The row between Athens and Moscow, over the expulsion of two Russian diplomats and barring of entry to another two, appears to be escalating. On Thursday, Moscow announced that the scheduled visit to Athens in September by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was cancelled, on the dubious grounds that the time was no longer suitable.
Meanwhile the spokeswoman of the Russian foreign ministry, Maria Zacharova, adopted terse language about the dispute in a briefing she gave that was reported by Sputnik International, warning there would be consequences. She said: “Unfortunately, of course, we are talking about politics. Such things do not remain without consequences, do not disappear without a trace. Of course, unfortunately, all this darkens bilateral relations, without introducing any constructive principle.”
Zacharova then resorted to the traditional Russian practice of blaming others. “We have an understanding that the people of Greece should communicate with their Russian partners, and not suffer from dirty provocations, into which, unfortunately, Athens was dragged.” The accusation was very clear – the Greek government had acted arbitrarily and had been fooled by “dirty provocations,” presumably by Nato or Western powers that do not follow Russia’s example of never interfering in the affairs of other countries.
What makes the actions of the Greek government very surprising was the past deference it showed to Russia, with foreign minister Nikos Kotzias making no secret of his close ties with the Moscow government. The Tsipras government regularly voted against sanctions on Russia at EU meetings and in the past had argued for their lifting. For Greece to take the measures it did against the four Russian diplomats, the degree of interference must have been unprecedented and the evidence for this indisputable.
It was no secret that Moscow was vehemently opposed to the deal between Athens and Skopje over the name Republic of North Macedonia, which paved the way for the latter’s membership of Nato. It was very likely that the Russian government would use its influence in Greece to try to turn people against the deal; it has done the same in Macedonia where the deal will be put to a referendum. And these were not “dirty provocations,” as Zacharova maintained.
The Greek foreign ministry responded strongly to Zacharova’s arrogant utterances, saying that her comments indicated that she “endorses and shows she would want to legitimise these unlawful acts.” It also accused Moscow of showing “ongoing disrespect to Greece”, demanding that this stopped. “Nobody has the right or is allowed to interfere in internal matters,” the ministry said, making it clear that it had no intention to back down.
The dispute is set to continue, because it is very unlikely Russia will give up the efforts to scupper the Macedonia deal, but at least now the Greek government has not only identified the threat, but has shown a willingness to confront it head on.