Sunday

18th Aug 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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

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

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Nato prepares to take in Macedonia

Macedonia to be invited into Nato as soon as it solves name dispute, but Greek nationalists could slow things down.

EU ushers Macedonia to come closer

The European commission has said it would restore full-throated support for Macedonia to start accession talks if it kept up reform.

'Macedonia' no longer needs inverted commas

Not every Greek is obsessed with the 'threat' of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia changing its name to something more pronounceable. In fact, the rest of the world thinks we are insane.

Lagarde's ECB must modernise

Christine Lagarde will succeed European Central Bank president Mario Draghi at a time of deepening polarisation among eurozone member states. It will take all of her skills as a leader and communicator to safeguard the institution's independence.

News in Brief

  1. Trump turned down: Greenland not for sale
  2. UK Libdems would back Clarke or Harman as new PM
  3. Six countries agree to take 'Open Arms' ship migrants
  4. Gibraltar judge: Iranian ship should be released
  5. Increasing fears of a global recession
  6. Far-right hate crimes on the rise in Germany
  7. EU steel tariffs have 'worked well' so far
  8. Italian court: Migrant rescue ship can enter Italian waters

Facebook has to answer some tough questions about Libra

German MEP and member of the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, Markus Ferber, warns of four separate threats from Facebook's Libra. A good moment to kick off the debate would be this week's G20 summit.

Six takeaways on digital disinformation at EU elections

For example, Germany's primetime TV news reported that 47 percent of political social media discussions were related to the extreme-right AfD party, when in fact this was the case only for Twitter - used by only four percent of Germans.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  5. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  7. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  8. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  9. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  10. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North

Latest News

  1. Selmayr did not keep formal records of lobby meetings
  2. EU asked to solve migrant rescue deadlock
  3. Internal EU paper: Second Brexit vote was no longer 'distant dream'
  4. EU has 'zero incentive' to break open 'trilogue' deals
  5. Denmark plans import ban on EU-approved pesticide
  6. US offers Johnson helping hand on Brexit
  7. Italy: New government without Salvini in the making
  8. Brexit row delays financial products transparency review

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  4. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  7. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  12. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  2. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  3. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  5. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  6. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us