Taking heat from critics in an election year, Greek Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras,, on an historic visit to the newly-named North Macedonia, said the deal he made with that country’s Premier Zoran Zaev would bring business and trade ties.
Tsipras’ agreement to change the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) gave away the name of the Greek province of Macedonia removed vetoes on Greece’s neighbor getting into NATO and European Union accession hopes.
It also allowed residents of North Macedonia to call themselves Macedonians and have a Macedonian language, culture and identity and left it up to a still-unestablished committee to settle the bitter differences over using the brand name Macedonian on food and goods.
He said it was up to the panel to act so that, “We can resolve the problems that have created confusion to businesspeople and consumers for 30 years now.” That was in reference to the feud between the countries after a New Democracy government in 1991, under then-Premier Constantinos Mitsotakis, allowed the use of the name Macedonia in the acronym FYROM for a new country emerging from the collapse of Yugoslavia.
Greek companies in the real Macedonia label many of their food products and other goods as Macedonia, as do competitors in North Macedonia, leading to confusion for consumers who may think those from North Macedonia are from Greece.
That’s especially problematic for Greek Macedonia products hailing from the province such as wines, the confection halva and farm produce.
With two-thirds of Greeks opposed to the deal and with North Macedonia having Presidential elections this year, the two leaders are hoping to persuade voters that the agreement overrides nationalist concerns and will bring long-term benefits.
They cited a double tax avoidance agreement and customs cooperation as ways to boost already strong business and trade agreements and investments between the countries, and with some 140 business people accompanying Tsipras on his historic trip, apart from leaders of Macedonian companies in Greece who said they wouldn’t go as a protest.
Rail and airport transports along the Greece-North Macedonia-Serbia axis were agreed as well as Thessaloniki’s role as the region’s main port of entry and more border crossings, said the business newspaper Naftemporiki.
The name deal earned them a Nobel Peace Prize nomination as well as scorn from critics and protests that saw Tsipras, in Greece’s second-largest city of Thessaloniki in the province of Macedonia, jeered and called a “traitor” for the deal that found him unwelcome there but welcomed with open arms by Zaev in North Macedonia.
They broke the ice and engaged in selfie diplomacy during the first-ever official visit by a Greek leader to the neighboring country following decades of strained relations over the name dispute, taking a photo of themselves together smiling and celebrating.
Zaev held up a cellphone while standing beside Greek counterpart Alexis Tspiras, snapping the historic selfies outside the main government building in the capital, Skopje.
“We have lost a lot of time and now we must rapidly catch up,” Tsipras told reporters at a joint news conference. “We want to build a strong bond of trust and stability.
“When I used to take a plane to Europe, the pilot would avoid the airspace of what was the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Now we will no longer have this nonsense. We might fly around here just to say hello,” he added.
More than 140 countries had long been calling FYROM by the name it claimed in defiance of the 1991 agreement, Macedonia, and Tsipras said the agreement put a geographical qualifier on the country’s name to separate it from the Greek province, but critics weren’t buying it.
In what may have been a bow and further concession to Zaev and North Macedonia, which removed a statute of Alexander the Great and renamed its national highway so as not to keep claiming the Greek conqueror as its own, Tsipras referred to Thessaloniki airport by its former name, Micra, instead of Makedonia – its name since 1993, causing more concern in Greece.
Already far behind in surveys to the party he unseated in 2015, the major opposition New Democracy Conservatives, Tsipras is hoping the name deal won’t boomerang on him and that voters will come around before elections are held before October.
New Democracy shadow defence minister Vassilis Kikilias said it was ironic Tsipras was welcome in North Macedonia but not in the real Macedonia in Greece, mocking him.
Kikilias wondered whether the deal was made for the businessmen accompanying Tsipras to Skopje.
“We were always in favor of Skopje’s accession to NATO and the EU but with an honest and correct agreement,” Kikilias noted. He noted that the Conservatives leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the party will defend Greece’s interests and “if Skopje does not agree on essential issues nobody expects New Democracy to open its arms.”
While he can’t stop North Macedonia’s path to joining the defense alliance after Tsipras lifted a Greek veto, Mitsotakis said if he comes to power this year, with polls showing he likely will win, that he would veto North Macedonia’s hopes of joining the European Union if Greece’s interests would be seriously harmed.
Tsipras and Zaev, shaking off protests that sometimes became violent, tried to highlight the benefits of the name change with Zaev – who got Tsipras to come to him – saying the countries were “writing history,” while Tsipras, hailed “a historic step forward for the Balkans and Europe,” said Kathimerini.
“You are looking at two neighbors, friendly people who have shown Europe and the entire world that with brave decisions and good wishes for togetherness, something that was impossible yesterday has become reality today,” said Zaev, the paper reported.
They said the business deals and further prospects showed that Greece was becoming a
great benefactor” of North Macedonia, with its promises of investments, security and a European future, despite Mitsotakis’ warning he could bar that path if elected.
Among the deals signed was one allowing Greece to patrol the skies of North Macedonia, which has no fighter jets, at a time when Turkey has been sending fighter jets into Greek airspace with no rebuke from NATO, to which both belong and North Macedonia wants to join as well.
Speaking to reporters in a live radio and TV broadcast beamed to North Macedonia and Greece, Tsipras and Zaev weren’t concerned when asked what might happen to the deal if both are unseated because of opposition by opponents to what they did.
Tsipras said despite Mitsotakis’ warnings he believes the Conservative leader wouldn’t undo the deal.
“Democracies have rules, the sovereign parliaments vote and the agreements that are approved are ratified and bind countries in perpetuity on the basis of international law,” said Tsipras, who also said he was confident he will be re-elected despite trailing by double-digits in most surveys after reneging on anti-austerity promises.
Zaev insisted there “will be no politicians who will act against the will of the people” – without mentioning the will of the people in Greece was against Tsipras – and predicted their rivals will back what they did at great political risk.
While they rejoiced in North Macedonia, Greek Parliament Speaker Nikos Voutsis, from SYRIZA, was heckled by demonstrators during a party event at City Hall.