By Lefteris Papadimas
ATHENS (Reuters) – Greece said on Thursday it still seeks good relations with Moscow, a day after it expelled two Russian diplomats for trying to bribe officials and foment demonstrations to thwart a deal to allow Macedonia to join NATO.
Greece reached an accord last month with its tiny northern neighbour to resolve a dispute over the former Yugoslav republic’s name, which had prevented Macedonia from joining NATO and the European Union for decades.
Greece has a province called Macedonia, and argued that the former Yugoslav state’s name implied territorial ambitions against Greece. Under the deal, Macedonia will become North Macedonia and Greece will lift its veto of its neighbour joining the EU and NATO.
The June 17 accord still must be approved by a referendum in Macedonia and a vote in the Greek parliament. It is opposed by nationalists in both countries, some of whom have held demonstrations.
On Wednesday, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats and barred two other people from entering the country, accusing them of having meddled by encouraging demonstrations and bribing unidentified officials to thwart the Macedonia agreement.
Athens has not given further details of the alleged plot. Russia has denied wrongdoing and responded in kind with expulsions of Greeks.
The incident was a rare hiccup in traditionally close relations between the two countries which, despite Greece’s longstanding membership in NATO, have religious and cultural links spanning centuries.
“Russia is a friendly country with whom we have very good historical relations, but Greece considers international law as the foundation of all bilateral and multilateral relations, so in defending our sovereignty,” George Katrougalos, the deputy to Greece’s foreign minister, told Reuters.
“We had to react to what we considered to be a breach of the obligations under international law of the diplomatic activities in our country,” he said. “Still, we believe that this is going to be an isolated incident exactly because it is in our intention to safeguard the very good Greek-Russian relations.”
NATO leaders agreed on Wednesday to invite Macedonia to begin accession talks to join the western alliance, extending its reach in the Balkans in defiance of Russia.
Greece’s fragile left-right coalition under Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras recently lost two lawmakers who quit in protest against the Macedonia accord, bringing his parliamentary majority to 152 out of a total of 300 seats.
(Writing by Michele Kambas; Editing by Peter Graff)