Ioannis Armakolas: Despite all the problems in the region, Greece looks for solutions [VIDEO]

Ioannis Armakolas is head of the South-Eastern European Programme at the leading Greek foreign policy think tank ELIAMEP. He spoke to Cross-Border Talks’ Vladimir Mitev about the outcome of the recent parliamentary elections in Greece, about the social problems in the country and about Greece’s role in Southeastern Europe. Vladimir asked him about the Greek perspective on regional interconnectedness, Greece’s attitude towards different countries and conflicts in Western Balkans and about his expectations from the future of Greek-Turkish foreign relations. The issue of migration, which has huge human and social costs was also touched. Armakolas is skeptical that Northern Macedonia will soon change its constitution, adding Bulgarians as a constitutive people in it, so that its EU path can be cleared. He also admits that Greece and Albania have a number of disputes and issues that hinder the development of their relations. Just as with Turkey, in the case with Albania, on both sides with Greece there is lack of trust.  Greece has been relying traditionally on Serbia and has not recognized Kosovo. But it engages Kosovo elites in spite of that and supports the EU search for a solution to the Serbian-Kosovo dispute. Internally, the situation in Greece is better than it was in 2015 and perhaps that explains why the right-wing New Democracy has success, while the left-wing Syriza loses influence. However, important social problems are not resolved and don’t have a simple solution. Also, the extreme right parties have more than 10% altogether and entered parliament.

The entire transcription of the video is available below.

Vladimir Mitev: Welcome to another Cross-Border Talk, which focuses this time on South-Eastern Europe. Our guest, Ioannis Armakolas, is associate professor at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki and senior research fellow and head of the South-Eastern Europe Program at the leading Greek foreign policy think tank ELIAMEP. We are going to discuss both Greek elections which took place recently and international relations in South-Eastern Europe.

Ioannis, the Greek elections ended in a decisive victory by New Democracy and a loss of importance for Syriza on one hand. We also witness the rise of the extreme right parties. What’s the explanation for all that?

Thank you, Vladimir. Thank you for the invitation. It’s a pleasure to be with you in this podcast.

The Greek elections had some possibly unexpected and not very typical results, so to say. First of all, for the first time, we saw that after four years in government, New Democracy did not weaken significantly. In fact, it kept its electoral strength. And even though Syriza was in opposition for four years, they lost a very significant number of votes, a very significant portion of their electoral strength, going down to 17%. This is a very low percentage for a main opposition party in Greece. I don’t think we’ve seen anything like that in many, many decades. In addition, this is combined with the electoral strength of the third party, which is the center left, Pasok. These two parties together, Syriza and Pasok, do not have enough votes to be a strong opposition to the government in the next Parliament. That is a very interesting new development that New Democracy will have a the next period and pretty much unhindered governing, at least when it comes to the opposition in Parliament.

The other thing that you mentioned, of course, is the rise of the far right. We have three far right parties in Parliament at the moment, all three with around 14% of support. So there will be, interestingly, an opposition to the right of New Democracy, which will be vocal and it will challenge New Democracy on some of the things that it plans to have in its agenda. The government will be challenged on foreign policy questions and relations with Balkan neighbors, including Turkey, or the government’s agenda on identity, social issues, LGBT rights. We expect to see a weaker center left opposition and a stronger or strengthened opposition to New Democracy from the right.

Now, why did we have these results? Analysts say that it’s a combination of factors. On one hand, we had a good performance on the part of New Democracy. The government of New Democracy was the first in the period after the end, so to say, of the economic crisis. It was, in a sense, a return to normality, which was handled relatively well by the government.

They managed to convey a sense in the people that things are going back to normal. The government is there to ensure that there will be no more going back to the economic crisis, that we are back to normality and that they are the guarantors of this normality.

At the same time we had a number of crises which were handled quite well by the government. The Covid crisis, a crisis in relations with Turkey, including a migrant crisis at the border with Turkey, and also, of course, the energy problems and the war in Ukraine. New Democracy was successful in some things, less successful in other things. But they managed to communicate their agenda and communicate what they have achieved in a much better, a professional way. Overall, we saw that they gained the trust of both conservative voters and also many voters at the center.

