Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has a lot riding on resolving a seven-decade naming dispute with his country’s northern neighbor, the Republic of Macedonia. Though the two sides are moving toward finalizing an agreement, the peril for Tsipras isn’t over. That’s because the accord could cost him his government, precipitating a snap election before its term expires in October 2019.
1. What’s the naming dispute?
The Republic of Macedonia, an independent state of 2 million people born out of the breakup of Yugoslavia, wants to join NATO and the European Union. But Greece, which as a member of both groups has a veto over new admissions, insists that the name Macedonia should refer only to its own northern region, which was Alexander the Great’s stronghold in ancient times. In June, Tsipras and his counterpart, Zoran Zaev, agreed that the Republic of Macedonia would change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia. The agreement was approved in a referendum and by parliament in Macedonia, finalizing a constitutional reform to change the country’s name.
2. What’s left for Greece to do?
With the Macedonian parliament having approved the reform of its constitution, Greece’s parliament now needs to ratify the agreement. But the junior coalition partner in Tsipras’s government, the nationalist Independent Greeks party, has long voiced its strong opposition to any use of the word Macedonia by the country to the north. On Jan. 13, its leader, Panos Kammenos, quit the government and took his party with him. This leaves Tsipras without a coalition, forcing him to call for a confidence vote.
3. So what’s expected to happen?
Tsipras will likely get sufficient support in parliament for ratification of the Macedonia deal, since lawmakers from other parties are rooting for the agreement. Kammenos’s withdrawal won’t likely bring down the government because several Independent Greeks lawmakers are expected to rebel against their leader and back Tsipras, extending his stay in power for a few more months. If Tsipras loses the confidence vote, he could be forced to call early elections. But the Macedonia deal would still proceed through Parliament before Tsipras turns to the polls.
4. Why is the Macedonia issue important to Tsipras?
In a re-election campaign, he’d like to cite a resolution to this historic dispute as one of his accomplishments, along with pulling Greece out of financial bailouts and the painful conditions that came with them. He made a big bet that he could resolve the Macedonia conflict, personally taking over the foreign ministry in October and committing to see the agreement through. His administration could use a foreign policy win, particularly after 2017 talks with Turkey failed to advance efforts to reunify a divided Cyprus. If Macedonia joins NATO, the military alliance will extend its influence to a place where Russia’s presence is strong, improving regional security and, the Tsipras administration hopes, earning Greece credit with its neighbors.
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