BALKAN BLOG: Macedonia on the verge of a breakthrough

BALKAN BLOG: Macedonia on the verge of a breakthrough
The prime ministers of Greece and Macedonia met for the first time ever on the sidelines of the Davos forum in January. / Macedonian government.
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje, Clare Nuttall in Bucharest February 9, 2018

For the first time in more than a decade, Macedonia and Greece appear to have a real chance of resolving the “name dispute” that has poisoned their relations and blocked Macedonia’s progress towards EU and Nato integration. 

The risk of failure is still great though, as striking a deal that will be acceptable to the populations of both countries on this explosive issue of national identity will be very difficult. 

The stakes are high outside the two countries immediately involved too: a failure of the talks leading to Macedonia’s inability to progress towards EU accession will have a negative impact across the region just at the time when Brussels has indicated it is ready for further enlargement to the Western Balkans. 

So far, Athens has used its veto power as a member of both the EU and Nato as its main bargaining tool over Skopje. Macedonia has been an EU candidate since 2005 and received eight positive recommendations to launch negotiations. Back in the mid-2000s, it was considered the best prepared of the Western Balkan states for eventual accession, but has been unable to progress because of repeated vetoes by Greece. 

This is because of the so-called “name dispute” that dates back to when the Socialist Republic of Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, and adopted the name Republic of Macedonia — though its roots go back centuries. 

In short, Greece objects to the use of the name “Macedonia” by its northern neighbour on the grounds that a northern province of Greece has the same name. This sparked fears that newly independent Macedonia might claim territories gained by Greece following the Second Balkan war in 1913. The Greek province of Macedonia spans most of the territories of the ancient kingdom of Macedon, and for more than five centuries it was part of the region known as Macedonia within the Ottoman Empire.

Following the border changes in the last century, Greek officials have consistently denied that there is any Macedonian minority in Greece, but the Vinozito (Rainbow) organisation, which represents the minority, says there are around 400,000 ethnic Macedonians in Greece. 

Greek officials have claimed that Macedonia’s use of symbols such as the Sun of Vergina, a solar symbol appearing in ancient Greek art, that originate from the territory of what is now northern Greece are signs of Skopje’s irredentist ambitions — even though Macedonian officials say they have no designs on Greek territory. 

The two sides have also clashed over their claims to the historic hero Alexander the Great, a son of the king of Macedon Philip II, who conquered several major Greek poleis (city states) and finally agreed to join forces with them for an invasion of Asia. After his father’s assassination, Alexander went ahead with the historically important plan to conquer the known world. Since Macedonians were warriors with no written language, Alexander spread the dominant Greek culture eastwards, and his legacy became part of the Hellenic tradition. The dispute over his legacy is all the more ironic because he was in a sense a pioneer of globalisation, and all the countries that fell under his rule can lay claim to this historic hero to some extent.

So far, Macedonia has been recognised by more than 130 countries under its constitutional name, Republic of Macedonia, although it was admitted into the UN in 1993 under the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). 

FYROM is only a temporary name, however. The acronym is offensive to Macedonians, and is not considered by the Greeks to be a suitable solution long-term, so in 1995 Greece and Macedonia established bilateral relations and pledged to start talks to find a mutually acceptable solution. But these talks dragged on for years, and stalled entirely after the 2008 Nato summit in Bucharest, when Greece rejected all the proposals put forward by the Macedonian government and UN mediator Matthew Nimetz for a solution to the dispute, and vetoed Macedonia's membership of the alliance. The dispute with Greece also blocked the start of Macedonia's EU accession negotiations. 

New faces at the table

Relations between Skopje and Athens worsened under the conservative VMRO-DPMNE government in Skopje, whose early enthusiasm for reforms was extinguished by the failure to progress on its Euro-Atlantic path. Talks had been completely stalled for several years when things changed dramatically with the arrival of a new government in Skopje, led by the centre-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM). 

One of the first statements from newly appointed Prime Minister Zoran Zaev was that he would seek to resolve the name dispute and thereby unblock Macedonia’s progress towards EU and Nato membership. Negotiations were re-launched at the end of 2017, and the new government is more than eager to resolve the issue. There are now hopes of a breakthrough in 2018, Nimetz, who has been involved in the negotiations for more than two decades, has said. 

Zaev even met his Greek peer Alexis Tsipras on the sidelines of the Davos forum in January, which was the first ever meeting between the prime ministers of the two countries. After the three-hour meeting, Zaev told a joint press conference he had offered concessions such as renaming Skopje airport and the motorway to the Greek border, which are currently named after Alexander the Great. The rivalry for Alexander the Great’s legacy came to the fore from 2014 when the former Macedonian government embarked on the Skopje 2014 revamp of the capital city, which included putting up a giant monument to Alexander, much to the annoyance of Athens. Renaming the airport and the motorway is a strong sign of Skopje’s goodwill in the process of resolving the name dispute. 

However, Zaev stressed that not all the overtures should be from Skopje. “On the other hand, Greece should show goodwill in the process of the name solution,” Zaev underlined.