It’s not only the success of the government, it’s also a failure of the opposition, especially the main opposition of Syriza. Many analysts agree that Syriza failed to capitalize on the weak points of the government’s performance. Inflation is very high and working class people, the average Greeks see that the purchasing power is weakening day by day. Syriza did not manage to make this a central issue in their campaign. There were also a number of other crises that were not dealt with very successfully by the government, like the eavesdropping scandal or the train crash we had recently.

Syriza that did not manage to make these issues that they could score opposition points. And the explanation for this is that Syriza is very much stuck in the model of a party of the far left that is kind of doing radical opposition and very much populist opposition that was very much successful during the period of the economic crisis, but is not pertinent, is not very suitable for a period of normality. Syriza was, in a sense, stuck in a mode of economic crisis, whereas the government has successfully conveyed to the citizens the feeling that we are going back to normal. This is, more or less, an explanation that can be given for the electoral results.

Even though I understand now the situation is better than in 2015, there are still certain social problems, like high youth unemployment, with 27% of young people being unemployed in March 2023. What will the government of Mitsotakis do to alleviate that or improve the social indicators?

I mentioned earlier that one of the in my view, that social issues were one of the weak points of the government which managed to do perform quite well when it comes to crisis, especially external crisis. I feel that there is a growing anxiety in society about living standards, about the difficulties that middle class and working class people have to face to actually maintain the standards of living that they had – not before the crisis, but even with the standards of living that we had during the economic crisis.

The inflation is rising for various reasons. We have price hikes because of grid inflation and also because of the tourism that is booming, which is pushing prices up in accommodation and food prices. This is a serious point of concern for citizens. I don’t think the government has a strategy or maybe they have a strategy, but we haven’t seen any measures to alleviate the difficulties for the working middle class and working class people. With unemployment, the problem is not so much about unemployment as such. Unemployment is still high, but it is gradually going down. The main problem in Greece is that the type of jobs that are created are low paid jobs. Anyone making €600-800 a month in Greece really has a big difficulty to support himself or herself.These young couples cannot have kids, cannot have a proper accommodation, because if they have two jobs of €600, €700 each, I don’t think they can really have a proper standard of living.

The Prime Minister Mitsotakis announced increases in salaries. I’m a bit skeptical, not because increases are not good, but I’m skeptical because there’s such a big difference in wages compared to what we had before the economic crisis. Minor increases will not make a difference. At the same time the inflation is rising, prices are going up. Unless the government does something to keep the prices down, to make sure there is accommodation affordable for all, so that people do not spend enormous amounts of money in daily needs for foodstuffs in supermarkets, I don’t think a minor increase in the salaries would do the trick. I think this will be the biggest challenge for the government in the coming period. I think it’s also unfortunate that the center left opposition will be very weak because obviously with a weak opposition on the left, it’s not easy for the government to feel the pressure that they need to do something about improving the lives of ordinary citizens.

Let’s move towards international issues. The war in Ukraine made the issue of regional infrastructure connectedness much more important. We have the Three Seas initiative, which basically wants to make connections south-north in Europe, in our region. There is also a lot of talk about the connection through railroads or other ways between Greek ports on the Aegean Sea and the Bulgarian and Romanian Black Sea ports. But what is being done besides big talk on these issues?

I don’t think Greece is a driver of these processes.A lot of these come mainly from Central European countries, or Visegrad countries, and Romania. I believe that Greece could play a role, but I don’t think they are very active here. In addition, I don’t think the countries in Central Europe have done enough to attract Greece in initiatives that address the infrastructure problems. And on the other hand, Greece has been very much preoccupied in recent years, at least for a decade, with the questions of the East Mediterranean and difficult relations with Turkey, Cyprus question, energy questions in the East Mediterranean, Libya, Syria, Egypt. The focus of its foreign policy has shifted very much to the east and southeast.

I believe that we don’t know enough about Central Europe, the Visegrad countries, Romania, Ukraine, Moldova. We should know more about these countries. We should be developing more relations with these countries and we should be part of the plans and the ideas and initiatives that focus on the connectivity between North and South in this part of the world, between Central Europe, Southeast Europe, and then all the way down to the Mediterranean. I think Greece is an absolutely crucial part of this jigsaw, both for EU connectivity planning and also for NATO strategic planning. Greece should play a bigger role in this. I think they can play a bigger role, but you need both parts to be more active. The countries in Central Europe should get to know Greece more and be more engaging with Greek foreign policy.

