Anyone ever tried to get from Athens to Skopje or Pristina? It’s a journey from hell as the excellent Aegean Airlines, which links all the region’s cities, have eliminated Macedonia and Kosovo from their satellite map, writes Denis MacShane.
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Europe Minister, and travels regularly in the Balkans.
Instead it’s a 12-hour trip via Istanbul or Frankfurt, instead of a 60-minute hop to the capital cities of the these two small Western Balkan states.
Greece is now very much a frontline state for the broader security of the European Union and NATO after the turmoil in Turkey and the very clear signs of the desire of the Turkish ruling elite to turn its back on rule-of-law, free press, and allowing democratic space for opposition politics.
That is why US Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew, has called for Greece’s debt to be rolled over in order to help stabilise the nation, make it more attractive for foreign investment, and anchor Greece firmly as part of the Euro-Atlantic democratic camp.
But can Greece do more to help itself by being part of the solution rather than part of the problem to the many difficulties the region from the Alps to the Aegean still faces?
When the Rio Olympics open, the Macedonian athletes will march with France and Finland under the letter ‘F’ for ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.’ The ugly acronym FYROM was devised 25 years ago when right-wing Greek populist nationalists insisted that Macedonia was part of Greece and the Skopje state should not steal its name.
The rest of the world was baffled. The state of New Mexico in the USA does not mean Washington has designs on the nation of Mexico. Dublin lives with the northern six counties of the island of Ireland being part of another state, the UK.
But the Greek populist nationalism was matched by extreme nationalist language by Macedonian rightists who found – as has seen in the UK’s Brexit campaign or in Hungary and Poland – that invoking the nation ‘über alles’ brings in the votes.
Skopje’s airport is called the “Philip the Great” airport – which would be like renaming Heathrow the Joan of Arc or Napoleon airport because however one addresses ancient history Philip the Great saved Hellenic civilisation and culture for eternity and the great warrior had nothing to do with the Slavs who came down into today’s Macedonia and Bulgaria a thousand years later.
There is now a deal in Macedonia to move forward to new elections after a year-long row over spying and telephone-tapping of political and media opponents of the ruling rightwing nationalist. Radmila Sekerinska, of Macedonia’s Social Democratic Party says the deal is a good one if it holds but she fears that the anti-Greek nationalism prevailing in Skopje will continue to be deployed to win votes.
Can Greece rise above these irritations and normalise relations with Macedonia and Kosovo?
Morocco as template?
There is an interesting example being set in Africa where Morocco, after 32 years of boycotting the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union) because it admitted as a member the Polisario-front created Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) wants to rejoin the AU. Morocco says all of the former Spanish Sahara is part of Morocco and has spent three decades sulking because other AU member states, notably Algeria recognise the SADR.
King Mohammed VI of Morocco has said it now makes sense to promote Morocco’s point of view ‘inside the AU rather than from the outside.’
Unlike Greece which pretends that Macedonia and Kosovo do not exist, or in the latter case support Serb revanchist claims that Kosovo is just a breakaway province which will one day see the light and return to rule by Belgrade, Morocco knows that it is better to sit around the same table, inside the tent rather than outside standing on pride.
Indeed the Moroccan example of accepting reality is a lesson to both Macedonian and Greek populist nationalists. The world needs a stable Greece as Turkey appears to be opting for a Middle Eastern rather than a European future, at least under its current rulers. But Greece needs a stable Western Balkans and that cannot be achieved by treating Kosovo and Macedonia as pariah or non-states.
There were hopes that the left-wing Syriza government might break with the nationalist-populist blockages of previous Greek administrations, but so far, and unlike Morocco, nothing seems able to be changed.
The EU is sending a top Greek diplomat, Alexandra Papadoupolos, as head of its EULEX mission in Kosovo. She was fired as Greece’s ambassador to the EU on the grounds that she was insufficiently anti-Macedonian. Sending her as the EU’s person in Pristina may not help lower tensions. But if Athens remain obdurate that it will not help normalise state-to-state relations on its northern borders perhaps Brussels has no other choice.
Meanwhile travelling from Athens to Skopje or Pristina is an eternal bus journey as normal flights between the three capitals can never take off. And Turkish Airlines provide a service their Greek counterparts cannot.