The polarization in Greece is significantly limiting any chances to reach a solution concerning FYROM by the next NATO Summit
Interview with Ambassador Alexandros Mallias
(Photo: “HERMES” I.I.A.S.GE)
Discussing the dispute between Greece and the FYROM about the name the latter could officially adopt if the current negotiations lead to an agreement Ambassador (retired) Alexandros Mallias, in an interview to Hermes Institute of International Affairs, Security & Geoeconomy points out that currently we witness in Greece an issue from which the country should have drawn some conclusions and lessons from the way it had been handled over the past 27 years triggering very intense turmoil on the political scene between the government and the opposition but also within the Parties provoking thus a dangerous polarization.
Ambassador Mallias explains that though the current FYROM’s government under Mr. Zoran Zaev displays a willingness to move towards a resolution, he underlines that it is too early to tell whether an agreement will be reached.
Finally Ambassador Mallias talks about the general situation in the Balkans and the future of the region and the relations between Greece and Albania, an issue he considers as the next major issue for Greece.
Interview by Irene Mylona, Director of Research, Strategic Analysis & Studies Directorate
- Today, 25 years after, the issue of the name of FYROM continues to be a diplomatic puzzle causing political unrest. According to you which are the reasons the dispute remains unresolved since 1991?
A.M: The issue concerning the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has gone through many phases. Chronologically, I would divide them into the following three periods. First, from the referendum of independence in September 1991 to the Interim Accord. Of course, in this period I also include the accession of the neighboring country to the United Nations under the provisional name “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” until the Interim Accord in September 1995 and the subsequent official establishment of diplomatic relations at Liaison Office level. Second, the recognition from the United States in November 2004 under the name “Republic of Macedonia” which in fact undermined the balance of the talks. And third, from 2004 to 2008 with the NATO Summit in Bucharest.
We could argue that a new period opens now, but it is too early to draw definitive conclusions. However, we can observe that following the elections the new FYROM’s government makes some gestures in order to be able to substantially differentiate itself from the former nationalistic government led by Mr. Gruevski; I mean in terms of the state and the quality of the relations they want to have with Greece. But, it was Greece that one that initiated a proposal for Confidence-Building Measures that have been successfully promoted for the past two years. Furthermore, I am not in a position to detect how far the present government in Skopje is willing to go in order to cut a deal with Greece. There are conflicting messages.
Why it still remains an unsolved issue? It is not solved first because there is a lack of what I would call political synchronization, an absence of synchronized political will and capability to achieve an accord between the two countries. It is also due to domestic policies, balances or imbalances and to weaknesses. Second, after the signing of the Interim Accord, the FYROM decided that there had no real reason and strong motivation to rush for an agreement with Greece on the name issue. This stance became apparent and was further cemented after the United States of America recognized the FYROM with the name Republic of Macedonia.
Today, unfortunately we see in Greece an issue from which we should have drawn some conclusions and lessons from the way it was handled over the past 27 years triggering very intense turmoil on the political scene between the government and the opposition but also within the political Parties. In my view, this polarization is significantly limiting, maybe even completely eliminating any chances to reach a solution by the next NATO Summit on July 11th.
- The issue is suddenly again in the spotlight and almost with a commitment from both Greece and the FYROM that by the summer there will be a solution, opening the way for the neighboring country to join NATO and then the EU. What is your opinion on that?
A.M: I do not think it was sudden. It came in the spotlight for two reasons. First, because there is a new government and a new coalition with the Albanian Parties in Skopje after the elections in 2017. It is especially important because all the Albanian Parties, with the exception of the DPA, agreed to prioritize the accession to NATO making it clear that it presupposes a solution for the naming issue. The Albanians were the ones who exerted great pressure to this end. The current government of Prime Minister Zoran Zaev shows a willingness to move towards a resolution. It is too early to tell you whether we will reach an agreement and what type of agreement it will be. But, it is a weak government and it rests on a fragile majority. My feeling is that the renaming of Skopje Airport to Skopje International Airport and not to “Kiro Gligorov” was due to Albanian objections. Second, the NATO Summit held on 11 and 12 July in Brussels, is a de facto powerful incentive, the carrot for our neighboring country. FYROM feels that it has little time at its disposal and is under pressure to reach a solution.