I should also say that in addition to lack of knowledge, there is a bit of a lack of trust between Central Europe and Greece. Not so much with Bulgaria and Romania, which are all Balkan neighbors. Greece and Bulgaria or Romania have known each other for decades. They have had very good relations, but especially with the countries in Visegrad countries, Poland, Hungary, for various reasons, during the economic crisis, there were some very bad publicity for some of these countries in the Greek press. These countries were seen as siding with Germany at the time when when Greece was having a tough time undergoing a difficult economic transformation.

In addition, especially the stance of Poland and Hungary when it comes to the migration question in the context of the EU obviously creates a lot of problems, because Greece and other frontline states like Spain or Italy need more support and solidarity from other EU member states. Poland and Hungary have a very, I would say, not only national interest position, but, I would say, a very narrow-minded and anti-European position on the issue. This is very much detested in Greece, because migration pressures and the help from the EU to handle this problem is a cardinal issue for Athens.

Southeastern Europe, including Greece, and Central Europe – these are two key pillars of both the EU and NATO. We need to do more to connect and understand each other and cooperate in many respects.

Greece is also a traditional force in the Western Balkans. I have a few questions on that, because often conflicts exist there, like between Kosovo and Serbia. I presume Greece also has some interest in resolving those conflicts. What is the actual Greek policy towards the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia?

Greece is a country that has traditionally very good relations with Serbia, has not recognised Kosovo, just like Kosovo has not been recognised by Romania, Slovakia, Cyprus and Spain in the context of the EU. But I should say that even though it has not been recognised yet, no Greek policy maker has denied that eventually Greece may recognize Kosovo. Our relations with Kosovo are very good. We have a policy of engagement with Kosovo. Greece is the best friend of Kosovo among the European states who do not recognise this republic.

Now, when it comes to the Kosovo-Serbia issue, what Greece would like is of course supporting the efforts of the EU and the US, especially in the context of the of the Brussels led dialogue by and the efforts of Miroslav Lajcak, the envoy on the issue on behalf of the High Representative Borrell. Greece expects that there will be an agreement between the two sides in order to settle the dispute between the two sides. And then eventually, I think the recognition of Kosovo can follow.

Having said that, I don’t think at the moment Greece has any special role or has taken any special initiative to facilitate and aid the process. Greece supports the efforts of Miroslav Lajcak, but there hasn’t been any special initiatives on the part of Greece to facilitate or help resolve any of the peripheral issues. Greece could have played a role, for example, on the question of the Orthodox heritage or maybe mediate a bit between the Kosovo government and the Serb community of Kosovo. But Greece has not taken any particular role in this. Maybe they feel that it’s a complicated matter and we are doing enough by maintaining a balance between the two sides and being very actively engaging with Kosovo.

You mentioned that Greece does not recognize Kosovo but works actively with it. And is the relation with Albania any easier for Greece? We know that Albania has entered NATO and tries to maybe attract some Western attention with Edi Rama as its leader. But also there have been historical disputes or minority disputes and other disputes between Greece and Albania.

Relations with Albania are bigger, more enhanced, but also more complicated than the ones with Kosovo. We have excellent relations with Albania. We have multiple relations, political, diplomatic, economic, social, societal relations. But there are several disputes, including minority issues. There is definitely a lack of trust between the two governments. For example, on the Albanian side, they often view Greece as a bigger, more powerful neighbor who is trying to impose its will on Albania when it comes to, for example, the Greek minority in Albania. And on the part of Greece, there is a complaint, distrust over especially Prime Minister Rama because of close relations with Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey or over the regional role that Prime Minister Rama wants to have.

Recently, a few months ago, there was a kind of a reset in relations between the two countries. There were two visits by Prime Minister Mitsotakis to Albania. And they seemed to be the two countries that seemed to have opened the way for faster improvement of relations. In Greece at least, the main problem, the main sticking point is the delimitation of the maritime zones between the two countries. Both sides have agreed that they will refer the issue to the International Court of Justice. But Greece fears or complaints that Albania is not doing enough at a technical level to advance this agenda. The two countries take the dispute to the International Court of Justice soon. So there was, as I said a few months ago, some hope that things will get faster.

