The Tsipras Risky Gambit: Giving Away Macedonia’s Name

FILE - FYROM's Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, left, speaks with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (AP Photo, FILE)

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is rolling the dice he can be the one end a 26-year-long dispute and solve a name dispute with the country’s northern neighbor, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and survive it politically.

That was the assessment by the Reuters news agency which said the Radical Left SYRIZA leader, plummeting in the polls after reneging on anti-austerity promises is hoping he can resurrect his reputation and image after seeing his popularity fall as low as 10 percent.

The next elections are scheduled for October, 2019 but his major rival, the New Democracy Conservatives who have taken double-digit leads in surveys after he unseated them, keep pushing for snap polls and keep sniping he can’t even get his junior coalition partner, the pro-austerity, marginal, jingoistic Independent Greeks (ANEL) of Defense Minister Panos Kammenos to back his anti-nationalism and plans to let FYROM keep the name Macedonia – an abutting ancient Greek province – in a new composite.

That would also pave the way for FYROM to get into NATO – the defense alliance Tsipras said he would Greece out of – as well as its Balkan neighbor’s chances of getting into the European Union.

With FYROM Premier Zoran Zaev also eager to end the dispute, Tsipras is said to be eager to get the credit for solving a long-standing dilemma. “He is determined to solve it,” a government official who was not named told the news agency.

“If a deal is done it would be a bonus. He will say ‘I pulled you out of bailouts, I settled the Skopje question’. That way he might make up for other losses,” an official from his SYRIZA party told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Skopje is the capital of FYROM, a mainly Slavic state with a large ethnic Albanian minority which won its independence from Belgrade in 1991 as Yugoslavia dissolved into civil war.

Political analysts say it would be a big risk for Tsipras, whose SYRIZA party has already seen its support slide amid harsh fiscal reforms, record unemployment and pension cuts which have left a third of all Greeks living in poverty.

“There is still a zero-sum mentality (among Greeks) on this name issue,” Kostas Ifantis, an Associate Professor of international relations at the Panteion University in Athens.

“It’s an issue which involves history and symbols, and … a compromise is very difficult in this case,” he said.

Some analysts even suggest Tsipras is primarily motivated in his name diplomacy by a desire to split New Democracy under its leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose father, the lat former Premier Constantinos Karamanlis, was the one who in 1992 allowed the country breaking away from Yugoslavia to temporarily use the name Macedonia.

A permanent name couldn’t be agreed after successive FYROM governments kept claiming Greek territories, including the real Macedonia and second-largest city and major port of Thessaloniki.

“It is a gamble which was not taken with the aim of closing an open diplomatic problem that troubles the country but as a tool to divide, at least initially, the opposition,” Ifantis said.

New Democracy and all the rival parties in Parliament though have rejected FYROM’s offer to take the name Ilinden Macedonia, which Mitsotakis said refers to nationalist uprisings in that country’s past seeking to take Greek lands.

But for all the risks, a resolution of the name dispute could still ultimately help to boost Tsipras’s popularity, said Costas Panagopoulos, head of the Alco polling agency.

“There will be reactions from the opposition, regardless of the name, this is clear,” said Panagopoulos. “But in the long-term, a solution, despite the opposition and the initial protests … could not hurt Tsipras,” he told the agency.

THE ANEL FACTOR

Kammenos, said he sees no chance for a new name deal. But he also has said he wouldn’t stand in the way of a deal, a stance that allows him to both oppose and support it as he has done on other issues in which his party, the ideological otherwise rival of SYRIZA, giving in to Tsipras, who needs ANEL’s nine votes to have a three-vote majority in Parliament.

Another obstacle has arisen as a deal seemed close when Zaev said he wouldn’t change his country’s Constitution to remove irredentist claims on Greek lands, and that he wants the new name to be Ilinden Macedonia.

If Tsipras agrees to that he would need ANEL’s votes to get it through Parliament if all the other parties reject it, putting Kammenos in the position of voting against it to side with his alleged principles, or support it to stay in power while reneging on his promises again.

Speaking on Alpha radio, he said the talks being brokered by United Nations envoy Matthew Nimetz, an American lawyer who has failed for nearly 20 years to find a solution, are at a dead end because FYROM won’t change its Constitution and that if Zaev did that opposition parties – and a nationalist party in his coalition – would vote against it.

Kammenos also said again that he and his party “never vote for a name that contains the term ‘Macedonia,’ whatever it may be,” with the government divided over how to proceed with the negotiations.

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