Greece is also inclined to take the same direction, I think that Athens is right to take steps towards finding a solution until the NATO Summit but, I am not sure there is enough political time left between the two countries and in each individually. For some time, I was alone in Athens in stressing that the possibilities not to reach an agreement are higher than the possibilities to cut a deal.
- In terms of negotiation, do you think Greece is on the right track? Are there clear targets and red lines? In short, is there a national negotiating strategy?
A.M: I believe that the government at the level of Ministers of Foreign Affairs has already negotiating substantially negotiating with FYROM the name issue since summer 2017, and a package of Confidence-Building Measures. They were in fact in depth tackled last July when FYROM’s Foreign Minister, Nikola Dimitrov visited Athens and met not only with the Greek Foreign Minister, Nikos Kotzias, but also with other political figures and personalities who have contributed to the building of the bilateral relations. Let's keep it to that…
So I think the government had a kind of strategy. The major drawback in the way the government decided to conduct the negotiations is that it put all the weight on building a bridge with the neighboring country that is legitimate and perhaps necessary, but at the same time it damaged the bridges of communication with the opposition. In particular with the main opposition party “NEA DIMOKRATIA”.
This brought the main opposition Party and other Parties to a very delicate position. Nevertheless, I believe that if the government reaches at the end of the negotiations an agreement that coincides with our long-standing positions and covers a large part of the Greek aspirations and interests which is brought to the Greek Parliament it should be supported .Regardless of the mistakes made by the government during the first six months of direct negotiations with the neighboring country without even confidentially briefing the political leaders.
I regret to say this, but if the government had done so back in October even in December things would have been m easier to handle .At this stage there is huge confusion and anger of the public opinion.
At the same time I do see that our friends in Skopje are not ready to make the difficult though necessary constitutional amendments to reach an agreement with Greece. So, I do not foresee a conclusive process by July.
- Mr. Ambassador you visited the FYROM recently. What was the general atmosphere in the neighboring country? How important do you think was the change of government in Skopje? Does the current political situation allow a solution? Is the current optimism justified between the governments of the two countries?
A.M: I was in Skopje on Thursday February 1st where I met with personalities whose judgment and knowledge on the subject I fully trust. I do think I have a good idea of how they think. I have no knowledge of the texts being currently negotiated though Mr. Nimetz's texts were made public. There is a willingness to move forward. FYROM is a now a country that comes out of its disillusion for the second time in twelve years. Τhe illusion of a country that is strong, a country that has a strong ancient Greek identity… and a country that will join NATO and the EU because it is supported by Americans, Germans and others. That was their general conviction. And a country that like many of our other neighbors believed that the weakened by the economic catastrophe Greece that reached the bottom of credibility and prestige, because of our lack of self-esteem and would be an easy opponent. The illusions were all shattered. It was swiftly refuted when Mr. Gruevski lost the elections and was abandoned even by those who supported him at the detriment of Greece. In fact they were they considering him as the head of a good and quiet government who had the will to reform but who, as the Americans put it, was “clumsy” in his relations with Greece. The second illusion was the identity and, finally the third is the deplorable economic situation of the neighboring country. The massive building of fake ancient statues throughout the “antiquization policy” had important economic dividends for corrupted politicians.
- Sir Anthony Eden said in 1942, discussing the post-war world with Roosevelt, “I hope we will be able to conclude apparent agreements to which we will have come up after secret concerts.” As an experienced diplomat, do you believe that secret diplomacy is conducted between the two countries? And according to you can secret diplomacy be beneficial and effective?
A.M: Secret diplomacy is needed. Secret diplomacy is an indispensable tool. It means I'm discussing away from the spotlight. This, of course, sounds strange in Greece because before we even reach an agreement confidential notes on issues are in the newspapers as a result of leaks. Nowadays, we even see confidential notes making their way to the Parliament. It is not the first time that happens... Greece unfortunately discovered Wikileaks way before they even existed. That does not surprise me because it is characteristic of a country that is lacking self-esteem and self-respect.
Thus, secret diplomacy means that someone is negotiating out of the spotlight, but at some point there also must be a quiet briefing and consultation between politicians. This should have been done especially regarding the name talks with the FYROM. I cannot exclude that there will be other issues where there will be turmoil and social unrest, leading to new public demonstrations, for example the Greek-Albanian relations.