But then recently, again, we have a new crisis in relations when before the local elections in Albania, an ethnic Greek mayor or candidate for mayor in a town in southern Albania, Himara was arrested and remains in prison for several weeks without being charged for anything. The formal charge is that he was buying votes, but there hasn’t been an official charge and there hasn’t been any proceedings started yet. Greece is very much upset with this issue. They have brought the issue to the EU and they threatened to block Tirana’s accession process. So there are certainly a lot of problems with the two sides, a lot of disputes.

But I would argue that the disputes are not as big as many people think or many people portray them to be. The biggest problem is the lack of trust and the inability of the political elites in the two countries to understand each other and develop a level and measure of confidence and trust to each other so that they can proceed with resolving the disputes. I think if Albania seriously thinks that they want to join the European Union, they should do more to have more understanding for the Greek positions. But also Greece should understand that Albania is progressing, is reforming, and they need more support and they need the help of Greece. We need more trust on both sides.

Greece also had long time problems with Macedonia, at least on a political level, and they were resolved, if I understand correctly, by the Prespa agreement. Now Macedonia is about to make this important step on its path to change its constitutions and do some reforms, including putting Bulgarians as a constitutive people in its constitution. What is the Greeks’ role in all that in Macedonia’s EU path and these reforms?

As you said, for almost three decades, we had the dispute on the name of North Macedonia, which in a sense in many ways blocked the progress of Skopje to both NATO and EU to accession. We resolved the name dispute through the Prespa agreement. The country is now called North Macedonia. They joined NATO, but of course the progress to accede to the European Union has been blocked initially by the French, who wanted to introduce a new methodology and later on by Bulgaria, which is trying to impose a number of conditions to North Macedonia. I’m not very optimistic that the change in the Constitution will happen in the coming months. I believe that the most likely scenario is that the country will not start the actual accession negotiations because they will not change their constitution. And we will have elections next year in North Macedonia, where most likely VMRO will come to power. And then we’ll see how VMRO will handle this problem when it comes to Greece.

I don’t think Greece plays a role. I have been one of the people who have criticized the Greek government for not doing enough to mediate between two friends. Greece has excellent, very good relations with Bulgaria, but also, from recently, good relations also with North Macedonia. I think in the spirit of the Prespa agreement, in the spirit of our long term foreign policy objective of helping the countries of the region to join the European Union, we should have been much more active, energetic in preventing these relations from going downhill. In the last 2 or 3 years. We could have done more in that direction. We didn’t. Even when Bulgaria blocked North Macedonia again, Greece didn’t do anything to try to convince Bulgaria.

I know that in the European Council, the Greek government was vocal about the need to find a solution in order for North Macedonia to start accession negotiations. But I don’t think we’ve put enough efforts to convince Bulgaria to be a bit more lenient, a bit more moderate in its demands from North Macedonia. I think it’s in our interest to see North Macedonia proceed with its accession negotiations, but I don’t think we are doing enough. And for that and honestly, I think Bulgaria will continue to pose a big obstacle in North Macedonia’s. process to join the European Union, which is very unfortunate, I think.

In these conditions, when the EU future of Western Balkans is maybe still sometime in the future and ahead, not so close, there was this initiative Open Balkans, which was announced, if I’m not mistaken, five years ago. It is a kind of mini-schengen between Serbia, Northern Macedonia and Albania. How viable is this initiative now that it already exists for some time?

There are pros and cons in the Open Balkan. The pros, I would say, obviously, is that it’s a homegrown initiative between three countries that are very important in the Western Balkans. There is a measure of trust that has been built between Rama and the leadership in Skopje, that there is an initiative that seems to be more and more attracting also Montenegro.

On the other hand, there are certain weaknesses and disadvantages in this initiative. First and foremost is an initiative that has three members but does not have the trust of all Western Balkan six countries, especially Kosovo, that sees this as an initiative led and dominated by Serbia. I don’t think Kosovo would ever join this initiative. Bosnia is also very reluctant, some parts of the political system in Montenegro are very reluctant. So many, at least two or maybe three countries in the region see this not as an initiative that is to the benefit of all. They see it as an initiative that is first and foremost to the benefit of Serbia. And that’s obviously a problem.

