Greece stands over Russian meddling claim in Macedonia deal

Athens expects Moscow to respond to expulsion of its diplomats

Protesters take part in a rally against the use of the name Macedonia in Pella, northern Greece on June 6th. Photograph: Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP/Getty Images

Protesters take part in a rally against the use of the name Macedonia in Pella, northern Greece on June 6th. Photograph: Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP/Getty Images

 

Greece is braced for Moscow’s response to its expulsion of two Russian diplomats, amid a sharp cooling of relations between the traditional allies and close western scrutiny of the Kremlin’s covert actions in the Balkans.

Athens ordered the envoys to leave and banned two other Russians from entering the country, for trying to derail a historic recent deal between Greece and Macedonia that allowed Nato to invite the former Yugoslav republic to start membership talks.

The diplomats are suspected of trying to bribe local officials, representatives of the Orthodox Church and members of the military and intelligence services in a bid to stir up protests against the deal, according to the Greek newspaper Kathimerini.

On Monday it reported that the Greek government expects reciprocal measures from Moscow, and quoted an unnamed cabinet source as saying the expulsions were “unavoidable . . . in order to send a clear message that we are aware of activities that go beyond all limits.”

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. 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 oppose the compromise deal, however, and vow to block an agreement that Russia denounces as part of a western bid to “drag” Macedonia into Nato.

Trump criticisms

Moscow claims Nato expansion is destabilising the Balkans – a view echoed by US president Donald Trump last week, when he speculated that “aggressive” Montenegro could trigger a third World War.

Montenegro accuses Russian agents of plotting to overthrow its government in a 2016 coup to prevent it joining Nato, which it did the following year.

Greece’s response to the alleged Russian meddling is striking given the strong relations between the mostly Orthodox Christian states – in March, Athens was one of few EU and Nato capitals not to expel any of Moscow’s diplomats following the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury.

“Russia must realise that it cannot disrespect the national interests of another state because it feels it is stronger,” Greek foreign minister Nikos Kotzias said this weekend.

“The time when turning a blind eye was considered diplomacy has passed,” he told Greek media.

“Greece has decided to send a message to the East and the West . . . that regardless of who is violating the principles of national sovereignty and respect toward us, measures will be taken.”

Corruption report

Citing documents from Macedonia’s interior ministry, the Organisation for Crime and Corruption Reporting Project said that Greek-Russian billionaire Ivan Savvidi had paid Macedonian politicians, nationalists and football hooligans to take action to stop the name deal taking effect. He denies the allegations.

Greek and Macedonian nationalists have staged occasionally violent protests against the name deal, which must be approved in a referendum in Macedonia that is likely to take place in late September or early October.

Macedonian party leaders met on Monday to try to resolve disagreements over the referendum question and the state election commission.