30th Sep 2023

Macedonia name dispute threatens EU Balkan strategy, report says

The year-long disagreement between Athens and Skopje over Macedonia's official name is not only detrimental to the two neigbours' bilateral relations, it is also jeopardising European Union and NATO stability strategies for the western Balkans, according to a report published on Monday (12 January).

"The main NATO-EU strategy for stabilising Macedonia and the region via enlargement was derailed in 2008 by the dispute with Greece over the country's name," says the International Crisis Group (ICG) in a new paper.

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  • Alexander the Great's ethnic origin is also part of the dispute between Greece and Macedonia. (Photo: EUobserver)

It explains that the EU membership perspective has been helping to unite Macedonia's two communities, the ethnic Macedonians and Albanians, especially since the end of the 2001 conflict between them.

But the recent escalation of the name dispute between Greece and Macedonia – which materialised in April last year when Athens blocked Skopje's NATO bid – "puts at risk the progress achieved," according to the ICG.

Greece has refused to recognise its neighbour's constitutional name - the Republic of Macedonia - since it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, as a northern region in Greece is also called Macedonia and Athens fears allowing Skopje to use the name will open the way to territorial claims. It also believes the appellation is part of its own historical heritage.

Donald Steinberg, the NGO's deputy president warned: "This is more than a bilateral dispute between Skopje and Athens. It risks derailing the main strategy of both NATO and the EU for stabilising Macedonia and the region, based on enlargement and integration."

"By blocking NATO and EU integration, Greece appeared to contravene its undertaking in the 1995 Interim Accord between the two states not to let the name issue stand in the way of Macedonia's membership of international organisations," Sabine Freizer, ICG's Europe Programme director said.

"Pending agreement, Skopje should use its provisional name, 'the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia', in all multilateral forums, and Athens should drop its veto threats," she added.

Macedonia should not provoke Greece

But the NGO stresses that Macedonia too "should avoid provocations" – such as renaming the Skopje airport after Alexander the Great, or, more recently, renaming Macedonia's main highway after the historical figure, whose ethnic origin is also part of the thorny dispute between the two countries.

The ICG goes further, saying that "Skopje should publicly state its readiness to accept the latest proposal of the UN mediator that 'Republic of North Macedonia' be the name [of the country] for all international purposes."

In return, "Athens should respond by acknowledging the national identity and language of its northern neighbour as 'Macedonian'" – something Greece has consistently refused to do.

The role of the EU, as well as of NATO, in the process should not be underestimated either, and they "should actively encourage Athens to unblock Macedonia's integration into both organisations and to respond positively to Skopje's concessions on the country's name," the ICG report concludes.


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