Landscape in the Mist: SYRIZA and Greek-Macedonian relations

Spyros Sofos


There is no doubt that the election campaign that culminated in the 25 January SYRIZA victory has been dominated by one issue: the desirability and effectiveness of austerity. As the count of the votes was being concluded Alexis Tsipras of SYRIZA knew that his party would require a partner in order to pursue its economic policy. The fact that the partner of choice of SYRIZA, at least for the months to come, is the right-wing and xenophobic Independent Greeks (ANEL) – the seventh party in terms of popular preference, is indicative of the course of action vis-à-vis Greece’s debt the new government is going to pursue but also, of the limitations that will apply to other policies.

Based on ANEL sources, Athens daily Kathimerini reports that the right-wing party has agreed to back SYRIZA’s economic policies, as set out by Tsipras at the Thessaloniki International Fair last September, under the condition that the government does not pursue SYRIZA’s policies on a number of foreign policy issues, such as reaching an agreement with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) on a composite name. In this, SYRIZA’s junior partner will find allies within the election winners. The party’s ‘Socialist tendency’ has been advocating for some time now – especially since the summer of 2013 – that the party should shed its anti-patriotic reflexes and embrace ‘patriotism’ alongside its internationalism. SYRIZA, said Panayotis Kouroublis – one of the tendency’s most vociferous spokespersons in a short text back in June 2014, should learn the lessons of Andreas Papandreou’s successful integration of the ‘patriotic’ Left tradition and the legacy of the antifascist National Liberation Front (EAM) in the discourse of PASOK in 1974.[1] In the very same month, five members of the same group signed an internal party document arguing that the party had to ‘realize that Greece is not in Western Europe but in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean and what this entails’. In a barely discrete reference to the dispute of the country with the Republic of Macedonia and the tensions with Turkey, they stressed that ‘behind defending the rights and freedoms that we all cherish, one might find other covert pursuits cultivated by irredentist or expansionist nationalism of our wider region’. This orientation is shared with a small, though not negligible number of other SYRIZA cadres from other constituent groups, but, more importantly, constitutes the centrepiece of the ideology of the coalition government’s foreign minister Nikos Kotzias. His viewpoints are well documented; Kotzias has repeatedly expressed his interest in Alexandr Dugin’s Eurasianism theories, his work echoes third-worldist nationalist arguments and his political interventions also revolve around the necessity to construct a ‘patriotic Left’. In an entry in his blog, in June 2014, also published in the SYRIZA daily, Avgi,[2] Kotzias makes a case for marrying patriotism and democratic struggle by pointing out that in the local elections in the ‘nationally sensitive’ areas of Macedonia and Thrace SYRIZA seems to have alienated voters whose concerns revolve around the country’s ‘national interests’.[3]

Given the prioritization of the country’s pressing economic problems, the partnership with a nationalist and xenophobic party and the conditions the latter has set, and the appointment of a foreign minister who is a vociferous advocate of the nationalist positions of the party’s increasingly active ‘patriotic Left’ it is unlikely that the government’s Balkan policies are going to change substantially. At least, in the first instance and, one should add, at first sight.

SYRIZA’s anti-nationalist constituent tendencies have often been the target of campaigns to discredit the party through accusations of collusion with nationalists within the country’s Turkish minority and in the Republic of Macedonia. Although not as popular among the electorate as the ‘patriotic Left’ they have an active youthful constituency that has mobilized around minority rights issues and the name dispute with Greece’s northern neighbour. They have contributed to shaping SYRIZA’s commitment to regional cooperation. They have articulated the necessity of confronting the crucial problems of peace within the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean and have been working actively to ensure that SYRIZA remains in favour of the use of dialogue and diplomatic means to resolve the problems in Greek-Turkish relations and bringing about the reunification of Cyprus within the framework of a bi-zonal, bi-community federation with a single citizenship, sovereignty, and international personality. Last, but not least, they have been active in advocating a swift resolution of the name dispute by recognising the right of the people of the Republic of Macedonia to self-designation and self-determination. This has been one of the most contentious issues within the party: SYRIZA’s youth organization has been much more responsive to this although particular constituent groups such as the small yet highly active Trotskyist Internationalist Workers’ Left, whose elected member of Parliament Ioanna Gaitani publicly dismissed the Greek insistence on the name in an interview with Nova Makedonija,[4] have been pressing for an unconditional end to the dispute. Similar positions have been adopted by more high profile members of the party such as European Parliament candidate and award winning journalist Stelios Kouloglou gave an interview to the same newspaper, where he referred to the country as Macedonia and blamed the “preposterous naming dispute” on the politics of Antonis Samaras.[5]

In view of the complex internal politics of the party, the official positions of SYRIZA constitute a compromise and are marked by caution. Syriza unequivocally denounces nationalism and irredentism and supports regional cooperation in the Balkans. It is committed to the region’s EU accession and argues for the erga omnes adoption by the Republic of Macedonia of a compound name with a geographical connotation of the term ‘Macedonia’. Alexis Tsipras has often referred to the dangers posed by nationalism in the Balkans and has accused the political leadership of the Republic of Macedonia of rejecting serious efforts for the solution of the name issue, thus implicitly suggesting that his potential interlocutors lack good faith.

However, there is another area where one might see modest improvements that might create a better climate in bilateral relations. SYRIZA cadres have often reiterated that they see the ratification of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as the means of enshrining the recognition of rights to minority language media, language instruction and other forms of identity affirmation. Although ratification does not look to be high in the current agenda of SYRIZA under the circumstances, it might be a less controversial issue and one that might gain sufficient parliamentary support at a later stage of the life of this parliament. This depends on the longer term viability of the SYRIZA-led government and will almost definitely entail a reconfiguration of the government coalition. On the ground, in areas with Macedonian minority populations, such as the towns of Meliti (ovcarani) and Polypotamos (Neret) which have been won by SYRIZA in the recent local elections, the party seems to enjoy considerable support primarily due to its emphasis on much needed development policies but also as it is seen as, perhaps, the only notable political force that is committed to minority rights.

Despite all the omens that point to continuity (or stagnation) in the name dispute as well as in Greece’s overall Balkan policy, there are indications that SYRIZA might adopt a different style of approaching bilateral and multilateral relations and that, the limitations posed by the current government and internal party configuration notwithstanding, issues that affect Greece’s minorities are likely to remain on the agenda. But, at the end of the day, it all remains dependent on the main issue the SYRIZA-led government has set out to address: the economy.

Dr Spyros Sofos is a Lecturer at Centre for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) at Lund University in Sweden.


[1] Παναγιώτης Κουρουμπλής (2014) ‘Η Αριστερά ήταν και θα είναι πατριωτική’ at
[4] Спорот за името e параван за интересите на грчкиот капитал во Македонија
[5] Кулоглу: Самарас направи кариера со прашањето за името на Македонија,