(Kathimerini, English section, July 9, 2001)
During the recent crisis in the western Balkans, Greece has sought to assist and support the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). This behavior demonstrates a (largely unnoticed by the international media) new approach in Greek foreign policy on regional issues, as well as the culmination of a process of improvement in bilateral relations with FYROM.
Things were very different a few years ago. In the early 1990s, enormous mass demonstrations and the imposition of sanctions characterized Greeces response to the dispute concerning the new republics name and what were perceived (not unfairly) as provocative irredentist statements on the part of FYROMs leadership. After four years of acrimony, an Interim Agreement was signed in September 1995 between the two states, which, however, did not resolve the name issue.
Subsequently, Greeces business community took full advantage of the various opportunities offered, rendering Greece one of the largest trading partners and foreign investors in the country.
Furthermore, the tone of public discourse ceased to be hostile, while even a military agreement was signed in December 2000.
FYROMs Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski has described this new situation as a small miracle. After interethnic hostilities between Slav and Albanian Macedonians erupted in March 2001, Greeces government declared its support for the territorial integrity of FYROM.
Foreign Minister George Papandreou visited Skopje, condemned the acts of Albanian extremists and firmly reiterated his opposition to any form of violent change of borders. Athens also proposed to the European Council that the completion of FYROMs Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU be accelerated. There was a positive response to this request, and a signing ceremony eventually took place on April 9, 2001, FYROM becoming the first country in the western Balkans to enter such an agreement, in part thanks to Greek intervention.
It should be stressed here that the leader of the Greek opposition, Dr. Costas Karamanlis, visited Skopje and insisted that violent acts should be condemned, and that both FYROMs territorial integrity and minority rights should be respected.
Thus, it emerges that Greeces response to developments in FYROM already enjoys bipartisan support in favor of minority rights and the sanctity of FYROMs borders. Some military aid has been provided (tents, telecommunications equipment, etc.), while about 600 Greek troops are available to join a NATO force, if the cease-fire holds. At the same time, sensitivity to minority rights has also been expressed, thus sending a clear signal that Athens does not ignore, as long as they are peacefully expressed, the concerns of the neighboring countrys Albanian citizenry.
Hence, it can be concluded that Greeces reaction to the armed Albanian rebellion was prudent, balanced, bipartisan and supportive. Greeces new policy is based on the realization that its national interests are best served by stability and democracy in the Balkans.
There is a clear determination that our country will never again be perceived as part of the regions problems. The black sheep reputation acquired in the 1980s and 1990s is no longer applicable and it is evidenced by Greek efforts to contribute to multilateral stabilizing activity.
This is why Greek troops are serving under both KFOR and SFOR, and why F.R. Yugoslavias opposition parties received considerable support and encouragement from Athens, well before Slobodan Milosevics overthrow.
Greece, in sum, has demonstrated that it has a stable and mature political party system, which guarantees the continuity of the countrys new foreign policy toward Southeastern Europe. The major opposition party, New Democracy, has consistently refused to fan popular discontent and exploit sensitive foreign policy issues in the Balkans, which would have allowed it to score political points.
This was clearly seen during NATOs bombing campaign in Kosovo, which was opposed by 85 percent of the Greek people.
Nevertheless, New Democracy chose not to exploit this question at the expense of the governing PASOK party and a prudent foreign policy.
As regards FYROM, and assuming that the Albanian insurgency is checked and a political settlement is reached, it should be understood that the small countrys long-term viability will ultimately depend on the processes of enlargement of the Euro-Atlantic structures.
As a member of both NATO and the European Union, Greece can play a very useful role in this process.
Skopjes path to Brussels passes through Athens, and it will be interesting to view the dynamics of this relationship that could also include the resolution of the name issue.
[*] Theodore Couloumbis is professor of International Relations at the University of Athens and general director of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).
Aristotle Tziampiris is lecturer of International Relations at the University of Piraeus and research fellow at ELIAMEP.