Athens.- (GreekNewsOnline, ANA-MPA)
Relations between Greece and Russia hit a level last week, following the discovery by the Greek authorities that Russian diplomats working with local businessmen in the northern city of Alexandroupolis tried to bribe members of Parliament, in order to block the deal with Skopje, that will allow FYROM to become of member of NATO. Greece expelled two Russian diplomats and block the entrance to the country to two Russian citizens.
“Financial Times” quoting a Greek diplomat wrote on Saturday that the diplomats were accused of working with businesspeople to bribe local government officials, Orthodox clergymen, and members of cultural associations and far-right groups across the north of the country in order to fan a popular backlash against the naming agreement signed last month between the leaders of Greece and Macedonia.”
“The Russians wanted to bring about a breakdown of the talks,” said a senior Greek diplomat. “They stepped up their normal meddling in [the Greek regions of] Macedonia and Thrace.”
I think it’s unprecedented. Even at the height of the cold war, when we were a frontline state facing the Warsaw pact, Greece avoided expelling east European diplomats
According to the “Financial Times”, one Russian bribery attempt failed when a Greek military officer reported the incident to his commander, said people with knowledge of the diplomats’ activities. Two other Russian diplomats allegedly involved in similar practices in the past were banned from returning to Greece.
Greek weekly newspaper “DOCUMENTO” reported on Sunday that the network tried to bribe three members of Parliament belonging to the government party “Independent Greeks” and that the network had close relations with Greek bishops and the Monastery of Vatopedi in Mount Athos, a secluded autonomous holy place often visited by President Putin and Prince Charles of England.
Commenting on the expulsions, the State Department said “we note with particular concern potential Russian attempts to undermine breakthrough agreement between Athens- Skopje, Interference in other countries’ democratic processes is unacceptable. We support Greece in defending its sovereignty.”
Testifying in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Europe and Regional Security Cooperation Subcommittee, during a hearing, on U.S. Policy in Europe, on June 26, 2018, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs A. Wess Mitchell had spoken about Russian efforts to derail a possible agreement between Greece and Skopje. He was replying to a question by Senator Jeanne Shaheen ( D-N.H.).
“I’m, specifically, concerned about the potential for Russian meddling. We saw this with Montenegro. Russian representatives have been making very threatening statements. And I think there is a high potential, particularly on the Macedonian side, for the Russians to try to interfere with this.
We’ve made clear to the Russians we’re watching it closely and it’s not in Moscow’s ambit to decide Macedonia’s future. We’re working together with — to strengthen Macedonian institutions. We have excellent security cooperation with the Macedonians. And I am in frequent contact with senior leaders there.
Also, we know Russian methods. More broadly, on your question, the next steps on this are the Macedonian parliament has — the Macedonian parliament has ratified the deal, but it has to be confirmed by a public referendum. And then the parliament has to adopt the necessary amendments by a two-thirds majority.
We would then expect to see Greece ratify the agreement only after Macedonia has made the constitutional changes. And then we expect to see NATO extend an invitation to what would be North Macedonia at the summit in July. We’re hopeful that the E.U. will decide to open accession negotiations. That’s much less certain right now than the — than the NATO path.”
When Senator Shaheen asked Mitchell “if there is a summit between Vladimir Putin and President Trump, will you and Secretary Pompeo be advising the president that he should raise the issues of Russian meddling in Greece and Macedonia and in the Balkan region in general as one of the issues for their discussions”, the U.S. official said:
“The issue of Russian meddling is at the forefront of all interagency discussions about Russia. It’s a central reality that we’re very focused on. So my short answer to your question would be yes.”
Russian government allegations that Greece’s expulsion of two Russian diplomats and the denial of entry to two Russian citizens were influenced by the United States are “groundless”, Greek diplomatic sources said on Friday.
Earlier in the day, the Russian Foreign Ministry had summoned Greek Ambassador to Moscow Andreas Fryganas to protest the incidents, charging that “Washington is behind the Greek government’s anti-Russian decision, timed to the opening of the NATO summit,” as reported by Tass news agency.
In a strongly-worded statement, the diplomatic sources responded, “Claims of alleged American pressure towards Greece are absolutely groundless,” adding, “It appears that the Russians have trouble understanding that a small state can and is in a position to defend its national interests. They have trouble understanding the unique role the Greek merchant marine plays in international economy and the Greek interest in defending this role. They have trouble understanding the right of our country to defend its national interests in the region, and they keep seeing third powers behind these. In this case they additionally have trouble understanding that we do not allow third powers to intervene in our domestic affairs.”
Tass quoted the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying, “On July 13, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned Head of the Greek Mission in Moscow Fryganas Andreas, to whom [the ministry] expressed a strong protest in relation to the expulsion of two Russian diplomats and the ban of two Russian citizens from entering the country. We stressed that we find these actions absolutely unfounded, not supported by the facts from the Greek side, coming in conflict with the nature of our bilateral relations and capable of causing them serious damage.”
The Russian ministry also accused Washington as being “behind the Greek government’s anti-Russian decision, timed to the opening of the NATO summit,” Tass said.
Meanwhile, Alexander Vinnik, a one-time admin of bitcoin platform BTC-e who was arrested in Greece last year on an international warrant for cybercrime, has been ordered by a Greek court to be extradited to France. The United States and Russia have also sought extraditions of Vinnik. Vinnik’s lawyer, Ilias Spyrliadis, said Vinnik is appealing the court’s decision, while Russia issued another protest.
The “Financial Times” reported that in Alexandroupolis, a “Russian House” funded by Moscow serves as a cultural centre while Greek and Russian sponsors connected with St Petersburg paid for a new Orthodox church built with the blessing of Metropolitan Anthimos.
A western diplomat quoted by the FT said: “It’s quite a sophisticated operation that takes place under the cover of promoting longstanding cultural ties between Greece and Russia and their shared Orthodox religious heritage.”
FT ads that with a general election due in a year’s time, there is talk in far-right political circles of a new party to be based in the northern Greek region of Macedonia where opposition to the name agreement is strongest. It would campaign on an aggressively nationalist platform and seek to consolidate links with Moscow.
“Such a party would be expected to draw strong support from the large community of Pontians, members of an ethnic Greek minority in the former Soviet Union that migrated to Greece following the collapse of communism but still face problems of poverty and social exclusion.”
“The Pontians compete in Greece for political patronage like other groups but they retain a strong identification with the [Orthodox] church and some nostalgia for the twilight of the former Soviet Union where they enjoyed a degree of material affluence,” said Antonis Kamaras, a political commentator and expert on the Greek diaspora.
Pontian cultural associations formed to keep alive their Russian heritage and act as political lobby groups for the community have also attracted funding in Russia’s drive for influence in Greece.
“They [the Pontians] are a pool of several hundred thousand potentially dissatisfied voters, many of them Russian speakers,” said Costas Iordanides, a political commentator and former diplomatic correspondent. “They’re a natural target for Russian activism.”