At the same time he’s reaching out to the United States, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has mended fences with Russia after expelling two diplomats he said had tried to undermine a deal he made to rename the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) as North Macedonia.
That agreement would also lift Greek vetoes keeping what would be North Macedonia out of NATO, which Russia fiercely opposes, and also opening European Union accession talks as the US is seeking a greater military presence in Greece and backed the name deal.
In Moscow, the Radical Left SYRIZA leader Tsipras – a former Communist Youth leader – met with President Vladimir Putin and buried the hatchet over FYROM even as Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov continued to say that the US and European Union blackmailed and bribed FYROM lawmakers to ratify the name deal.
After Greece expelled the two Russian diplomats, Putin retaliated and booted two Greek diplomats but now the two leaders said all is well again even as the Russian leader denied his country backed name deal protesters in a bid to scuttle the agreement.
“I can hardly imagine that any reasonable person in Greece or in Russia could think that Russia was involved in any machinations or plots against Greece, the Russian leader said. “It’s sheer nonsense.”
Putin noted that any such tensions could be solved without “theatrical gestures,” but added “that page has been turned.”
Tsipras said he believed the diplomatic row was an isolated incident and that the two countries had a lot to gain from deepening future cooperation, said Reuters.
“When we see some isolated, and I do believe that they are isolated, incidents that annoy us, we are obliged to send a message,” Tsipras said.
“I believe that we are looking forward and that this case is over. What is important today is to take advantage of our big potential to deepen our cooperation in a series of sectors,” he said.
Tsipras also said Greece considers the dispute closed and emphasized the importance of his country’s close ties with Russia. “This issue has been solved, and I believe that we should look forward,” he said.
Tsipras noted that Greece has underlined the importance of constructive relations with Russia in dialogue with its EU and NATO partners amid tensions between Russia and the West.
“Greece must fulfill its obligations as a member of the EU and NATO, but it believes that European security architecture can’t exclude Russia,” he said. “That is the position I have taken at all international forums,” as critics said he continued to try to have it both ways and play both sides against the middle.
“A rainy day during the summer does not mean that summer never existed, or that fair weather is not before us,” he added.
With only general statements regarding bilateral economic ties and direct investments, namely, in the energy sector, but without details, Tsipras’ visit to Moscow was viewed as aiming to repair bilateral relations with an important trade partner and prospective investor in the east Mediterranean country, the Greek business newspaper Naftemporiki said.
Tsipras added that, “Greece can be an EU and NATO member, but at the same time promote a model of multilateral foreign policy,” trying to spin how he wants good relations with Russia, which is trying to undermine NATO, to which Greece and Turkey belong.
Asked about energy pipelines, he said his government was in favor of a diversification of sources and routes, saying there should not be “double standards” on the part of the EU.
The detente came just ahead of a key US-Greece Strategic Dialogue conference in Washington where Russian influence could be a key part of the agenda with Tsipras trying to walk a line between the two countries he’s wooing simultaneously and with Turkish provocations in the Aegean a catalyst.
The two leaders said they discussed the prospect of shipments of Russian natural gas to southern Europe via Greece.
In November,, Russia and Turkey announced completion of the offshore part of TurkStream pipeline in the Black Sea that would supply Russian gas to Turkey as Moscow tries to play to both Turkey and Greece and accused Washington of trying to create a military build-up in the region, including on Cyprus.
Putin said that the new pipeline could potentially be extended to ship Russian gas to Greece and other countries in southern Europe. “I believe it’s quite realistic,” he said.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)