The Macedonian government wants to improve relations with Greece in all areas, not only to solve the issue. Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov has said that relations with Athens had a “special meaning’ for Macedonia, including for economic cooperation, and the stability and prosperity of the whole region. It has also been rebuilding bridges with its other neighbours such as Bulgaria. 

What’s in a name? 

What lies ahead is the much tricker question of finding a new country name that is acceptable in both Macedonia and Greece.  Several potential names for the country were reportedly proposed at the latest round of talks. These include Republic of New Macedonia, Republic of Northern Macedonia, Republic of Upper Macedonia, Republic of Vardar Macedonia and Republic of Macedonia (Skopje). 

A new country name that at least includes the word “Macedonia” is most likely. However, there are other issues yet to be addressed. These include whether the new country name would be used internally as well as externally, and whether the people and language would continue to be known as “Macedonians” and “Macedonian”. The current indications are that while a change to the country name would be accepted, it would be much harder to force the people currently known as Macedonians to accept another name for themselves. 

Zaev’s SDSM has momentum at the moment. Its ruling coalition was cobbled together with the support of the ethnic Albanian parties although VMRO-DPMNE was the largest group in the parliament, but its resounding victory in the October 2017 local elections gave it some much needed legitimacy.  

Skopje still needs to tread carefully, though, because while most people want Euro-Atlantic integration, the majority of Macedonians will be against a deal with Greece if there are too many concessions and if national interests are endangered. However, if an acceptable solution is found there is a chance for a deal to be reached.

Within the country, hardline nationalists will not accept any name except Macedonia for the country. VMRO-DPMNE is not against the negotiations but fears the final outcome could be detrimental to the country if the current government makes too many concessions to secure a deal. President George Ivanov, who was backed by the conservative party, could temporarily block a potential deal. Even Skopje’s main negotiator, Vasko Naumovski, who served as deputy to former VMRO prime minister Nikola Gruevski, is understood to have said that the proposals currently on the table are a “far from worthwhile solution” to the problem. Dimitrov is reportedly going to take over the negotiations though it is not clear whether he will fully replace Naumovski. 

“Zaev leads a fragile multi-party coalition government that may not survive a serious debate over the name dispute, especially if Athens asks Macedonia to reform its constitution and eliminate the articles that Greece believes include irredentist claims,” write Stratfor analysts. “Any agreement between Athens and Skopje would also probably have to be put to a referendum in both countries, and the outcome would be difficult to predict,” they add. 

On the Greek side, leftwing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras wants a deal, as does Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias. However, Tsipras’s Syriza party is divided on the issue, and Syriza’s coalition partner, the rightwing Independent Greeks are against negotiations with Macedonia, and don’t want the word “Macedonia” to be included in the new composite name. The main opposition party, the conservative New Democracy, is also against holding negotiations. 

Nationalist organisations have held mass protests in Athens and Thessaloniki demanding that the name Macedonia be dropped altogether and not used even in a composite name. Both protests drew upwards of 100,000 people. In addition, according to Stratfor analysts, the “Greek Orthodox Church (which is still a relevant political player in the country) is skeptical of the current negotiations”.

The explosive nature of the dispute was highlighted in early February when Kotzias was reported to have received death threats against himself and his family, with a letter warning: “There are three bullets for you”. 

No easy answers

Despite the optimism currently being voiced by both sides, analysts are sceptical that a solution can be reached easily. “The name issue is still a big and very tricky issue. It doesn’t depend only on the Macedonians. It also depends on Greece and whether other EU member states will put pressure on Greece to show some willingness to compromise,” said Alexandra Stiglmayer, secretary-general of the Brussels-based European Stability Initiative, in a recent interview with bne IntelliNews

This could mean a final push will be needed from outside actors, most probably the EU, the US or a European heavyweight nation like Germany. But so far, the revived discussions on the name dispute haven't received a huge amount of attention from major European countries or the US. 

Meanwhile, Stratfor analysts highlight the deep roots of the conflict, “To outsiders, the Greek-Macedonian conflict may seem petty or absurd. The fact that two countries have spent decades debating over events that happened 25 centuries ago is hard to understand for people not invested in the dispute, especially considering both parties would probably benefit from a solution,” they write. “But the Greek-Macedonian dispute is intrinsically connected to the issue of national identity, which often trumps any economic or institutional arguments … political calculations and deep-rooted nationalism on both sides have prevented the parties from reaching an agreement.”

Still, there are strong incentives for both sides to reach a compromise, and there are implications not only for those immediately involved but for the wider region. 

“The situation in Macedonia could turn out very well, but if the name issue is not resolved and if Greece still blocks the start of accession talks for Macedonia, this will be a huge dampener on the whole accession process,” Stiglmayer warns. “This will reflect on other countries too: if they see the EU is still allowing Greece to bloc Macedonia it will be seen as evidence the EU doesn’t really want them.”

Given the European Commission is now pushing for further enlargement, launching a new strategy for the Western Balkans on February 6, there is additional impetus to reach a solution. The EC talked of 2019 as the target date for Macedonia, along with Albania, to start accession negotiations, while anticipating all countries from the region "should also be well advanced on their European path” by 2025.