Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias traveled to North Macedonia August 31, for a hastily scheduled official visit to the country while his own capital was otherwise preoccupied with a poorly managed government reshuffle.
In Skopje, Dendias first met with his counterpart Bujar Osmani before meeting with Prime Minister Zoran Zaev. Both meetings appear to have followed expected discussion parameters, with few surprises emerging. Dendias tweeted that his meeting with Osmani covered bilateral issues, including the reliable and consistent implementation of the Prespes Agreement, new bilateral cooperation initiatives, the Western Balkans’ EU perspective (the codeword for EU Enlargement) and other regional developments.
The Dendias-Zaev meeting focused on bilateral economic cooperation, energy, transport, and the regional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. They also discussed the situation regarding EU Enlargement in the region as well as the implementation of Prespes Agreement commitments, a source of frequent but manageable low-level problems for both countries.
Prespes Agreement issues linger
Dendias told the media that North Macedonia has taken “important steps” in the implementation of the 2018 Prespes deal, but he added that “there remains significant ground for correct implementation,” indicating that Greece believes a number of issues are still open. It should not be forgotten that Greece maintains a policy of linking its support for North Macedonia’s EU accession to Skopje’s complete implementation of all aspects of the Prespes Agreement. There is a five-year transition period for most of these commitments.
As the current “freeze” on EU Enlargement progress emanates from a bilateral dispute between North Macedonia and Bulgaria, Dendias was able to assume the role of friendly listener and even an advisor, instead of an adversary.
Checking all the protocol boxes, Dendias also met separately with President Stevo Pendarovski as well as other senior officials.
Dendias was quoted as telling his hosts “Greece wants and can be the closest ally of North Macedonia and its best friend.”
Indigestion in Athens over Turkish defense agreement
Greek media sources indicate Dendias raised Athens’ concern about the recent defense agreement signed between Skopje and Ankara, focused mainly on defense equipment upgrades for North Macedonia. This may actually be the true reason the Skopje visit was scheduled by the Greek side, out of fear of Turkish encroachment and a so-called “Moslem arc” forming north of Greece’s borders. North Macedonian officials have indicated that the agreement with Turkey should not concern Athens and that Skopje fully considers Greece’s sensitivities regarding Turkey.
A little “extra credit” with Washington
Another reason a visit to North Macedonia made sense for Greece right now is that it burnishes Athens’ credentials on Western Balkans issues just before the high-level discussions with US officials that routinely occur on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Again, with Bulgaria in the “hot seat” as far as EU Enlargement at the present time, Greece now appears to be a much more helpful regional partner.