The Prespes Agreement as Tsipras’ Achilles heel

, by Michael Goodyear

The Prespes Agreement as Tsipras' Achilles heel
Alexis Tsipras with North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev in June 2018. Photo: Public domain.

Alexis Tsipras’ tenure as Prime Minister of Greece is under siege. Tsipras weathered austerity and the Greek debt crisis. He survived and even thrived following the clashes with the troika of financiers that nearly led to a Grexit. But now an act that has gotten Tsipras nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize is placing the future of his party, Syriza, at risk. The Prespes Agreement, which recognized North Macedonia, has led to an intense backlash from the Greek populace and now a political fallout that threatens the Syriza government.

Background to Prespes

Greece had been an enemy of North Macedonia since the country achieved independence in the early 1990s under the name Macedonia. A northern province of Greece is also called Macedonia (as, famously, was the country of Alexander the Great) and Greece saw in the name Macedonia a territorial and cultural claim on Greek land. Greece insisted on Macedonia being called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) in international organizations. The current prime ministers of both countries, Tsipras and Zoran Zaev, began discussing a mutual agreement a year ago.

At times this took the form of a name-claim war, with Greece renaming Thessaloniki airport “Macedonia International Airport” and Macedonia in response naming Skopje airport “Alexander the Great International Airport.” But in Greece and (North) Macedonia, it was also a serious matter of reputation and national prestige. In Athens, riots broke out repeatedly in protest of the agreement negotiations. On the other hand, Greece had prevented (North) Macedonia from joining European and international bodies such as NATO and the European Union, keeping it economically isolated.

Under the resulting Prespes Agreement, which has now been approved by the parliaments of both Greece and North Macedonia, Macedonia’s name is officially changed to North Macedonia and in return Greece will stop blocking Macedonia’s attempts to enter NATO and the EU. This also opens up opportunities for economic cooperation between the two countries. As Tsipras pointed out, the vast majority of the world already called it Macedonia instead of FYROM. On paper, it seemed like an efficient deal that buried a bloody, 28-year-old hatchet.

Popular abroad, popular backlash at home

The international community appeared to agree. The United States was the first to praise the agreement for peacefully resolving the name dispute. Congratulations then came from France and Germany.

But the Greek populace thought otherwise. Upwards of 60,000 participated in protests in Athens. At the end of March, Thessaloniki, the second largest Greek city and the capital of the province of Macedonia, greeted Tsipras with cries of “traitor” and “Macedonia is Greek.”

Vote of confidence

Back in January, resistance to the Prespes Agreement severely undermined Tsipras’ grip on power. Syriza had ruled Greece for four years, but in a coalition with the small Independent Greeks party (ANEL). ANEL left the coalition due to differences with Tsipras over the Prespes Agreement. ANEL is a Greek nationalist party, so although its members of parliament have split over supporting the deal, it officially sees the Prespes Agreement as anathema to Greece.

Since ANEL left the coalition, Syriza no longer had a majority in the Greek parliament, which forced a vote of confidence back in January. On 16 January, Tsipras barely survived the vote, winning 151 to 148, and on 25 January, the Greek Parliament voted to ratify the Prespes Agreement with 153 votes against 146.

What’s next?

Under the Greek constitution, elections have to be called by October 2019. These elections will not only decide the fate of Tsipras and Syriza, but also the future of Greece. The Greek opposition party, New Democracy, saw blood in the water and has ripped into Syriza over the Prespes Agreement, accusing the government of “betraying” the Greek people. Syriza’s announcement of planning to distribute 658 million in benefits showed a desperate move to stave off further loss of popularity in the polls.

Despite the damage the Prespes Agreement has done to his prestige, Tsipras has doubled down on his commitment to the agreement and improved relations with North Macedonia. In January, Tsipras proclaimed the Prespes Agreement one of the “most important” achievements of Syriza. He went to Skopje at the start of April with Greek entrepreneurs to advance greater economic cooperation between the two countries. He even took a selfie with Zaev during his trip.

Tsipras entered the political scene as a radical, but he has become one of the most iconic and stable leaders in the EU. Although Greece will not pay off its debt until 2059, Tsipras managed to stabilize the situation and restore Greece’s position among the international community. He expertly played the creditors and the EU to achieve respect in a hopeless situation.

The Prespes Agreement papers over a long-standing historical enmity at just the right time. With Turkish aggression building, Greece needs allies, especially since both countries are in NATO. The Prespes Agreement removes an ideological rivalry from the equation.

The risk of overthrowing Tsipras’ stable government is too great a risk, but at this point, the Prespes Agreement is signed and in force. It is now up to the Greeks to make of this legacy what they will. Will they dismiss one of their strongest leaders in recent history over what is now a historical footnote, or will they take advantage of this recent peace to gain new political and economic opportunities in the region?

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