Sunday

26th May 2019

Opinion

Opportunity not to be missed in Greece-Macedonia row

  • A long-running row over the ex-Yugolsav republic of Macedonia's name - which it shares with a region of neighbouring Greece, shows that words matter in EU politics (Photo: Robert Thomson)

The naming dispute between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia that has raged for almost three decades must be resolved.

There are several reasons why the current opportunity, presented by the renewed UN-mediated negotiations between the two countries and encouraged by the US and the EU, should not be missed.

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Firstly, Greece's contentions in the dispute are or have become illegitimate.

Greece continues to argue, on the official level, that its major objection is Macedonia's "irredentism".

While it is true that several statements by Macedonian officials, as well as certain provisions in the Macedonian constitution, did justify such a concern in the past, this is no longer the case.

The current government in Macedonia has gone to great lengths to dismantle the so-called 'Antiquisation' programme that was pursued by its predecessor, and has openly repudiated any claim on the history that Greece considers its own heritage.

As for the constitution, it is simply not true that it continues to include irredentist references. On the contrary, after its amendments, it includes an explicit rejection of any claim to foreign territory.

Greece has in substance accepted that its neighbour's "composite name" will include the term "Macedonia".

Therefore, continued insistence on a non-existent "irredentism" serves no purpose except pandering to a nationalistic segment of Greek public opinion.

The same is true about denying the existence of a Macedonian nation. The Macedonian national movement has been documented since the last years of the 19th century, and people that self-identify as ethnic Macedonians have been around for at least as long.

Secondly, Greek policy towards its northern neighbour through the years - including a trade embargo in the 1990s - has been devastating to Macedonia's economy, and continually hinders its chances for stability and prosperity.

Greece has in reality no reason to consider the Republic of Macedonia as a threat.

A country that has only 20 percent of the population of Greece and virtually no military forces cannot reasonably be considered a security concern.

Immoral

Continuing to obstruct Macedonia's prospects of development and international relations is simply a re-channeling of other threats and humiliations (for example, dissatisfaction with EU-imposed austerity or concern over the deteriorating relationship with Turkey) into a conflict with a weaker adversary that Greece feels it has the power to bully with impunity.

This is immoral.

Thirdly, the current government of the Republic of Macedonia has come to power through a process of public involvement and through the disillusionment of a large part of the voters with the extreme nationalist policies of the past.

A failure in the negotiations now will be a severe blow to the momentum that more moderate and more democratic policies currently enjoy.

And it is not just international relations that will suffer as a result. The internal progressive policies with regard to civil and minority rights, that this government was elected to promote, will also be endangered. Greece has no reason, as a democratic country, to wish for that to happen.

It is true that the main thrust behind the restart of the negotiations now has not been the desire of either Greece or Macedonia to correct past mistakes, but rather the on-going project of NATO consolidation in the Western Balkans.

It started with the admission of Slovenia into the alliance, and continued with Albania and Croatia, and finally with Montenegro. Macedonia has long endeavoured to be admitted to NATO, and it seems that this is now the next step, provided that Greece lifts its objections, which it will only do if the naming dispute is resolved.

It is no secret that this euro-Atlantic policy is pursued with some urgency in the face of deteriorating relations between the West and Russia, as well as increasing Chinese economic expansion.

This is also reflected in the European Commission's determination to integrate the Western Balkans into the Union by 2025. Greece has aligned itself with these policies.

Some argue that small countries have no reason to get involved in the grand designs of major powers, and that an entanglement with NATO's anti-Russian preparations brings the threat of war closer, rather than ensure security.

While this can be a legitimate discussion - particularly considering the track record of past Nato intervention - it should be disconnected from the issue of the naming dispute with Macedonia.

Nato has its reasons for encouraging a resolution, but Greece should have its own reasons, which I briefly set out here, for ending the dispute.

An insistence on discussing the issue under the weight of concerns about Nato policy leads to a curious coupling of anti-imperialism and nationalistic chauvinism that is regressive and reactionary.

It should not be allowed to dominate the public debate.

Augustine Zenakos is a journalist based in Athens

Disclaimer

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

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