. The tensions escalated between Russia and Greece as Athens to expel two diplomats accused of encouraging the protests against the agreement. In response, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, canceled his trip to Athens scheduled for September.

 

Greece used to oppose to the accession of Macedonia to NATO, due to that the name of Macedonia implied the territorial ambitions against a northern Greek region of the same name. And Macedonia was offered to join NATO under the condition that they change the name. Although the name change is not of paramount importance, it becomes related to more interest conflicts and brings some concerns that the Kremlin is attempting to manipulate Western politics and whether Mr. Trump can keep the United States’ commitment to NATO.

 

 

 

Tensions Escalate Between Greece and Russia, With Macedonia in the Middle

 

ATHENS — Russia’s foreign minister has reportedly canceled a trip to Greece, as tensions escalated between the two countries over a decision by Athens to expel two diplomats accused of trying to stoke opposition to an agreement that would clear the way for Macedonia to join NATO.

 

The dispute over Macedonia’s name was of little interest outside the region, but it has become wrapped up in more prominent conflicts, especially after President Trump’s weeklong tour of Europe: Concern about the Kremlin’s suspected attempts to manipulate Western politics, Mr. Trump’s contradictory statements about both Russian meddling and his commitment to NATO, and Moscow’s opposition to any broadening of the Western alliance.

 

The strains between Athens and Moscow deepened after Macedonia agreed in June to change its name to North Macedonia following negotiations with officials in Greece and on July 11 was invited to join NATO, pending final approval of the agreement.

 

Greek officials said last week that Athens told Moscow on July 6 that it would expel two diplomats, and bar two other Russian citizens from entering the country, because of “irrefutable evidence” that Russia was trying to meddle in the Macedonia deal.

 

The dispute sharpened on Thursday when, according to Russia’s Tass news agency, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov canceled a trip to Athens scheduled for September. Tass quoted the Russian ambassador to Greece, Andrey Maslov, as saying the visit had become “irrelevant.”

 

“We’ve already announced that mirror measures will be taken,” he said, apparently referring to an expected tit-for-tat expulsion of Greek officials. “I don’t know when, who and how many, but of course, in line with the existing practice, there will be countermeasures.”

 

Greece had long opposed the accession of Macedonia, a tiny Balkan nation, to the alliance on the grounds that its name implied territorial ambitions against a northern Greek region of the same name.

 

Moscow had made no secret of its opposition to Macedonia’s accession to NATO during months of United Nations-mediated negotiations leading to the landmark agreement.

 

Greece and Russia, both Orthodox Christian nations, have traditionally close ties, and Greece’s current leftist-led government, notwithstanding its support for NATO expansion, has championed closer relations between Russia and the West and has defended Moscow in international disputes.

 

Unlike many other Western nations, it did not expel diplomats in the wake of the poisoning of a former Soviet double agent, Sergei V. Skripal, and his daughter, in England in March, an attack that was widely attributed to Russia, and in 2015 the government denounced European Union sanctions over Ukraine.

 

But the Macedonia deal is of paramount importance to Greece, which accused four Russians of trying to whip up opposition to the agreement by encouraging protests against the agreement and of trying to bribe Greek state officials and clerics. The dispute led to an unusually strongly worded exchange on Wednesday between Athens and Moscow.

 

The Greek authorities should “communicate with their Russian partners and not suffer from dirty provocations, into which, unfortunately, Athens was dragged,” the Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said, adding that “such things do not remain without consequences.”

 

“We are fully aware that Greece was subjected to pressure at the highest level,” she said a few days after the Russian ministry explicitly blamed Washington for the “anti-Russian decision of the government of Greece.”

 

As Greek news media referred to a “Siberian chill” in bilateral relations, Athens answered with a strongly worded statement accusing Moscow of “constant disrespect for Greece.”

 

“No one can or has the right to interfere in Greece’s domestic affairs,” the Greek Foreign Ministry said, adding that Athens had evidence for its claims. “In any case, the Russian authorities are very well aware of what their people do.”

 

Despite the diplomatic tussle, Athens has insisted it wants to maintain friendly relations.

 

The controversial name change must be formally ratified before the country can join NATO, a move that would require approval in a referendum in Macedonia this fall and in both the Greek and Macedonian parliaments.

 

Rallies protesting the deal have been held in Greece and Macedonia, particularly in the run-up to the signing of the deal last month, and are expected to pick up in the fall ahead of the Macedonian referendum.

 

In the referendum, according to Macedonia’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, citizens will be asked: “Are you in favor of membership in the European Union and NATO by accepting the deal between the Republic of Macedonia and Republic of Greece?” The Associated Press reported.

 

Mr. Zaev said that the referendum would be “consultative” but added that “the people’s say will be final for all political parties.”

 

He made the announcement after a meeting in which Hristijan Mickoski, the leader of the main conservative opposition party, walked out, The A.P. reported.

 

Source: The New York Times, Niki Kitsantonis and Oleg Matsnev, July 19, 2018 . Photo credit to Boris Grdanoski/ Associated Press.