Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

Greek government rocked by nationalist row

  • Mouzalas (l). His "verbal faux pas" could cost him his position in the middle of the refugee crisis (Photo: Council of the EU)

The Greek government is being rocked by calls from the defence minister for the resignation of the migration minister over his use of the name “Macedonia” to refer to Greece’s neighbouring country.

The dispute could lead to the departure of the person in charge of Greece's most acute problem - the presence of an estimated 47,000 migrants and refugees, a problem that the EU has just earmarked €700 million to help with.

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Yannis Mouzalas mentioned the name in a TV interview instead of the usual Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

Referring to their neighbour as Macedonia is taboo in Greece, where all governments since the former Yugoslav republic's independence in 1991 have vetoed the term.

The name Macedonia “refers to the kingdom and culture of the ancient Macedonians, who belong to the Hellenic nation and are unquestionably part of Greek historical and cultural heritage,” Greece says.

FYROM has been a compromise tag since 1992, pending a settlement of the name dispute. The initials are often used by international organisations, but media outlets generally call the country Macedonia.

Relations between Greece and Macedonia have become tense in recent weeks after Macedonia closed their common border, leaving about 12,000 migrants, mainly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, stranded near the village of Idomeni in Greece in difficult conditions.

Mouzalas has apologised, but his government colleague, the defence minister and the leader of the nationalist Independent Greeks party (Anel) Panos Kammenos, called for him to quit “to protect the government”.

“Independent Greeks support the government, not Mouzalas,” Kammenos said on Wednesday outside the prime minister’s office where a meeting was being held over the row.

Kammenos’ right-wing party has been the main ally of leftist prime minister Alexis Tsipras since he was first elected in January 2015. Anel now holds nine seats in the Greek parliament, where the government has only a three-seat majority.

Smooth outcome

Faced with the possible meltdown of his coalition on the eve on an EU summit on the refugee crisis, Tsipras has tried to play down the disagreement.

The government’s spokeswoman said there was no government crisis, only a “verbal faux pas”. She said that a decision how to proceed would be taken after Thursday and Friday’s EU summit in Brussels.

It is likely that Mouzalas, who is a doctor with no party affiliation, will have to go. Neither the prime minister nor his main ally have an interest in compromising their accord.

The first one to call for Mouzalas’ resignation after his TV gaffe was Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the leader of the centre-right opposition party New Democracy.

Image game

After that, the nationalist Kammenos “could not allow Mitsotakis to seem more patriotic”, Greek journalist Nick Malkoutsis told EUobserver.

“I don't think he would have done it otherwise. Now that he's done so, it's very difficult for him to accept anything less than resignation,” said Malkoutsis, who is the editor of the political analysis website MacroPolis.

Mouzalas’ resignation after the EU summit, once an agreement has been found between EU leaders and with Turkey to help Greece to protect its borders and to reduce the number of migrants on its territory, would be the smoothest outcome, Malkoutsis said.

If he doesn't, or if Tsipras shows some backbone, “we would have a problem because Kammenos doesn't seem in a mood to back down”, he said.

“I don't think Tsipras wants to risk things at the moment.”

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