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Greece expels Russian diplomats over Macedonia row

Athens claims officials tried to undermine agreement over name as Skopje seeks Nato accession

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras shakes hands with Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg during the Nato summit in Brussels. Photograph: Denis Charlet/AFP/Getty Images

Greece is expelling two Russian diplomats for allegedly trying to undermine its historic recent agreement with Macedonia, which allowed Nato on Wednesday to invite the former Yugoslav republic to join the alliance.

Athens also placed an entry ban on two other Russians over the same affair, which was made public as Nato leaders met in Brussels and ahead of US president Donald Trump’s summit with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin next Monday.

Macedonia agreed last month to change its name to North Macedonia, in return for Greece lifting its objections to the country moving towards Nato and EU accession, which would deprive Russia of a potential ally in the strategic Balkans.

Athens has complained for decades that Macedonia’s use of the same name as a province in northern Greece implies territorial designs on the region.

Nationalists in both countries fiercely oppose the compromise deal, however, and they have held protests and vowed to prevent the agreement coming into effect.

A Greek diplomatic source told Reuters that the Russians were involved in organising protests in Greece and tried to bribe Greek officials.

“These expulsions are justified because they concern illegal activities at the expense of our national security,” the source said, adding that Moscow had been notified of the expulsions and entry bans on July 6th.

“We had issued warnings to Russian authorities for some time over [the actions of] these specific four diplomats and civilians, and on Friday it was officially raised, giving them a reasonable period of a few days to leave the country,” the source said.

Analysts said the move was particularly striking given the traditionally close relations between Russia and Greece, which both have big Christian Orthodox majorities.

“The Greek government wants good relations with all states, but cannot accept attitudes that violate international law and do not respect the Greek authorities,” government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos told his country’s Skai television station.

“In this context, measures have been taken.”

A Russian foreign ministry official suggested Moscow would expel two Greek diplomats, saying that a tit-for-tat response was normal in such cases.

Greek media reported that as well as trying to induce local officials to back street protests, the Russian diplomats sought to gain influence in the monastic community of Mount Athos, which is famous as a bastion of Greek nationalism.

These alleged approaches were reportedly made through an organisation called the Imperial Orthodox Palestinian Society, which seeks to strengthen ties between Orthodox communities in Russia and the Middle East.

Sergei Zhitenev, the deputy head of the organisation’s Moscow office, denied that it was involved in any such activity.

Since taking power in 1999, Mr Putin has presided over the resurgence of the Orthodox Church in Russia, and it is closely linked to nationalist causes and the projection of Moscow’s influence abroad.

Following Nato’s invitation to membership talks, Macedonia could become the alliance’s 30th state if the deal with Greece is fully ratified. Neighbouring Montenegro joined in 2017, a year after a failed coup that was allegedly orchestrated by Russian agents.