Friday, 4 April 2008

Back in the game

Greece showed that it can learn from its copious past at the Nato summit in Bucharest, reversing mistakes in the name dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

It embarked with reasoned arguments, in contrast to the belligerent nationalism of 1992. Its three parameters - a geographically qualified Macedonia that doesn't claim Greek territory, universally applied and ratified by the United Nations Security Council - do not overreach and would restore existing terms Fyrom has transgressed.

Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis placed well-articulated positions in Western newspapers, and her ministry fed the World Council of Hellenes Abroad a non-rabid page advertisement. Fyrom's anti-Greek propaganda, by contrast, seemed to confirm its territorial aspirations, and the Greeks played that up.

Second, Greece established a united front in the government and parliament, in contrast to the near-collapse of the Mitsotakis government in 1993. George Papandreou distinguished himself from his father, Andreas, who, as opposition leader, had baited the Mitsotakis government with charges of anaemia. Bakoyannis kept in close consultation with Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, in contrast with her predecessor, Antonis Samaras, who had ridden the wave of nationalism to undermine her father's government.

Third and most important, Greece made official its acceptance of a composite name containing the M-word, something that gained it at least six supporters and five declarations of sympathy from the alliance - a far cry from the international isolation or indifference of the past 14 years.

Standing up to the American juggernaut was possible partly thanks to the unpopularity of George W Bush's foreign policy and the most welcome end of his presidency. Nato did not comply with his wishes to invite Georgia and Ukraine into the Membership Action Plan, and only France increased its contribution to the mission in Afghanistan. The allies agreed to the installation of a missile defence umbrella over Europe that Americans will pay for and whose inability to intercept a missile seems to perturb no-one. It was a well-chosen moment for Greece - a loyal American ally - to be heard.

New Democracy owes something to Greece's Turkish experience. Having expressed disappointment that the lifting of a veto to Turkish European Union candidacy in 1999 did not lead to reciprocal goodwill gestures that would resolve territorial disputes in the Aegean and reunify Cyprus, Greece decided to play tough - something it does not often do.

New Democracy also owes something to low expectations. World media have buried Greece in years of criticism over what they consider an arcane issue of history and pride, and not a matter of national security at all; and Greek officials played down the chances of a last-minute deal.

The conservatives even owe something to right wing leader George Karatzaferis, whose appearance in the September 2007 election race did much to prompt Karamanlis' incipient promise of a veto during a televised debate.

With its most important diplomatic victory in years, Greece has reversed a stereotype of ineffectiveness. In 2002 it asked for accession of Cyprus to the European Union with or without a political resolution and got it; this time it asked for the exact opposite and got it again. These antidotes to repeated disappointments from Skopje and Ankara justify Greeks' faith in the European Union, not the United States or United Nations, as the best political court of justice.

It is now going to be Greece's job to sustain momentum for a name solution within its stated parameters. Fyrom has only ever showed up to negotiations with its constitutional name, "Republic of Macedonia". When threatened with compromise, it has successfully played on its weakness - a militant ethnic Albanian minority - as a strength. On this basis it rejected the ethnic designation Slavo-Macedonia (Albanians are not Slavs), and continues to propagate the myth of a Macedonian ethnicity (other ancient Greek racial designations such as Ionian, Doric, Aetolian and Lakonian are equally meaningless today); and it successfully avoided the UN-sponsored process diplomacy altogether since an Albanian insurgency nearly split the country in 2001.

After Bucharest Fyrom's internal problems can only increase, but until it decides to do something more constructive than playing the nuisance card or portraying the Greeks as Nazis, Greece must distinguish itself with goodwill and creativity in the UN. That body has proven vulnerable to stonewalling both in the case of Fyrom and of Cyprus; but having proven its willingness to draw lines and defend them, Greece may one day inspire its most influential ally, the US, to support genuine goodwill. More realistically, it might get its European allies with permanent seats on the Security Council to prompt the equitable end to the affair that now seems within reach.

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