Europe

Mid-East turmoil eclipses Greece’s latest Balkan initiatives

Greek officials found time to engage in several rounds of Balkan diplomacy this week, once again taking advantage of the presence in Greece of several Balkan leaders briefly present at a major conference in Athens.  But almost all panels and discussions arranged as part of that conference were eclipsed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflagration unfolding over the week.

Conferences in Greece provide a back door for entry

As seen last September with a conference organized by The Economist, such brief Athens visits by important Balkan leaders provide useful but short opportunities for bilateral meetings without the pomp and circumstance required for official bilateral meetings at senior levels.  This year’s Delphi Economic Forum (DEF) brought a significant number of speakers into Greece for an impressive week full of discussions and panels that covered a wide range of global issues and Greek history, but without the full gamut of live encounters and side meetings the DEF generated in its pre-COVID years, the ultimate impact of this year’s mostly virtual event will be substantially less than in the so-called “normal” years.   

Since the end of the Second World War, foreign visitors’ conference appearances in Greece have invariably included side meetings with Greek political leaders, and the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs made sure that all notable foreign leaders got meetings and photo-ops with top Greek officials.  Our round-up follows: 

Slovenia

Starting the cycle of Balkan meetings, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa met May 10.  Subjects discussed included management of the Covid-19 crisis and the so-called “green vaccination passport” as well as common NATO and EU enlargement concerns impacting the Western Balkans, which will form the top of the agenda under Slovenia’s future EU presidency. 

Serbia

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis met with Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic on May 13.  The key issue in this meeting was the willingness of Greece to admit vaccinated Serbian tourists this summer regardless of the type of vaccine administered by Serbian authorities, which encompasses the full range of available vaccines, including some not previously approved by the EU.  Mitsotakis reaffirmed Greece’s support for Serbia’s continuing efforts to join the European Union, which have unfortunately had no visible impact up to the present. 

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Mitsotakis met on May 13 with Milorad Dodik, Chairman of the Presidential Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Besides the obligatory photo op, discussions focused on the COVID-19 crisis and EU enlargement. Dodik later met with Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and Greece’s President, Katerina Sakellaropoulou.

Montenegro

President Sakellaropoulou, in another May 13 meeting, assured Montenegro’s Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic of Greek support for Montenegro’s eventual EU accession even under the new, stricter EU accession procedures.

North Macedonia

In their May 13 meeting, Mitsotakis and his North Macedonian counterpart, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, reviewed bilateral relations and examined the opportunities for collaboration in the sectors of economy and energy.  As a matter of course, Greece reiterated its support for North Macedonia’s long-delayed EU accession, contingent on established rules, respect of “good neighborly relations,” and Skopje’s faithful adherence to the specific obligations set out at the Prespes Agreement signed in 2018 which span a full five years.  Expanded military cooperation between both countries as NATO allies was also discussed. 

Zaev raised a number of key investments which will vastly increase the two countries’ economic interdependence.  North Macedonia plans to purchase important minority stakes in the regional energy complex taking shape in Alexandropoulis, primarily investing in the shipping terminal and gas production units which when complete will account for one-quarter of North Macedonia’s energy needs.  The Hellenic Petroleum oil pipeline to Skopje was discussed, as was a potential contract to a major Greek firm for the construction of a new gas-fired power plant.  

Zaev noted that once an agreement on post-Covid reopening borders was reached, the citizens of his country were looking forward to “crossing the borders and coming to Thessaloniki for coffee and food.”   Zaev also met with former PM Alexis Tsipras May 14 before returning to Skopje.

Is EU Enlargement on the back burner again?

With the Mid-East on fire, discussions at DEF on the issue of enlargement in the Western Balkans seemed particularly out of place.  Further, since Greece is not a key decision maker on this issue, the always-supportive comments by Greek officials come across as simple cheerleading by a minor player. At the DEF, Zaev was asked how he would address Bulgaria’s continuing objections to his country’s EU accession.  Zaev blamed the Bulgarian side but, ever the optimist, expressed hope for a speedy resolution of the dispute after bilateral consultations once a new Bulgarian government emerged after upcoming elections. 

In another DEF discussion on the EU enlargement issue, including Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi and North Macedonia’s Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Nikola Dimitrov, the sensitive issue of “decoupling” Albanian accession negotiations from North Macedonia’s path forward took center stage.  Both agreed that there is a need to restore momentum on enlargement after years of delayed progress and Varhelyi said critical decisions need to be taken by June if at all possible. 

Varhelyi noted that some EU member states are against decoupling the accession negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia but did not reject the idea completely if the dispute between Bulgaria and North Macedonia remains unresolved after new elections in Bulgaria.  Hoping to avoid the political minefield, he cautiously explained that “for the time being” both countries will move forward together but made no projections for when the intergovernmental conferences required to formally launch the accession process would be scheduled.   

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