Greek PM pays first ever visit to North Macedonia

Greek PM pays first ever visit to North Macedonia
North Macedonia's PM Zoran Zaev snaps a selfie with his Greek counterpart Alexis Tsipras in front of the local press corps.
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje April 2, 2019

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras paid a one-day historic visit to North Macedonia on April 2 accompanied by large delegation of ministers and businesspeople.

This is the first ever visit by a Greek prime minister to the recently renamed North Macedonia since its independence in 1991, and came after the two neighbours resolved the long-standing name dispute by signing the Prespa agreement in June 2018. Athens objected to the use of the name Macedonia, as the country was previously called, by its northern neighbour as it has a province in the north with the same name.

Tsipras arrived in Skopje with ten ministers and around 140 businesspeople mostly from the northern Greek region of Macedonia.

“I welcomed my friend and colleague Alexis Tsipras. First prime minister of Greece to visit North Macedonia. A truly historic day,” North Macedonia’s PM Zoran Zaev said in a tweet. Zaev hugged Tsipras and took selfies of the two in front of the government building.

Tsipras was welcomed on a red carpet, but without the national anthems or a military guard of honour. The government gave a strange explanation saying that the protocol was omitted because Tsipras' plane arrived with a delay.

North Macedonia’s anthem remained unchanged following the name deal, and the opening verse includes the words: “Today over Macedonia, is being born the new sun of liberty.” The Prespa deal does not allow the use of the name Macedonia without a prefix. The Greek opposition is even more rigid, as it doesn't want any use of the term Macedonia by Greece’s neighbour.

Tsipras said that now that the Prespa deal has been reached it is time to make up for nearly three lost decades.

Speaking about the Prespa deal, Zaev said that it is an irreversible process and expressed his hopes that the opposition in both countries will respect it because the deal brings many benefits.

A small group of people held a protest in Skopje against the change of the country’s name and against the visit of PM Tsipras.

Greece allowed to patrol North Macedonia’s sky

The two sides signed a series of memorandums of understanding of which the most important is the one in the defence sector. This includes monitoring of North Macedonia’s airspace by Greek air forces when the country becomes a Nato member.

The decision is expected to improve security in the region. North Macedonia does not have its own fighter jets. In February the country signed the accession protocol with Nato as Greece lifted its veto following the Prespa deal, and expects to become a fully-fledged member by end of the year or early next year.

The defence deal also includes military training, cooperation in cybersecurity and military intelligence.

A document was signed on improving the railway between Skopje and the Greek port of Thessaloniki. Both sides also agreed to open a new border crossing near the Macedonian town of Kavadarci to facilitate business contacts between the two sides.

EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn congratulated Zaev and Tsipras for paving “the way to a new era of friendly and productive relationship, to the benefit of their citizens and the region as a whole.”

“Their courage & vision is a signal to the rest of SEE Europe that hard nuts can be cracked. I am confident that EU Council will respond to this breakthrough with a credible step forward on the EU path of North Macedonia,” Hahn said in a tweet.

Later during the day, more than 500 businesspeople from both countries held a business forum as part of efforts to deepen economic and business cooperation.

Greece is the second trade partner of North Macedonia and the third largest investor in the country. Following the Prespa deal business cooperation and Greek investments are expected to increase.

Tsipras said that Greek entrepreneurship has the potential to play a dominant role in North Macedonia’s economic growth, with the important and positive momentum created by the Prespa agreement.