Putin overplays his hand

The Kremlin’s foreign policy increasingly seems to rest on the assumption that all countries are as corruptible as Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This was evident most recently in Russia’s alleged efforts to undermine an agreement between Greece and its tiny northern neighbour, the Republic of Macedonia, over the latter’s name. Assuming that Macedonians approve a 30 September referendum, their country will henceforth be known as the Republic of North Macedonia.

The agreement was not easy to reach. The quintessentially Balkan dispute between Greece and Macedonia dates back at least to 1991, when Macedonia, then one of Yugoslavia’s poorest republics, declared its independence, and adopted the name ‘Republic of Macedonia’. That appellation would go on to have significant real-world consequences for the fledgling country of 2.1 million people.

Because the northern region of Greece is also formally known as Macedonia, the two countries ended up in a multi-decade naming dispute. Greece vetoed the Republic of Macedonia’s bids to join Western alliances and multilateral institutions, even as its neighbours Bulgaria and Albania were accepted into NATO and, in the case of Bulgaria, into the European Union. It was admitted to the United Nations in 1993 under the provisional name ‘former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’.

The Macedonia question has a long and fraught history. After the rollback of the Ottoman Empire and the resurgence of historical and ethno-nationalist identities in the Balkans, Macedonia was divided among Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia, and its people’s own inchoate identity was suppressed. During the Bosnian and Kosovo wars of the 1990s, the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević described the people of Macedonia as ‘kind little brothers’ who had lost their way.

Meanwhile, the Albanians who have lived for millennia in the western parts of Macedonia scoffed at the Republic of Macedonia’s constitutional claim to be a homeland for ‘Macedonians’. As one Albanian leader saw it, Macedonians were merely ‘Slavic clones’. Similarly, some Bulgarians, still wounded by the Serb and Greek victories over their country in the Balkan War of 1913, regarded the Macedonians as nothing more than wayward Bulgarians trapped on the wrong side of the conflict.

Given the dearth of diplomatic achievements nowadays, the Greek–Macedonian agreement, concluded at Lake Prespa (which borders the Republic of Macedonia, Greece and Albania), received an overwhelmingly positive response from the international community when it was announced on 12 June. National governments throughout Europe and elsewhere issued statements of support, and encouraged Greek and Macedonian opponents of the agreement to get behind it.

The same cannot be said for the Kremlin. On 6 July, Greece announced that it had ‘irrefutable evidence’ that Russia was trying to undermine the Prespa agreement, by attempting to buy off officials and otherwise intervening in Greece’s internal affairs. In a pointed statement, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias accused Russia of also funding protests within Greece, and declared that his country would not be bullied. Greece has now expelled two Russian diplomats, leading Russia to cancel an upcoming visit to Athens by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and to announce the expulsion of Greek diplomats from Moscow.

Not surprisingly, Russian mischief has also been detected north of the Greek border. According to Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, Russia has funded anti-government protests and pushed Russian-oriented businesses in Macedonia to foment violence in the run-up to the 30 September referendum.

Russia has made no secret of its desire to weaken NATO. By opposing the Prespa agreement, it may be hoping to prevent Macedonia from joining the alliance. But even when pressed, Putin’s Russia will not acknowledge that it opposes Greek–Macedonian rapprochement, let alone apologise for taking active measures to interfere in Greek and Macedonian domestic affairs.

Russia’s opposition to NATO enlargement is often explained as an effort to prevent the countries that were formerly aligned with the Soviet Union from allying with a new geostrategic partner. But Macedonia was never a member of the Warsaw Pact, nor is it especially vital to Russian interests.

By contrast, Greece has been a NATO member state since 1952, yet it has maintained a positive relationship with Putin’s Russia, even watering down an EU statement against the country for its alleged nerve-agent attacks in the United Kingdom earlier this year.

The Kremlin has now arrogantly attacked Greece’s interests anyway, perhaps underestimating the Prespa agreement’s importance to the Greek government. The irony is that Putin has long criticised the United States for overreaching and attempting to impose its values on others. In the Balkans and elsewhere, Putin has tried to present himself as a reasonable partner who will not ask questions about human rights or insist on respect for any particular set of values.

Yet it is now clear that neither friend nor foe should tolerate Russia’s foreign policy. The Kremlin has stepped up its policy of interfering secretly in other countries’ political processes. It has tracked down and attempted to murder former members of its security services inside NATO member states. And it has apparently tried to scuttle a hard-won agreement between two Balkan neighbours who are trying to overcome decades of mistrust.

Looking ahead, it will be important to remember that Russia’s foreign policy is motivated not just by spite and bitterness, but also by a nagging awareness of its own decline. Greek and (North) Macedonian leaders have acquitted themselves well by responding to Russian aggression honestly and courageously. The question is whether others will have the mettle to do the same.