- What do you believe would be considered as a “diplomatic victory” and what a “diplomatic defeat” for Greece regarding the FYROM?
A.M: A diplomatic victory would be to reach a solution with FYROM which both sides regard as a balanced and acceptable agreement; a fair and therefore viable agreement could be considered as a victory. A defeat or a failure would be for Greece to be trapped once more because of a short-term political agenda, unforeseen developments and a lack of political courage and will. That would be a defeat. It would be another wasted and lost momentum. I am in favor of reaching an agreement in case this agreement promotes, serves and responds to our national interests. I am against a resolution based only on the factor of time; its not a good enough reason to argue that we should find a solution because the issue has been delayed for so long. The solution must above all meet our expectations and our national interests.
- It appears that the Greek political Parties approach the name issue mainly according to the domestic political costs, rather than based on national interest. Do you agree with this view?
A.M: The so called political cost is determined at the level of the Party gains or losses. Within the Party political cost is determined on a personal level and in the government it is evaluated according the reaction of the public opinion. Unfortunately, issues of national security and foreign policy are often addressed based on the polls and less on the will to move forward. Also, who defines the national interest? How the national interest has been determined? Is there an official public paper? Any official Greek National Security Doctrine identifying the national interest? I heard all the political leaders including the Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, during the briefing on the negotiations on the name issue between Athens and Skopje. When they came out after meeting with the Prime Minister, all the political leaders invoked the national interest to support their own position, aligned, conflicting, divergent or different from that expressed by the Prime Minister.
So, that evening I heard six different versions from six different political leaders of what the Greek national interest was. Who defines the country’s national interest? Every single party? Every politician? Every Ambassador? Every Minister of Foreign Affairs? Every Prime Minister?
- What will change on the geopolitical and political level in the Balkans, if an eventual agreement is reached with the FYROM? What it will mean in political and economic terms?
A.M: When we signed the Interim Accord, it is in fact an agreement between two “anonymous parties” as no one is named, on September 13th 1995, it took by surprise our neighbors especially Bulgaria. This gave Greece the opportunity to dispose more room as a player on a chessboard. Foreign policy is a sophisticated chessboard. You try to win a few positions, move some pawns forwards and at the same time secure your back. My own belief is that Greece could place its pawns wisely on the chessboard, although I think we are losing ground not because of the economic crisis but because of the behavioral model of our certain political elites.
It is sad to say this, it may seem harsh, but that's the reality. The way in which foremost the government, that is liable for the negotiations, and the parties of the opposition have moved (with some exceptions of parties whose views and opinions are not widely accepted or well known by the public opinion) is unfortunate. So when you have weaknesses precisely because of the way the political system functions and the lack of consensus, you can’t have the support of the political world or that of the public opinion.
Today, the public opinion is angry and confused; therefore it has decided to follow a different path and endorsed specific positions that are dominant today. Looking at the results of the polls you will see that the public opinion is totally opposed to the majority of policies concerning the FYROM naming that have been promoted over time by all Greek governments from 1993 until today. That means something. The public opinion must not be blamed .On the contrary, this happens because of the confusion caused by the lack of clarity and transparence of the political discourse. This trend intensifies the general distrust people have towards the political system as a whole, the political Parties and the basic institutions of our representative republic, which is the Parliament, regarding key issues. This is very dangerous. Very alarming. Yes?
- Looking at the developments in the region, do you think it is time to create of a National Security Council in Greece?
A.M: This is a proposal that I have been promoting for many years. Yet, today this would sound in Greece like the revolution of 1917 in Russia. It's too great to be done. If established, in the very distant future the National Security Council should be chaired by the Prime Minister .It could be composed by a small group of experts, of “wise men” with zero financial burden .Its main goal would be to ensure the continuity of knowledge. But in Greece proposing the formation of a National Security Council to ensure continuity is utterly utopian...
