Tsipras: Mending fences with Russia

Tsipras: Mending fences with Russia

When then Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias decided last July to expel two Russian diplomats serving in Athens and ban two more from entering Greece, many were surprised and worried. Kotzias had justified his decision by blaming Kremlin for attempting to interfere with “sensitive” matters of Greek politics relating to the Balkans, especially the process initiated by both Athens and Skopje governments to normalize their relations after years of dispute. Kremlin responded by expelling two Greek diplomats from the Russian capital. 

The timing of the move was highly significant. It was only weeks earlier that Athens and Skopje had announced that they finally agreed on a formula to end their 26-year-old dispute over the name of the young Balkan republic which gained its independence from the partition of Yugoslavia in 1991.

The much-publicized signing of the “Prespa Agreement” on June 17 this year was meant to be the “final settlement of the differences as described in the U.N. Security Council Resolutions 817 (1993) and 845 (1993), the termination of the interim accord of 1995 and the establishment of a strategic partnership between the parties.” Skopje was to be the capital of North Macedonia.

If the U.N., NATO, EU and the U.S. were happy over the agreement - and said so - that was not the case with Moscow who saw the settlement of the dispute as part of a plan which would add another Balkan country to the Western conglomeration of geostrategic, defence and economical institutions. Let us not forget that last July was also the period when the alleged poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter by Russian agents in London was high on the agenda, further aggravating the relations between Britain and Russia and generally the Western world.

Athens, although not siding with the West over the Skripal affair, chose to accuse Kremlin of meddling in its own affairs directly. The expulsion of the Russian diplomats was coupled by unnamed government sources accusing the Russians of illegally collecting and distributing information and attempting to bribe Greek state officials. An article in the FT claimed that the Russians were infiltrating Greece’s northern regions of Macedonia and Thrace trying to influence local businesspeople, church leaders, cultural organizations, ultra-right groups and fuel public nationalist feelings against the Prespa agreement. Even the monastic state of Mount Athos was not left out of the blame. Unnamed sources in the Greek media claimed that the vast Russian monastery of Saint Pantelemon, which celebrated its millennium anniversary last May in the presence of President Putin, was also a source of suspect activities.

Back in July, commentators were calling the row between Athens and Moscow a “stunning falling-out” of two Christian Orthodox nations and historical allies.

Things deteriorated further when the Patriarchate of Constantinople, considered the highest spiritual authority in the Christian Orthodox Church, agreed to grant the autocephalous status to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, thus allowing it to break away from the Russia Patriarchate. A strong reaction and a series of “punitive” ecclesiastical actions by the Russian Church against Phanar brought the relations of the two churches to a near breaking point.

Against such a background, one would have thought that any rapprochement between Athens and Moscow would be a far-fetched plan. But Kotzias resigned from his post last October, the Prespa agreement is still in the process of being ratified by the parliaments in both countries, and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who took over Kotzias’ portfolio, wanted for his own reasons to “put everything behind.”

The visit to Moscow was arranged, and today Tsipras will be meeting with President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev.

What can Tsipras achieve in Moscow?

In an atmosphere of tension in the Aegean and East Mediterranean over energy resources, Greece may hope to reclaim a strong geostrategic ally who could provide support against Turkey. However, with Turkey in close cooperation with Russia also in the energy sector, that may seem hard to achieve. But yet, who knows what is in Putin’s mind? We should wait for today’s press conference.

For Tsipras, though, the restoration of Greek-Russian ties would be a significant diplomatic achievement, especially at this particular moment when he seems determined to strike as many points as he can both in domestic and foreign policy, to win a second electoral victory by next autumn.