The second weakness of this initiative is that it very much overlaps with many of the things that the Berlin process and especially the common regional market is pursuing. Therefore, the question is why would you do something in the context of the Open Balkans initiative which includes three maybe four in the near future countries, when you can do the same things in the context of all six as part of the Berlin Process, the common regional market and all the initiatives that are supported by the German government and the EU now. There’s no easy answer to this problem that, you know, there is not enough trust in the initiative.

And also there’s overlap with the billing process. So for that reason, I’m not very optimistic about the bankers. But on the other side, you know, it’s a homegrown initiative. It’s heavily supported by Serbia. It had until recently also the support of Albania. Now, Prime Minister Rama says that he’s not happy with it, but maybe he will change his mind and he will go back to supporting the open Balkan. Overall, I think there’s possibly too many initiatives, too much talk, too much overlaps between different activities, initiatives, diplomacy in the in the region, I think there should be some streamlining and bringing the open Balkans close to the to the Berlin process could be one way forward.

Possibly there is an agenda to be pursued by some countries in the future. But it remains to be seen because, as I said, especially in Belgrade, there is a sense of ownership, there is a sense of Open Balkan being something different from what has been pursued by outside powers in the past. So something that they feel strongly about because it’s an initiative that is started from the region and it is pushed forward by the region. So we’ll see. It’s a complicated issue.

Greece’s most important neighbor is Turkey. And recently there were elections in Turkey, which were won by Erdogan. Now it is also clear who will rule in Greece. What to expect from the leaders of these countries and from their bilateral relations in the near future?

For Greece, this is obviously the most crucial topic, the most crucial foreign policy question. The last three-four years have been very difficult with Turkey. The government, New Democracy, when they came to power after in 2019, they dealt with a successive crisis in their relations with Turkey and all sorts of different crises from what the Greek government calls hybrid threat in the in the land border with Turkey, with massive movement of migrants from Turkey to Greece to the typical military escalation that you have very often between Greece and Turkey over the Aegean and the maritime zones issue the energy issue.

So it’s a very complicated picture that involves not only Greece and Turkey, but also, of course, Cyprus. It involves Libya because of the maritime zones that are delineated in an agreement that Greece considers invalid and maritime zones between Libya and Turkey, which Greece considers that they overlap with its own maritime zones and and the zones that should be under Greek sovereignty. It involves Egypt, which has similar issues of delimitation delineating delimiting maritime zones. It involves Israel and Turkey’s difficult relations with Israel. And Greece has had very good relations in recent years with Israel and Cyprus. So it’s a complex picture.

I should say that despite our economic problems and a decade of severe economic crisis, Greece has been arming heavily in recent years and has been doing massive orders of new military equipment, especially because of this very difficult deteriorating relations with Turkey. It is not in Greece’s interest to have even more escalation in relations with Turkey. But also Turkey has its own severe economic problems that have become very evident in recent months. I think they have forced Erdogan to change course. So it’s in the interest of both countries to find some sort of modus vivendi and possibly start resolving the disputes that they have, especially the main dispute over the maritime zones.

I think under the pressure of its Turkish economic crisis domestically and also under pressure by the US government, I think President Erdogan has decided to change course. We have recently in Vilnius, in the context in the sidelines of the NATO summit, we have had a meeting between the two leaders with a new, of course, renewed electoral mandate.

There is, it seems, a new decision on the two sides to start melting the ice, to start reducing tensions, de-escalating tensions and under the edges and under the pressure of the American administration and the American diplomacy to start finding ways to possibly identify a path towards resolving the disputes. It’s not going to be easy. Greece is very distrustful of Turkey and Turkey is very distrustful of Greece. But for both sides, it’s clear that the escalation of tensions and the hostility is no solution. Greece isa smaller country with a relatively weak economy. We cannot afford antagonizing the Turkey forever. And Turkey also has realized in recent years that they cannot go against the Western alliance. They cannot go against the American diplomacy and antagonize Greece and other neighbors. They simply cannot do it. They don’t have the the economic means. They don’t have the political and diplomatic capacity to do that. They need to mend ties with the West. They need to mend ties with the US. And that goes through also mending ties with Greece because one of the priorities of the US, especially in the context of the war in Europe, is to have peace in the Aegean waters, to have peace and de-escalation of tensions between Greece and Turkey, who are both very valued allies in the context of NATO. So I’m hopeful, but it remains to be seen to what extent this positive momentum that we have at the moment can be sustained in the coming months or even years.

