By Renee Maltezou and Michele Kambas
ATHENS (Reuters) – Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras accepted the resignation of his foreign minister on Wednesday, Greece’s first major political casualty in a crusade to end a decades-old name dispute with Macedonia.
Tsipras has said he will do whatever is required to ensure an agreement reached in June to rename the neighbouring country ‘Republic of North Macedonia’ gets implemented.
But the accord has faced opposition on both sides of the border, and Tsipras’ Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias and Defence Minister Panos Kammenos clashed over it in cabinet on Tuesday. “They are both explosive characters,” a witness told Reuters.
Kotzias, a strong supporter of the accord who was Greece’s main negotiator in the talks that led to it, submitted his resignation on Wednesday.
Kammenos, whose small right-wing party is propping up Tsipras’ fragile coalition government, views the deal as a national sell-out.
Warning against further dissent, the prime minister said he would take over the foreign affairs portfolio himself.
“It is a decision not to tolerate, from now on, any double-speak from anyone, or any personal agenda (against) …the national line,” he said in a televised statement, without elaborating.
Tsipras, whose left-wing Syriza party is trailing badly ahead of national elections due next year, is hoping a successful name change deal – a precondition for Greece to lift its veto on Macedonia joining the EU and NATO – will help boost his political standing abroad.
NOT A DONEDEAL
The June accord delighted the west in a region where it jostles for influence with Moscow. Two Russian diplomats were expelled from Greece that same month under Kotzias’s watch, accused of trying to foment opposition to the deal.
Greece has insisted on the change because it views the name ‘Macedonia’ as implying a territorial claim on a northern Greek region of that name.
But the accord is still far from settled.
It is awaiting approval from both countries’ parliaments and, though Macedonians backed the name changed in a referendum last month, just 37 percent turned out to vote – too few for the result to be valid.
Kammenos has threatened to quit the coalition if it is put before parliament.
During Tuesday’s fractious cabinet meeting, Tsipras asked his ministers to put their difference aside and back him if a no confidence vote was called by the main opposition.
In a colourful tweet following his resignation, Kotzias spouted poetry. “They wanted to bury me deep, but forgot I was a seed.”
Earlier on Wednesday, government spokesman Dimitris Tzanakopoulos compared the government to a train that had a clear direction and would reach its destination. “If anyone …feels frustrated, he can just get off.”
(Reporting By Michele Kambas and Renee Maltezou; Editing by John Stonestreet)