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Europe

Macedonia and Greece play the blame game

The tensions between Macedonia and Greece over the refugee crisis are high. Athens and Skopje are trading accusations and insults.

Two days after Macedonian security forces stopped hundreds of migrants and refugees attempting to break through the border fence, tensions remain high between the Balkan neighbors already involved in a two-decade dispute over Macedonia's name.

While Greece's economic and political problems are well documented, it is the ongoing political turmoil in Macedonia that worries analysts most. In the meantime, both Athens and Skopje are using the refugee crisis to divert attention from their own deficiencies and internal problems, said Dane Taleski, visiting Fellow at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz.

"Greece is in a constant socio-economic turmoil with a precarious political stability and Macedonia is in a prolonged deep political and institutional crisis," Taleski told DW. "The refugee crisis provides an opportunity to play the blame game against each other and to use the refugees as a scapegoat."

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras accused Macedonia on Monday of "shaming" Europe by using what he said was tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the migrants.

Dane Taleski from the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz (Photo: European Union)

Dane Taleski: Macedonia and Greece are using the refugees as a scapegoat

From bad to worse

Macedonia replied by accusing its southern neighbor of not having reacted to prevent hundreds of refugees from attempting to breach the border fence, as the Greek police did not intervene.

"The establishment of law and order in the border zone in and around migrant reception centers is essential to prevent such incidents in the future," said the Macedonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement. Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov called on the EU to help Greece clear the provisional refugee camp in Idomeni.

Medical aid agencies said they treated about 300 people, including children, for respiratory problems and injuries. Macedonia stated that 14 police officers and nine soldiers were wounded.

The Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos added: "With such behavior towards refugees, the neighboring country has no place in the EU or NATO."

Greece has been blocking Macedonia's bid to join NATO and the EU since 2008, insisting that the neighboring country has to change its name first. "Macedonia" is also the name of the northern Hellenic province where Thessaloniki is located. Greek officials have insisted that the international community refers to the country as the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," or FYROM.

Taleski said the lingering "name-dispute" between Athens and Skopje made things even worse, adding to the hostility and tensions. "Even if things were normal, both countries hardly have the capacity to shelter and help the refugees. But with boiling domestic issues and a constant animosity, they do not even have the political will to properly address the erupting humanitarian crisis," Taleski says.

The Macedonian President Gjorgi Ivanov (Photo: AP)

Macedonian President Ivanov called on the EU to help Greece clear the provisional refugee camp in Idomeni

Chaos in the Macedonian police

The situation has become even more complicated due to the political crisis in Macedonia and the ongoing turmoil in the interior ministry. The current Interior Minister Oliver Spasovski, a member of the opposition Social Democrats, was named in November last year as part of the deal mediated by the EU and the US aimed at ending a lingering political crisis.

The government is led by a caretaker prime minister, Emil Dimitrev from the ruling conservative VMRO-DPMNE party. Last week, Dimitriev annulled all decisions and resolutions made by Spasovski in the ministry.

Spasovski previously resigned from office, but the parliament did not convene to discuss the resignation, as it hurried to dissolve before the early parliamentary elections on June 5.

Police officials told Macedonian media that they are witnessing a chaotic situation in the ministry: After Dimitriev annulled Spasovski's decisions on personal appointments, the police is practically being run simultaneously by cadres named by Spasovski and the previous government. Thus, confusion reigns over about hundred official posts where two people are assigned the same position.

"The hierarchy in the Macedonian police is completely disrupted," Pavle Trayanov, a former Macedonian interior minister, told DW. "The capacity and efficiency of the police had been reduced, and it can lead to a disruption of the Macedonian security system as a whole."

A nightmare scenario

According to Taleski, the state of disarray in Macedonia and the tensions at the border completely discredit the idea of "fortress Europe" as an answer to the refugee crisis: "It is a nightmare scenario to have two of the weakest states in Europe to play a pivotal role in managing the refugee crisis. It is politically irresponsible, and it is not a sustainable policy."

"If the Macedonian-Greek border was the 'first line of defense,' as some would have it, clashes at the border would probably occur on a daily basis."

Instead of focusing on building fences, Taleski adds, "the EU must pay more attention to restoring socio-economic stability in Greece, to restoring democracy in Macedonia and to establishing a closer political and security cooperation between the two."