Greek FM Kotzias resigns at a critical juncture

Greek FM Kotzias resigns at a critical juncture

The sudden resignation of the Greek foreign minister on Oct. 17 led the government of Alexis Tsipras to its most serious crisis since it came to power in September 2015. 

Nikos Kotzias, a former academic known for his views that Greece should conduct a multicentered foreign policy by exploiting its geostrategic potential on multiple fronts, was a first choice for Alexis Tsipras to join his first government. He was not new to diplomacy. As an advisor to George Papandreou when the latter was foreign minister, he played an active role in the process known as “earthquake diplomacy” that sprang out of the twin devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Greece in 1999.

During that rare spring season for Greek-Turkish relations, Kotzias was a frequent visitor to Turkey and was convinced that lasting peace was possible for both sides if negotiated and structured properly. Ironically, his dramatic exit from the Greek government happened as a visit to Istanbul was due to take place by Tsipras—although the date had not been fixed—at the invitation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The invitation had come during the Erdoğan-Tsipras meeting last September during the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

From the beginning, Kotzias seemed to have many ideas on how to solve several outstanding issues that had plagued Greek diplomacy: Relations with Turkey, the Cyprus issue, energy issues and relations with the countries neighboring Greece, the European Union, Albania and so on. He had the energy to deal with all of them, sometimes attracting criticism for self-boosting and arrogance.

In the end, it was not the ongoing issues with Turkey or the current geostrategic and economic complexities around Cyprus that pushed Kotzias out of the Syriza-led government. It was the thorny diplomatic puzzle of solving the age-old problem over the official final name for the small neighboring country, temporarily named the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

An agreement between Greece and “Macedonia” was designed and signed by Tsipras and Kotzias with their counterparts in Skopje. It was called the “Prespes Agreement” and it took a year of secret negotiations. The treaty signed last June under the auspices of the Security Council and with enthusiastic approval of EU and NATO allies, provided for the tiny state to be called North Macedonia, thus being able to become a member of NATO and eventually the EU.

The keenness of all foreign parties to knock down every obstacle—including the objections of Greece for using the name Macedonia—in order to bring Skopje into the arms of the western alliance, exposed the Tsipras government to a barrage of attacks both by the opposition but also by his coalition partner, the small conservative nationalistic party of Independent Greeks. Its leader and current Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, never hid his opposition to the agreement and it was him in the end who forced Kotzias to render his resignation.

Kammenos, on whose seven deputies Tsipras relies for the survival of his government, has been playing hot and cold in an obvious practice to appear indispensable. In a recent trip to the United States, he overstepped the lines of his ministry and negotiated diplomatic issues with the Trump administration.

An unprecedented clash between the two ministers took place during a cabinet meeting Wednesay, where Kammenos accused Kotzias of links with Soros. The fact that neither the Greek prime minister nor the rest of the cabinet rushed to his defense, was sufficient reason for Kotzias to resign from the government the next day.

“The prime minister put me in the same sack with the slanderer and the abuser. My dignity is above all,” was the reaction from Kotzias.

The rest is more problematic. The prime minister took over Kotzias’s duties and declared he would not accept “double language” from then on—a statement that did not go down well, as many thought that it was Kammenos whose double language on national issues caused problems to the government.

Now, the opposition is predictably sharpening their knives for an all-out attack against a government, which they claim Kammenos is holding “hostage.” The media, even the friendly ones, are blaming Tsipras for mishandling the whole affair favoring his erratic coalition partner. And all this, while Athens is still struggling with an unstable economy, remaining under pressure from Washington and Brussels to “finish with the Macedonia issue” at the same time. This is a very critical juncture for Greece, since in a few months’ time, the country will be facing the triple hurdle of local, EU and general elections, where the results may prove devastating.