US-Russia tensions escalate over Greece, Macedonia name deal

A composite photo shows US President Donald J. Trump (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) (reissued 13 July 2018). [EPA-EFE/JIM LO SCALZO / SPUTNIK POOL]

The Kremlin accused Washington on Friday (13 July) of being behind the Greek government’s decision to expel two Russian diplomats who had allegedly tried to derail a deal resolving Greece’s name dispute with neighbouring Macedonia.

On 11 July, Greece announced it would expel two Russian diplomats and ban entry to two others on suspicion that they had tried to undermine an accord clinched between Greece and  Macedonia last month which should pave the way for Macedonia to join NATO.

Greece, Russia to expel diplomats in Macedonia tussle ahead of NATO summit

Russia and Greece were poised on Wednesday (11 July) to expel two of each other’s diplomats in a rare dispute that Greek media said had been prompted by the issue of Macedonia, which expects this week to be formally invited to join the NATO alliance.

Greece accused the Russian diplomats of ‘activities inconsistent with their status’, including illegal activities against national security, Kathimerini newspaper reported, adding that these had included attempts at bribery.

Greece’s Ambassador to Moscow, Andreas Fryganas, was called to the Russian Foreign Ministry on Friday to discuss the expulsion of the two diplomats from Athens.

“Washington is hiding behind the anti-Russian decision of the Greek government,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Friday.

Meanwhile, Interfax news agency reported that the preparation of a scheduled visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in September would be “frozen”.

The US government has backed the Greek decision and warned Russia against trying to destabilise the region.

“The United States has expressed its concern in the past about the Russian malignant influence in this region. Interference with the democratic processes of other countries is unacceptable and we support Greece in defending its sovereignty,” said State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert.

Nauert also expressed the US’s concern about possible Russian efforts to undermine the “important agreement between Athens and Skopje on the issue of the name dispute.”

“Greece expelled two Russian officials and barred entry of two others for attempting to interfere in Greek politics. We support Greece defending its sovereignty. Russia must end its destabilising behaviour,” she added.

 

At the NATO Summit on 12 July, the 29 leaders of the Alliance invited FYROM to start accession talks, triggering a strong reaction from Russia, which accused NATO of trying to “forcibly swallow” Skopje in order to expand its influence in the Balkans.

In an interview with Euronews, FYROM’s Primer Minister Zoran Zaev said, “Maybe we can be some kind of target of Russia, I don’t know but more than 80% of our citizens are in favour of NATO, government and the opposition are in favour of NATO”.

Greek premier Alexis Tsipras published a video today, in which he speaks on the phone with Zaev telling him, “You will face difficulties, I will face difficulties, but one day, history will vindicate us”.

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