Because I do not see it happening in the foreseeable future, we could use what we have at hand currently, the Government Council for Foreign Affairs and Defense (KYSEA). I would be happy even with an upgraded KYSEA to respond to the many changes and challenges that our larger region has gone through the past 18 years. We don’t talk about small changes. Everything has changed in the Balkans, Turkey has changed, and all of North Africa has changed as did the Middle East. Threats and challenges are completely different from 2000. Even if they were the same, there is an important parameter that has changed: Greece is not the same. Neither NATO nor the European Union is the same. Despite that, all these changes are not enough to take action and modernize the KYSEA. So, as a minimum let’s implement the current law for the KYSEA. What is really worth mentioning is that KYSEA has not met for any major issues such as the FYROM or Erdogan’s visit in Greece the first visit of a Turkish President over 60 years. So let's see what can be done instead of what should be done and at least use what is provided by the law.
- You mentioned earlier the demonstrations in Thessaloniki and Athens. Is it possible that public opinion could serve as the foundation for national negotiations? In other words, can “diplomacy of demonstrations” exist?
A.M: It would be naïve to be under the impression that public rallies and demonstrations are not taken into account. It’s a different thing to have demonstrations organized by governments or political factors and it’s a different thing to deal with spontaneous demonstrations like those in Thessaloniki and Athens. They are always taken seriously and they affect not only foreign policy but also every single governmental activity.
- The issue of the FYROM name is only one of the problems in the Balkans. The return of “nationalism” is a matter of concern for the international community; do you think it could spark unrest in the wider region?
A.M: My answer is very easy. Historically there has always been “nationalism” or better said a passion for identity in the Balkans. But, I do not accept that today those who turned Europe into a fortress are pointing an accusation finger towards the Balkans. Therefore, the return of “nationalism” to the Balkans is simply what I could call the extension of the new “nationalism” that we experience today in Europe. There are cases in Central Europe of states which increasingly weakens the links of the solidarity between EU Member States, resulting in decisions taken in Brussels not being implemented by specific Member States. So, we could accept that there is a general return of “nationalism” in Europe, which resonates more in the Balkans that must be addressed, How do you describe the fact that certain EU countries, more than eight mostly coming from the big bang enlargement of 2004, are closing their borders, are opposed to EU's responsibility-sharing decisions, and prefer to raise walls in the European Union? Are they not displaying a type of nationalism?
- I’m taking you to another familiar key issue, the relations between Greece and Albania. Recently there have been contacts between the two countries to resolve the differences. What do you think about this?
A.M: As for Albania, it is a fact that Kosovo's independence has created many great hopes and equally great illusions. That is why it is very important that we proceed with the signing of the new fundamental Treaty, although I fear that the present polarization, made or real, in Greece will not allow this to happen either. We are in the final stage, the initiative was taken two years ago by Greece and we went through very difficult negotiations to get where we are now. I wish and hope that the outcome will be satisfactory and the Treaty will be signed although we will have to wait months perhaps even years before it can be ratified by the Parliament. But the importance of the relations we have with Albania is of the utmost importance, because it will help to improve and strengthen the bonds of Greece with the Albanian factor in the Balkans. The next step should be the signing of a similar Agreement and the recognition by Greece of the Republic of Kosovo.
- Greece is currently in the process of diplomatically resolving a series of issues that have been delayed many years. Is the timing for such diplomatic moves appropriate?
A.M: The time was ripe. Yet, we have the great gift to destroy a perfectly good opportunity to make a good deal mainly because all our foreign issues are hostages of the way our political system is functioning. This factor has to be added to the lack of clear signals and willingness from our neighbors.
* Ambassador ad Honorem Alexandros Mallias served as Ambassador of Greece to the USA (2005-2009). He has been extensively dealing over 15 years with the Balkan issues and frequently travelling throughout the region. He has been lecturer at the Post-Graduate Diploma in Negotiations of the Athens University for Economics and Business and has frequently delivered lectures abroad in universities such as the Yasar University (Izmir), Prizren Public University (Kosovo), and American University (Suleymanija). In June 2012, he was appointed Member of the International Board of the International Business College in Mitrovica. He is the author of several books and articles. Ambassador Mallias has served as Director of the Southeastern Europe (Balkan Affairs) at the Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2000-2005), Ambassador to Albania (1999-2000) and first Head of Mission at the Greek Liaison Office in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) (1995-1999). He previously served with the EU Monitor Mission in the Balkans (1994) in Croatia, in Bulgaria and in FYROM.