16th Feb 2019

Mounting pressure to end Macedonian negotiations with Greece

  • The name dispute has stalled Macedonia's EU bid (Photo: Zlatevska DNEVNIK)

Macedonia is to break off negotiations with Greece if its national identity continues to be disrespected, media close to the government in Skopje have reported.

The reports echo public anger over the disappearance of the term 'Macedonian' from the European Commission's latest assessment of the Balkan country's progress towards EU integration.

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There was no official confirmation of the end of negotiations but members of the ruling Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) said that the idea was being considered.

Last week, Macedonia noticed that the latest progress report by the European Commission no longer uses the term 'Macedonian'. Instead of mentioning a 'Macedonian language' it refers to a "state language".

This prompted outrage throughout the country. President Gjorgje Ivanov summoned the EU ambassador in Macedonia for an explanation. During a parliamentary debate on the progress report, EU ambassador Erwan Fouere apologised for the use of the term "state language", qualifying it as "a misunderstanding".

There was no change in the commission's policy, which follows recommendations by the United Nations (UN), Mr Fouere said.

"If you ask me what the official language of the country is, I'd say: Macedonian. The EU is not involved in changing the identity of people. Identity is something sacred and it should not be negotiable," Mr Fouere said.

The adjective 'Macedonian' has turned into a particularly difficult stumbling block in Skopje's name dispute with its southern neighbour. Greece is blocking Macedonia's entry into both the EU and Nato by asking it to change its name.

Greece's northern province is called Macedonia and some Greeks from this region identify themselves as 'Macedonian'. Athens would like to make a clear distinction between the names of the Greek region and the independent country.

The dispute has continued since 1995, when both countries signed an interim agreement under UN auspices to search for a permanent solution to the name issue. The agreement stipulates that Macedonia will be referred to as the 'Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia', or FYROM, until a definitive name is found.

So far this has not happened. Skopje would agree to compromise on the name itself but insists on guarantees that its people and language can continue to use the term 'Macedonian'.

Athens insists that a geographical modifier should be erga omnes – used by the whole world including international organisations. Skopje has refused the latter because so far over 120 countries have recognised Macedonia under its constitutional name 'Republic of Macedonia'.

Following Mr Fouere's remark, Macedonian media discovered that the UN has also stopped mentioning a Macedonian language. This prompted reports about an imminent break-up of the talks with Greece unless the term 'Macedonian' is at least re-introduced into official UN terminology.

The foreign ministry in Skopje sent a note to the cabinet of the UN Secretary General demanding that the name of the language be re-introduced.

In the meantime, the Social Democrat opposition has criticised the government's policy, recalling that the term 'Macedonian' had already disappeared from the commission's reports back in 2006 when the conservative VMRO-DPMNE came to power. The opposition said that the government had engaged in unwarranted provocation of Greece by renaming Skopje airport after 'Alexander the Great', the emperor considered by Greece to be a key figure of its historical heritage.

They called on VMRO-DPMNE to solve the name dispute without losing the identity issue. "If they don't know how to do that, than they should resign," said Ljubomir Frckovski, a former Social Democrat presidential candidate.

In the meantime, the protests continue. One partner of the ruling coalition announced a petition to the UN, and activists have declared themselves ready to start a hunger strike. Blogs and social networks are full of negative reactions urging the government to stop negotiating with Greece. The Macedonian Writers Association has launched an appeal for the protection of the Macedonian language and identity.

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