ATHENS — For centuries, even when Athens was a bastion of the West during the Cold War, Greece and Russia have seen themselves as natural allies. Both are Christian Orthodox nations on Islam’s western frontiers; even as a NATO member, Greece tried to maintain channels of communication with the Soviet Union. Yet a sudden dispute over alleged Russian meddling in Greek affairs has escalated rapidly. This could have long-term consequences for Greek-Russian ties and for the Western Balkans.
This month, Athens informed Moscow that it was expelling two Russian diplomats and refusing entry to two others. Among the accusations: the four were trying to stoke opposition to a recent agreement signed by Greece and a northern neighbor, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, ending a 27-year dispute over the latter’s name.
Ratification by both countries would open the way for a renamed the Republic of North Macedonia to join NATO and the European Union. Greek opponents of the deal object to their neighbors’ use of “Macedonia” in any form, saying this implies claims on the Greek province of the same name; Macedonian nationalists object to adding a qualifier to their country’s name.
It is easy to see how Russia, which is opposed to Macedonia joining NATO, could be tempted to exploit this volatile mix to encourage hard-liners on both sides. Macedonia’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, claimed in an interview with BuzzFeed News that Greek businessmen “sympathetic to the Russian cause” paid large sums of money to foes of the deal in his country to commit acts of violence before a referendum on the agreement is held.
The Russian foreign ministry issued a stern protest to the Greek ambassador over the expulsions and has threatened to respond further. On July 18, a ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, declared that Greece was acting under pressure from its allies and warned that “such actions do not remain without consequences.”
The Greek government reacted angrily. The foreign ministry in Athens declared these statements “a characteristic example of disrespect for a third country and a lack of understanding of today’s world, in which states, regardless of their size, are independent and can exercise an independent, multidimensional and democratic foreign policy.” It added, “In any case, the Russian authorities themselves are very well aware of what their people do.”
A few days earlier, a State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, tweeted: “We support Greece defending its sovereignty. Russia must end its destabilizing behavior.” In Moscow’s view, this alignment between Athens and Washington confirmed its suspicions of collusion.
Until now, Russian officials had been full of praise for Greece. In 2015, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov noted Greece’s opposition to sanctions against Russia. “We appreciate the stance of the Greek government, which understands the complete counterproductivity of attempts to speak this language with Russia,” he said after a meeting in Moscow with his Greek counterpart, Nikos Kotzias. Last Friday, the Russian Ambassador in Athens, Andrey Maslov, tweeted: “The past years were a time of an unprecedented boom in Russian-Greek relations.” But, he added, “The actions of the Greek side … have become a disappointment for us.”
The Greek move was unexpected. Not only has Athens always been careful in its dealings with Moscow, but this sudden rupture was executed by what is considered to be the most pro-Russian government Greece has had — a government that in March refused to join its Western allies in expelling Russian diplomats in retaliation for Moscow’s alleged involvement in the poisoning of a former Russian double agent and his daughter in Britain.
The coalition government is dominated by the radical-left Syriza party, which opposed international sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. Its leader, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, visited Moscow for support in 2015, while threatening the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and other creditors that Greece would walk away from its bailout commitments.
The junior coalition partner, Independent Greeks, is a hard-right nationalist party. Its leader, Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, while an outspoken supporter of Moscow, has also worked closely with United States military officials; his political contortions include denouncing the Macedonia deal while remaining in the government.
The United States has been Greece’s major ally since 1947, when Washington stepped to help a right-wing government defeat Communist forces in a civil war in 1946-49. In the years after, the Greek left opposed the United States while supporting closer ties with the Soviet Union. Russia is now, by default, the antithesis to the “imperialist alliance,” as Greece’s small but unbending Communist Party calls the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Communists, echoing Russian officials, saw the expulsions as Mr. Tsipras’s “gift” to NATO, timed to coincide with the recent NATO summit.
Support for Russia’s positions goes beyond any effort to embarrass the government or oppose the Macedonia deal. President Vladimir Putin enjoys broad support among Greeks, more than in any other European country. Greece (along with Vietnam, the Philippines and Tanzania) was one of only four countries among 37 surveyed by the Pew Research Center last year in which Mr. Putin got more than 50 percent approval for his international performance.
This could be because he projects the image of a powerful leader who is proud of his Eastern Orthodox heritage, visiting the monastic community of Mount Athos in northern Greece and playing on deep-rooted feelings in his own country and here. During the nearly four centuries of subjugation to Ottoman rule, Greeks yearned for liberation and many saw Russia as their salvation. Although these expectations were usually disappointed, Russia has often played a crucial role in Greek history.
Major milestones included a 1774 treaty under which Russia assumed the right to protect all Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire. This allowed Greek merchants and shipowners to fly the Russian flag, thus escaping Ottoman taxes and expanding their wealth and influence. In 1821, when the Greek War of Independence broke out, the Greek Orthodox patriarch was hanged by the Turks and his body thrown into the Bosporus; when it resurfaced unexpectedly, Greeks took it to Russia, to the city of Odessa, where it was afforded a grand funeral in the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1827, a combined British, French and Russian fleet destroyed an Ottoman-Egyptian fleet at Navarino, leading to the declaration of an independent Greece after years of struggle.
More recently, the relationship has been more complicated — with Soviet support and then abandonment of Communist forces in the civil war, with Russia’s intricate economic and political relationship with Cyprus, with the current marriage of convenience between Moscow and Ankara. There is also a strong ethnic-religious current that influences politics in both Greece and Russia.
The question now is, what prompted a Greek government with pro-Moscow sympathies to take such drastic action? Was it because of fears of violence over the Macedonia issue, as suggested by the claims of Mr. Zaev, the Macedonian prime minister? Was it because foreign meddling with the fires of nationalism in Greece could harm the government’s prospects in elections that must be held by autumn 2019? Were the expulsions a way of declaring allegiance to the United States?
In any case, this unexpected turn of events could lead — despite Athens’s protestations to the contrary — to a re-evaluation of Greece’s relations with Russia. The result could be Athens playing a more prominent role in stabilizing the western Balkans, and aligning itself more fully with European Union policies rather than deferring to Russia’s concerns and interests.
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