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Repeated Provocations Show Greece that Talk is Cheap

Greece endured a series of provocations from its neighbors this month. Namely, Turkey turned the Chora Church, with its renowned mosaics and frescoes, into a mosque just days ahead of an official visit by the Greek Prime Minister. That same weekend, Skopje’s nationalist VMRO party, which won a sweeping victory in parliamentary and presidential elections, proceeded with the greatest violation to date of the Prespa Agreement when the statelet’s newly elected president took her oath using the name ‘Republic of Macedonia’ instead of the amended constitutional name. For the trifecta, Albania’s Prime Minister paid an uninvited visit to Athens to hold a rally amidst rocky relations between Tirana and Athens stemming from the unjustified arrest of the elected mayor of Himara, ethnic Greek Freddy Beleris, who has been unable to assume his duties for over a year.

Each of these provocations is rooted in deep symbolism – which often speaks louder than words. Albanian Premier Edi Rama’s visit to Athens coincided – to the very date! – with the one-year anniversary of Mr. Beleris’ arrest. Meanwhile, although the decision to convert the Chora Church into a mosque dates back a few years, its implementation and formal opening happened this month, on Bright Monday! Turkey is also conducting a large-scale military exercise throughout the month, with clear simulations of an invasion of the Aegean islands, despite a similar exercise having been canceled last year. Last but not least, the new Government in Skopje seems to be openly challenging the Prespa Agreement – which the previous administration never fully implemented in good faith to begin with.

Greece is the oldest EU member in the region, a NATO member since 1952, and possesses one of the area’s strongest, most formidable armed forces. Why, then, do its neighbors feel so inclined to disrespect it? Even if one attributes Turkey’s haughtiness to its size, the audacity displayed by Albania and worse yet, Skopje, seems counterintuitive.

Unless… these nations somehow feel empowered. However, in that case, Greece must exercise the necessary self-criticism and identify the signals causing its neighbors to misinterpret its intention to defend itself at all costs – assuming this is in fact the true intention of the nation’s political leadership and ‘elite’.

If it wasn’t painfully obvious (and it’s hard to imagine why it wouldn’t be) at the time of the signing of the Prespa Agreement (AKA the ‘Mistake by the Lake’) in June 2018, the Greek Government agreed to a completely one-sided pact, in which it gave up a great deal and changed its longstanding positions in exchange for almost nothing. Proponents of the agreement argued that it would free up the nation’s diplomatic capital and allow Greek to direct its attention toward its greatest threat – Turkey. This proved to be wishful thinking, because in reality, Greece’s succumbing to pressure to accomodate its onomastically challenged northern neighbor’s annexation to NATO merely proved that it was ultimately unwilling to back up its words with deeds. In doing so, it sent a clear signal throughout the tough neighborhood in which it is situated that its leaders lack the mettle to stand up to bullies and are prone to appease them.

Regardless of whether the Prespa Agreement was passed by the previous SYRIZA-led Government, in a manner unbefitting a democratic polity, the current Government also shares culpability. For example, despite exploiting popular dissatisfaction with the Agreement for electoral gains, it has done little to challenge it or attempt to correct any of its glaring flaws. In fact, it has routinely looked the other way as Skopje systematically refuses to uphold the few obligations it did assume. At the very least, if it had proceeded with the formal recording of these violations, coupled by the necessary démarches, it could deal with this latest provocation in a much more dynamic manner. Already, members of the main opposition party, as well as some MPs of the ruling party, are pressing the Government to pass certain legislation foreseen by the Prespa Agreement, which would essentially serve to further reward Skopje’s lack of good faith in living up to its obligations.

Likewise, Turkey’s policy of converting sacred spaces of the Orthodox Christian faith into mosques requires a measured, yet resonating response. This is the only language Turkey appears to understand, and more importantly, respect. Appeals to UNESCO are a necessary formality, but really won’t solve anything. For starters, Greece should give Turkey a taste of its own medicine because inaction is tantamount to acquiescence. The conversion of Mustafa Kemal’s home in Thessaloniki into a Pontian Genocide Museum would be a most appropriate response, while additional fees on wire transfers going to Albania or the extension of Greek citizenship to ethnic Greeks living in Monastir would help humble Tirana and Skopje!

Follow me on X @CTripoulas

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