Macedonia softens stance on name issue ahead of official visit to Greece

Macedonia softens stance on name issue ahead of official visit to Greece
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest and Miki Trajkovski in Skopje December 16, 2015

Top Macedonia officials indicated ahead of Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki’s visit to Athens on December 17 that Skopje might finally be willing to compromise on the name issue that has long delayed its entry to both the EU and Nato.

The damage this long-standing dispute has caused to Macedonia’s prospects for Euro-Atlantic integration – and the attendant economic and political benefits – was highlighted on December 2, when nearby Montenegro received an invitation to join Nato. Macedonia, which until recently was far ahead of Montnegro on its path to membership in both Nato and the EU, has been told it has to wait to join the institutions until the long-running dispute with Greece over the former Yugoslav state’s name is resolved. Athens argues ‘Macedonia’ implies territorial claims over the Greek province of the same name, and so is blocking its membership progress.

As other countries have overtaken Macedonia on its path to membership of both international organisations, officials and observers warn of growing frustration and resentment among its people, which could have knock on effects for the already tense domestic and regional situation.

Just two weeks after Montenegro received its invitation from Nato, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said in an interview with The Guardian that he is willing to reopen dialogue on the issue. “We are ready to discuss, to open dialogue with them, and to find some solution,” Gruevski told the newspaper. He stressed, however, that any move to change the country’s name would have to be put to a referendum.

Meanwhile, Poposki told Greek daily Kathimerini on December 13 that, “conditions are more than ripe” to do “something positive about finding a solution”. He added that, “Frankly, we do not want to have such an absurd dispute with a neighbour".

It is not clear what Macedonia’s new name would be. There is the clunky “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, as used by the UN, or other proposals such as “New Macedonia” or “Upper Macedonia”.

Frustrated progress

The EU’s annual progress reports typically praise Macedonia’s achievements in creating a welcoming business environment – the country was ranked 12th on the latest World Bank "Doing Business" report – and for aligning its legislation with the EU’s. However, Gruevski’s efforts to attract more foreign direct investment have been held back by the lack of progress towards EU membership.

Being overtaken in its quest for Nato entry was a further blow, which President Gjorge Ivanov said on December 2 “causes frustration among our population... Macedonia has been waiting too long at the doors of Nato".

Experts warn that further delays to admitting Macedonia to the two main Euro-Atlantic bodies will cause discontent internally, which could destabilise a country that has already suffered periodic strife between the Macedonian Slavs and the ethnic Albanian community. Discontent with Gruevski’s rule also erupted this spring and after mass protests his government is due to stand down in January in advance of early elections under an EU-brokered deal.

Blagoja Markovski, president of the Balkan Security Forum, tells bne IntelliNews, that another rise in tensions would affect not only Macedonia but the entire region. While “for now there is no fear of external aggression,” Markovski warns that, “more problems can be realised in the territory of Macedonia because this situation creates divisions among the population".

Any additional presence of Nato in the region can only increase regional stability, according to Philip Stojkovski, a researcher on security issues at the Analitica think-tank. “The fact that Montenegro was invited means there will be no negative consequences for Macedonia, but rather it can restore faith in Euro-Atlantic integration. However, it is now up to the political leaders as to how they orient Macedonia. It is very important for our Euro-Atlantic aspirations to resolve the political crisis in which we find ourselves,” Stojkovski says.

For Marian Gjuroski, professor at the Faculty of Security in Skopje, Macedonia joining the alliance would affect wider stability. “Membership of Macedonia in Nato will mean long-term stability and security not only for the Balkans but for the Euro-Atlantic region as a whole and the beginning of the finalisation of the concept of a Europe – whole, free and at peace,” she says, stressing that Macedonia has “invested more than two decades” in this process. 

Keeping some Balkan states outside the EU and Nato could create a dangerous vacuum in this part of Europe. “The Western Balkans has three countries that are not part of Nato and are beyond the protection of Nato structures, which are Bosnia & Herzgovina, Serbia and Macedonia,” says Markovski. “Macedonia remains a black hole [that] can be used for various international interests and is an opportunity for various destructive actions in this part of the region.”

While Nato has now embraced almost all countries from the Western Balkans, only two countries from the region – Croatia and Slovenia – have so far achieved EU membership. Aware of the dangers of allowing would-be member states to become discouraged by their long wait, in 2014 German Chancellor Angela Merkel launched the Berlin Process, an initiative on the region’s integration with the EU. There has been some progress since then, but the pace of integration is still slower than hoped for in many capitals in the region.

Most recently, frustration with its failure to secure a deal on visa free travel for its citizens to the EU boiled over in Kosovo, where Kosovan Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci warned of possible negative consequences. “The delay not only encourages extremism in the country, but also increases frustration among Kosovan citizens,” Thaci wrote on his Facebook page on December 15. “Furthermore, this EU approach is putting at risk all important processes in place, including the dialogue for normalisation of relations with Serbia,” he added. Kosovo is now the only country in the Balkan region whose citizens need a visa to travel to the Schengen area. 

By contrast, both Bosnia and Serbia made significant progress this year, with knock-on benefits for their governments’ credibility. After years of stalled progress, Bosnia’s Stabilisation and Association Agreement entered force in June, and Serbia opened its first two accession negotiation chapters on December 14.