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Prespes Deal Not Ideal, but Might be Best Greece Could Hope For

Αssociated Press

Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras delivers his speech during a parliament debate about Prespa Agreement in Athens, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. Greek lawmakers are debating a historic agreement aimed at normalizing relations with Macedonia in a stormy parliamentary session scheduled to culminate in a Friday vote. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)

The protests that took place this Sunday in Greece over the Greek government’s plan to pass the Prespes Agreement and resolve the Macedonian name controversy should come as no surprise. The government’s decision to delay a vote on the Agreement is giving a chance for opponents of the treaty to voice their discontent. Tsipras’ choice to not immediately vote on Prespes is potentially disastrous – not only for his government, but Greece as well. 

While Tsipras overcame a vote of no confidence in parliament last Wednesday that was directly tied to his government’s efforts to pass the Prespes Agreement and resolve the Macedonian name issue, he only did so by the narrowest of margins. Tspiras, however, did not immediately have parliament vote on the Prespes Agreement last week. Instead, as of Monday night the vote is likely delayed until this Thursday or Friday. 

Tsipras, in challenging New Democracy’s leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, to a televised debate, seeks to use the issue to solidify SYRIZA’s declining support. With the latest polls showing SYRIZA significantly behind New Democracy, the Macedonian name controversy may be his only political card to play. 

Tsipras in delaying the vote, however, is playing with fire. Opponents of the Prespes Agreement are mobilizing. This Sunday’s protest in Athens, where between 60,000-600,000 people turned out to protest Tsipras’ attempt to pass the Agreement, is simply the most visible dissent against the government. Fringe elements of those opposed to the Prespes Agreement have also threatened several MPs with death if they vote to endorse the pact. 

In delaying the vote on the Prespes Agreement, Tsipras has put the entire diplomatic process in jeopardy. While the Prespes Agreement was not perfect, with Greece being forced to concede that the ethnic composition and language of the majority of the Republic of North Macedonia are called Macedonian, it also achieved several major concessions. The name North Macedonia indicates to the general public this new state is not the Macedonia of Alexander the Great, but something else entirely. 

Given that Greece found itself politically isolated over the Macedonian issue, the Prespes Agreement is in many ways the best deal possible. The majority of the world’s countries used the Republic of Macedonia in their official correspondence with the now (hopefully) Republic of North Macedonia. Now, these countries will have to use the latter term. With this achieved, Greece will no longer have to expend political capital on an issue the outside world does not truly understand. 

Furthermore, there are economic incentives for Greece in passing the Prespes Agreement in Parliament. The Republic of North Macedonia, geographically, lacks ideal access to the global economy. Thessaloniki, in many ways, is the natural port for goods entering and exiting the country. Greece, however, lags behind several other countries both in terms of imports and exports to the Republic of North Macedonia. Alleviating political tensions between the countries will allow for the return of trade along what has, historically, been one of the more profitable trade routes of the Balkans. 

These diplomatic and economic benefits, however, will only be realized if Tsipras stops attempting to manipulate the Macedonian issue for political gain. Tsipras and SYRIZA’s political legacy to Greece so far has been, at best, a mixed bag. The Prespes Agreement could be a true political legacy for his government. This is only true, however, if he makes the country’s future a priority.? 

 Dr. James Horncastle is a Lecturer at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University