Mounting tensions between Athens and Moscow have exacerbated growing friction on NATO’s southeastern flank, with the two traditional allies locked in an increasingly hostile war of words.
As evidence accumulates of the extraordinary lengths the Kremlin is willing to go to thwart NATO’s expansion in the Balkans, Greek Minister for Foreign Affairs Nikos Kotzias used two interviews at the weekend to publicly rebuke Russia.
“Russia must realize that it cannot disrespect the national interests of another state because it feels it is stronger,” Kotzias told the Syntakton newspaper.
Asked whether he was concerned about the abrupt souring in relations between the two nations following Athens’s announcement this month that it would expel two Russian diplomats for attempting to undermine the landmark accord settling the 27-year-old name row between Greece and Macedonia, Kotzias on Sunday said that national interests came first.
“Greece has decided to send a message to the east and the west, towards all its friends and others, that regardless of who is violating the principles of national sovereignty and respect toward us, measures will be taken,” he told the state-run Athens news agency. “The time when turning a blind eye was considered diplomacy has passed.”
The rebuke came 11 days after Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ leftist-led coalition announced it would expel the Russian envoys — and bar two others from re-entering the country — for activities it said violated Greek law. Athens early last week declared that it considered the matter closed.
Greek fury had focused on Russian efforts to sabotage the historic agreement signed between Athens and Skopje on the banks of Lake Prespa last month.
Within days of the deal being reached, the former Yugoslav republic was invited to join NATO, an offer Macedonian Prime Mnister Zoran Zaev accepted to enhance security and economic growth for the tiny, multiethnic state.
However, Russia, which has long regarded the region as falling into its own orbit of influence, was angered. “Moscow is determined to stop the further expansion of NATO in southeast Europe,” said James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkan specialist and visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. “However, most observers thought it would concentrate its efforts on Macedonia, rather than Greece.”
On both sides of the border, reports have mounted up of the increasingly audacious methods Moscow is prepared to use to prevent Balkan nations being embraced by the West.
Zaev last week accused Greek-Russian businessmen of funding resistance to the accord by whipping up nationalist and anti-NATO fury among hardliners staging violent demonstrations.
He said that Macedonian officials had discovered local pro-Russian businessmen being paid up to 300,000 euros (US$352,000) to foment acts of violence in the runup to a referendum his social democrat government is expected to hold on the name deal in the autumn.
The allegations followed an explosive report by the investigative journalism body the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project that detailed the “strong subversive propaganda and intelligence activity” Macedonia has been subjected to by a Kremlin that also sees the strategic state as crucial to its European gas pipelines.
And in Greece, Russian agents bent on penetrating the nation’s intelligence and armed forces have also been accused of bribery.
In an indication of the escalating tensions, Moscow announced that it would be suspending a planned visit to the Greek capital by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov in September.
Although Moscow has yet to retaliate, Athens has been warned that countermeasures will be taken, with the Russian foreign ministry accusing Greece of participating in “dirty provocations” orchestrated by third parties.
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