Greece has at least one more important issue: humanitarian and social. It’s the migrant question. We are aware of various victims of what is going on in Greece and this attempt for pushbacks. What is going on exactly in Greece in this regard? Or is there going to be any change? And what is the role of the European Union in resolving this issue?

What is going on is difficult to establish, to be honest. I’m not sure I understand exactly what’s going on. You have conflicting or contradictory claims on the one side, the Greek government that says obviously there is a big problem of migrants coming from Turkey and other places and other landing on on Greek islands or Greek mainland or moving further on to Italy, but Greece is respecting the rule of law or respecting international law in managing these boats coming from Turkey, full of asylum seekers or migrants or sometimes refugees. On the other hand, a number of NGOs, international NGOs which are active in Greece on the question of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and also some international media claim that Greece is doing pus backs in the waters, which is, of course, prohibited by international law.

I’m not an expert on the issue and I cannot take a position on what’s exactly happening in the Aegean Sea. We had only recently the tragic incident in southwest Greece, right off the coast of Greece, of the sinking of a boat which was full of migrants and asylum seekers. Several dozen people drowned. It could be up to several hundred people missing. We don’t know for sure because we don’t know how many people and who was on board this boat. There are serious allegations, accusations against the Greek Coast Guard that they have not done enough to help these people or even that they have through their actions, deteriorated or aggravated the difficult situation of this boat and possibly had a role indirectly in the tragic outcome of this. Again, I really don’t know what’s happening. I’m following the claims and the arguments on both sides, but don’t have the information to establish exactly what has happened.

What I can tell you for sure is that this is a very serious problem for Greece. And of course, it’s a serious public policy problem for the entire European Union. Greece is feeling very much the strain of being a frontline state together with Italy and Spain, and it needs all the support it can get from the European Union. That’s why I think it’s totally unacceptable to hold the position of anti-European values and anti solidarity position that we see on the part of countries like Poland and Hungary.

There is, of course, the new migration pact. That is in the process. We had an agreement in the European Council and now it will go through the normal decision-making processes of the European Union to make it legislation. Greece supports this agreement that imposes solidarity either to all EU member states in order to help the frontline states, either by accepting asylum seekers or to compensate through financial means. We’ll see whether this will be the solution to the problem.

I think it’s a much bigger problem that the EU has to deal with in the coming years because of climate change, because of the demographic changes in Africa and other and other places. We need to strike a balance between the need to attract and integrate more migrants, but also find cohesion, the adequate cohesion policies within our societies so that migration does not become a problem and does not stimulate far right sentiment and racism in our societies.

We also need to find adequate policies and financial instruments to help the countries where migrants are coming from in order to develop their economies and keep their people. And this is all in the region, but also further down in sub-Saharan Africa. IIt’s a very complicated policy question, and I think it’s something that consumes the EU and will continue to consume the EU in the years to come. My concern and my appeal is that we solve this problem by not losing value in our identity. We don’t want to become a fully securitized European Union that will destroy our value system in the process of dealing with this problem, in the process of bolstering our border security. We need to find ways that are progressive, that are European values based in order to deal with this problem.

In that context, I think also both the mainstream party families in Europe, the centre left and the centre right, should create a cordon sanitaire from the far right that is strengthening in Europe, that is becoming stronger and also electorally more successful in Spain, in Italy. We will possibly see that also in Spain next week when they have elections. We see it also in Eastern Europe, we saw it also in northern Europe and worryingly in Finland and other places.

The mainstream political families in Europe, the Liberals, the centre left and the centre right need to find ways to create comprehensive policies, but at the same time keep the influence of the far right out as much as possible out of the formulation of policies on this such a key issue for European for the European Union.

Thank you, Ioannis. We discussed with Ioannis Armakolas about a number of social, political and other problems in Greece, and I’m happy that he was thinking of solutions and not just accumulation of suffering. He was looking for a path forward. Thank you for coming here and I invite our listeners to follow our interviews and media on social networks.

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