Wednesday

20th Feb 2019

Opinion

A new dynamic on the Macedonia name issue

  • Skopje: Spat between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia over rights to the name 'Macedonia' has perplexed diplomats for over 25 years (Photo: Dennis Jarvis)

Is 2018 the year that will see a breakthrough in the disagreement between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) over the latter's official name - one of Europe's longstanding political standoffs?

FYROM is referred to as the 'Republic of Macedonia' in the country's constitution and recognised as such by most countries.

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But Greece objects to this official appellation, which it feels creates erroneous impressions about the history and legacy of ancient Macedonia and raises dangers of future irredentist claims against its own northern region of Macedonia.

FYROM's entry to the EU and NATO is effectively blocked by Athens until a permanent resolution to the name-issue is found.

The Greek position has evolved since the early 1990s, when under pressure from a massive wave of popular mobilisation, Athens rejected the use of the word 'Macedonia' in any form by the government in Skopje.

In 2007 Greece accepted that 'Macedonia' could be present in the final form of FYROM's name, provided it was accompanied by a geographical adjective showing that Skopje did not monopolise the history and identity of Macedonia.

Yet in 2008 Greece effectively vetoed FYROM's entry into NATO, citing Skopje's lagging commitment to a solution.

The ensuing decade saw little progress on the issue.

Greece was consumed by a punishing economic crisis, and FYROM descended into political polarisation that eventually saw Nikola Gruevski's increasingly authoritarian right-wing government collapse after opposition demonstrations in 2016.

Gruevski espoused an exclusivist nationalism that antagonised both Greece and FYROM's Albanian minority.

New hope

The new Socialist government of Zoran Zaev espouses a softer form of nationalism centred on the majority population's Slavic identity. This helps allay some Greek fears that Skopje could usurp the legacy of ancient Macedonia and is more accommodating towards FYROM's Albanians.

This has kick-started a new dynamic for the resolution of the name-issue.

The overtures of the new FYROM government have met a receptive ear in Athens and during the Christmas holiday season both Zaev and his deputy visited Greece.

Greece's ruling party, Syriza, comes from a radical leftist tradition that has always resisted extreme nationalism.

Prime minister Alexis Tsipras would have little trouble selling a solution to his own party.

The presence of Nikos Kotzias in the foreign ministry also helps. Having already tried to mend traditionally tricky bilateral relations with Albania and Kosovo and re-establish Greece's influence in the Balkans, Kotzias is eager to seize the opportunity to advance discussions with FYROM.

Initially, the domestic context in Greece seemed promising. The first signs of rapprochement were met by a welcoming tone in the Greek mainstream media and subdued reactions from nationalists.

This encouraged the Greek government to move ahead with negotiations, officially conducted under the auspices of the UN but likely involving backchannel diplomacy between leaders in Athens and Skopje.

According to reports, the Greek side appears confident that it can present a resolution for ratification by April, although a more realistic threshold is the NATO summit in June, when FYROM's accession will potentially be discussed.

Three obstacles

Despite these positive factors, there are still many obstacles to a solution: the complexity of the issue; the international context; and the tricky domestic political situation in Athens.

Firstly, the dispute does not concern only FYROM's name but a host of issues touching on identity, historical memory and sensitive issues of public policy and symbolism.

It also highlights diplomatic questions: Greece insists that any solution must be applicable to FYROM's relations with all international organisations and countries, whereas FYROM emphasises that more than 100 countries have already recognised its constitutional name.

It is possible that this new round of talks will stall again in the minutiae of technical negotiation.

Secondly, even though the perpetuation of the name-issue is generally seen as an impediment to stability in the Balkans and Greece's international partners have been pushing for a solution, it is unlikely Western governments currently have the time and energy to apply high-level political pressure.

Any progress on a technical and expert level would have to be translated into official commitment.

But NATO is disrupted by the discourse of the Trump presidency, Germany still lacks a government, and the EU is preoccupied with its new battlefront with Poland.

Thirdly, political forces in Greece view the Macedonia issue primarily through the lens of domestic point-scoring.

Tsipras' key motivation is to divide the opposition centre-right New Democracy, which split bitterly over Macedonia in the 1990s.

New Democracy has made it clear that, even if it supports a solution in principle, it will not sign up if Syriza's junior coalition partner, the nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL), rejects the agreement put forth by Tsipras.

The ANEL leader has sent mixed messages about whether he will consider or outright reject any solution that includes the name 'Macedonia', hoping to embarrass New Democracy while maintaining his position in government.

This is all complicated by the fact that the Greek public have proved to be more engaged than initially hoped by the government.

People on the streets

A massive demonstration against the use of the name 'Macedonia' in FYROM's official appellation in Thessaloniki on 22 January attracted hundreds of thousands of participants, thus ending the enthusiasm of Syriza and further restraining the room for manoeuvre of the opposition.

Ultimately, as with so many other things in Greek politics, the key determinant will be Tsipras' assessment of his own political gain.

His enthusiastic embrace of this topic hinged on the double hope of a diplomatic success that would entrap the opposition.

But with the public again becoming energised over Macedonia, Tsipras may already be thinking more in terms of shoring up his populist credentials than delivering a solution to one of the most intractable diplomatic disagreements in post-Cold War Europe.

Most importantly, the stability of the Greek government in the first half of 2018 is crucial not only for Tsipras, but also for the rest of Europe, as Greece prepares to exit its economic bailout in August.

Athens has previously deflected pressures for compromise in the Macedonia name-issue by pointing to its volatile domestic, political and social situation.

Thwarting what started off as a promising dynamic may be the final foreign policy legacy of the Greek crisis as it slowly comes to a formal end in the summer of 2018.

Dr Angelos Chryssogelosis an academy associate in Chatham House's Europe programme

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