Greece’s ever-closer cooperation with Russia

Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ appointment as Greece’s prime minister has been welcomed in Russia, amid signs that the two sides share common interests, especially in opposing North Macedonia’s accession to the EU and Nato.

Mitsotakis was sworn in as prime minister on 8 July after his centre-right New Democracy party won more than 50 per cent of the seats in Greece’s general election.

Putin has since expressed confidence that Mitsotakis, in his new role, “will help promote bilateral dialogue and constructive cooperation in various spheres in the interests of both nations”.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who met Mitsotakis during a working visit to Moscow in February, has also welcomed the appointment.

Opposition to North Macedonia’s EU and NATO membership aspirations

The key issue on which the interests of Mitsotakis and Russia align – albeit for different reasons – is opposition to North Macedonia’s accession to the EU and NATO.

Whilst Moscow fears threats to Russian interests in the Balkans, media reports have said Mitsotakis is wary of giving up a diplomatic bargaining chip in Greece’s longstanding name dispute with its neighbour.

Mitsotakis and his party voted in January against ratifying an accord with Macedonia, allowing it to change its name to the Republic of North Macedonia. They argued that this would aid Skopje’s territorial claims on the northern Greek province of Macedonia, and saw a Greek veto on North Macedonia’s accession to the EU and NATO as leverage in negotiations.

This placed Mitsotakis at odds with former Prime Minister Alexi Tsipras, who played a key role in securing the accord with Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev that put an end to the 27-year dispute.

Russia has also criticised the accord, since ratified in both Athens and Skopje, not least because NATO and EU member Greece had blocked North Macedonia’s attempts to join these organisations while the issue remained unresolved.

“We do not oppose the name that has been proposed, we only question…the willingness of the US to lead all Balkan states into Nato as soon as possible and to remove any Russian influence in this region,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in January.

Since ratifying the accord, also known as the Prespa agreement, Greece has dropped its opposition to its northern neighbour joining NATO. In February, it ratified North Macedonia’s Nato accession protocol as part of a lengthy process that will see it join as a full member – though Mitsotakis and his party voted against the measure.

Speaking to Reuters in April, Mitsotakis also said that whilst he would respect the Prespa agreement, Greece “fully retained the right to block” North Macedonia’s attempts to join the EU “if we think that our national interests are not met”.

Greece’s ‘relaxed’ approach to Russia

Despite being close to Moscow’s position on North Macedonia, Mitsotakis supports Greece’s membership of the EU and NATO. He has previously spoken of the need for “a new generation to come forward and to defend the European ideal with courage”.

He has nevertheless recognised historic ties that link Russia and Greece, telling Rossiyskaya Gazeta in February that whilst Greece “is bound by the decisions of the EU and NATO on policy issues relating to Russia, as far as possible we will adhere to another level, a more relaxed policy so that our relations with Russia conform to the historical tradition of bilateral relations”.

In trying to appeal to both the EU and Russia, Mitsotakis’ approach does not appear to differ much from that of former Prime Minister Tsipras.

But whilst Athens did not join EU sanctions against Moscow in light of the attack on former spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, it did order the expulsion of two Russian diplomats and barred the entry of two others in July 2018 for allegedly undermining Greek national security.

During the diplomatic rift, which saw Russia expel two Greek diplomats in response, Athens accused Moscow of bribing unidentified officials and provoking protests in order to undermine the deal over North Macedonia’s name that would pave the way for it to join NATO. The diplomatic tit-for-tat was only resolved in December during Tsipras’ visit to Moscow.

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