In landing in what up until a few months ago was the “Alexander the Great” airport of Skopje, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras on Tuesday was capitalizing on what is undoubtedly a rare and at the same time very significant foreign policy success for this government, while also following through on the second riskiest decision of his four-year tenure.
The risk entailed with normalizing relations with the newly renamed Republic of North Macedonia, via the Prespa agreement, is standing opposition by a majority of Greeks, especially in northern Greece's own Macedonia province, all months before a general election - and with Tsipras’ leftist SYRIZA party badly trailing the main opposition.
The political gambit is a far-off second compared to calling a controversial referendum in July 2015, being handed a decisive “No” result by voters and then performing a “volte-face” vis-à-vis institutional demands.
Nevertheless, in Skopje on Tuesday the once leftist firebrand who rose to power on a hyper-populist campaign plank of reversing creditors’ bailout conditions, overturning austerity as well as restoring cuts and spending, assumed a statesman’s posture alongside his North Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, who has also ignored massive political costs in his one-time Yugoslav constituent state to nail down NATO membership and enter a fast-track orbit for EU accession.
It’s along those lines that Tsipras, in his comments during a joint press conference, reiterated his government’s intent to shepherd North Macedonia’s EU accession course. The statement comes in contrast with a recent warning by main opposition New Democracy (ND) leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who said his party, if victorious in the coming election, will strictly monitor North Macedonia’s EU course and insist on protecting Greek interests.
However, no outright promise of abrogating the Prespa agreement was made by the poll-leading Mitsotakis.
Asked during a closely watched press conference about the still thorny issue of brand-names and logos, Tsipras merely fell back on the Prespa agreement, saying an international committee will be formed with representatives of both countries, “so we can resolve the problems that have created confusion to businesspeople and consumers for 30 years now.”
The concern, on the Greek side, is over a multitude of Greek products and goods featuring the name “Macedonia”, most produced in or hailing from the large Greek province, such as wines, the confection halva and farm produce, among others.
In terms of actual progress recorded on Tuesday, Zaev and Tsipras both referred to a long-awaited double tax avoidance agreement and customs cooperation, imperative tools in boosting already robust bilateral trade and investment.
Rekindling oft-repeated proposals over past decades to upgrade road, rail and airport transports along the Greece-North Macedonia-Serbia axis were also repeated, as well as Thessaloniki’s role as the region's main port of entry and more border crossings.
Numerous proposals and initiatives for bilateral cooperation in practically every field, in fact, brought no less than 10 Greek ministers and up to 140 business people to Skopje on Tuesday, as Tsipras’ entourage.