Systematic efforts to derail the Macedonian name deal, combined with increased Ankara-Moscow cooperation, are the main reasons that tensions between Greece and Russia have escalated of late, diplomatic sources told EURACTIV.com.
Relations between Athens and Moscow have deteriorated lately, following Greece’s decision on 11 July to expel two Russian diplomats and ban the entry of two others.
The Greek government said it had evidence that they tried to undermine the deal recently agreed between Greece and FYROM, which should pave the way for Skopje to join NATO. Athens claims that they were informing Russia for a long time.
The Kremlin noted that the United States were behind that move, which, according to Russian ambassador to Athens Andrey Maslov, was “disappointing”.
TASS news agency reported on 19 July that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov would cancel a scheduled meeting in Athens in September given the tensions between the two countries.
“I think that in the current situation this visit is losing its momentum, at least in those deadlines that we were talking about, namely in September,” the Russian ambassador said.
“They asked to visit Greece and we sent an invitation […] Lavrov is welcome in Athens”, sources told EURACTIV.
Greece’s ambassador to Moscow was invited today to the Russian ministry of foreign affairs for further explanation on the issue of the expelled diplomats but no retaliation measures were announced.
Skopje and Athens have both warned the EU and US about Russia’s mobilisation in the region ahead of a referendum on the name issue that will be held in the autumn in FYROM.
Zoran Zaev, the prime minister of FYROM, recently said that Greek businessmen with close ties to Moscow had bribed citizens in Skopje to “commit acts of violence” ahead of the referendum.
In addition, Defense Minister Radmila Sekenriska said on 13 July that her country would not allow Moscow to obstruct the name deal with Greece.
“There have been systematic efforts from Russian circles to undermine the name deal with Skopje,” diplomatic sources told EURACTIV, adding that they also tried to increase their influence in the Greek Orthodox Church and with the Patriarch of Jerusalem.
The role of Turkey
The new power balances in the wider region are another contributing factor to the escalation of tensions between Moscow and Athens.
The Turkey-Russia rapprochement and their joint actions in the Syrian war have raised eyebrows in Athens. Turkey has traditionally been Greece’s arch-foe and only membership of both countries in NATO has prevented them from descending into military conflict.
“The close cooperation in the Syrian war between Russia and Turkey has increased our suspicion,” the sources said, adding that another worrying issue for Athens is Turkey’s plans to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defense system as part of a drive to boost defensive capabilities in the region.
Reuters reported in April that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo highlighted to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu “the seriousness of US concerns… if they [Turkey] go ahead [with the anti-missile deal]”.
“This creates further caution in terms of NATO,” the sources noted.
But in the perspective of Athens, Turkey is also trying to exercise influence with its northern Balkan neighbours.
Ankara is not at all neutral regarding the recent name deal with FYROM. Conversely, Athens hopes that the name deal will eventually put an end to Turkey’s growing influence in the Balkan region.
Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Kotzias recently told EURACTIV.com in an interview that Greece would “not be encircled when it solves its problems” [with its northern neighbours].
Speaking at an event on Thursday in Athens, Kotzias told the name deal’s opponents that the real danger was not a fair compromise with a small state like FYROM, but abandoning it in the hands of Turkey.
“Aren’t we in danger [when Turkey] trains the army of all our northern neighbours and establishes military bases in our north?” Kotzias asked, rhetorically.