Window of Opportunity in the Macedonia Name Dispute

| 02 December 2009 | By Aristotle Tziampiris

With strong governments in power in Athens and Skopje, and with moderate proposals on the table, the chance to this 18-year stalemate has never looked more realistic.

The name dispute will not be resolved by December`s European Council. There is simply not enough time to cover the disagreements and differences of almost two decades of diplomatic negotiations in a few days. Barring some unforeseen, surprise development, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (still the country`s UN name and term used in all EU documents) will not be given a date to begin accession negotiations in December.

In order to understand this situation and assess prospects for its eventual resolution, it is necessary to comprehend certain realities surrounding a dispute that remains highly controversial, thoroughly contested, exceedingly emotive and seemingly intractable.

Commentary surrounding the issue is often partisan, nationalist and hard-line in nature, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction or propaganda from reality. The Macedonian name dispute is thus routinely misunderstood, dismissed or even ridiculed. But it has never been only about the name of a new republic in the Western Balkans.

At its very core are issues of identity, history, culture and symbols that are integrally connected to the precise name with which FYROM will be internationally recognized. It is primarily for this reason that the dispute has not been resolved and why strong reactions have consistently been elicited from both Skopje and Athens.

Negotiations and proposals involving almost every conceivable settlement have now been made for 18 years. Beginning in 1992, international mediating efforts at both the EU and UN levels appear to have produced such proposals as «New Macedonia», «Macedonia (Skopje)», «Nova Makedonija», «Gorna Makedonija,» among others. This suggests that the parameters of any agreement are in effect well known to all relevant decision-makers, who, however, have been both unwilling and unable to close the deal.

Significantly, time has worked in favour of Skopje, not Athens. Some 120 states for the purpose of bilateral relations have recognised FYROM under her constitutional name. They include the United States, Russia and China. At the same time, use of the term «Macedonia» is nearly ubiquitous in its use by the international news media. From a Greek perspective, this is a sobering realization.

It is also worth noting that economic relations between Athens and Skopje have been excellent and are actually expanding. Ever since the normalization of bilateral relations, following the 1994 New York Interim Agreement, an economic miracle of sorts has taken place with an explosion in trade and investment.

However, contrary to popular Marxist-inspired opinions, economics do not always determine politics. Improvements in economic relations have not spilled over to the realm of diplomacy, producing the resolution of the name dispute. Nevertheless, overall bilateral relations would have undoubtedly been much worse without a superb economic relationship.

However, the fact remains that the name dispute has always affected, and at times even determined, domestic politics in both states. This is a crucial, complicating parameter. Negotiations are not conducted by diplomats operating in a political vacuum. On the contrary, governments have fallen, political reputations were made or destroyed, and crises have arisen on the basis of specific proposals and the reactions of Athens and Skopje to them. In democratic societies, there are consequences when the people passionately and genuinely care about certain issues.

Furthermore, this long-standing diplomatic dispute is widely considered to have the potential to further destabilize the Western Balkan region. This is primarily because FYROM`s substantial Albanian minority, comprising about a quarter of the population, is becoming restless at the way that the name issue is blocking progress towards Euro-Atlantic integration. Revealingly, 65 per cent of FYROM`s ethnic Albanians support a compromise on the name issue to facilitate NATO and EU membership, while 95 per cent of ethnic Macedonians are opposed.

If Euro-Atlantic integration effectively stalls, the ethnic Albanians would be particularly disappointed and it is not alarmist to imagine that the Ohrid framework agreement, which ended the republic`s 2001 ethnic strife, could be challenged. As US State Department officials warn, this could produce perilous regional implications. To quote Teuta Arifi, vice-president of the ruling Albanian coalition party, the DUI, speaking in June, «Unless the dispute is resolved and Macedonia enters NATO by the end of the year, Albanians should re-examine their [political] options».

For the past few years, Greece has publicly adopted a moderate stance on the name dispute. She has abandoned her older maximalist position, which meant no inclusion of the term Macedonia in the name, in favour of accepting a compound name including the word Macedonia but with a geographical connotation, such as Northern Macedonia.

This amounts to the red line for the new government in Athens of Papandreou, something that has already been communicated several times. There is also agreement on this point by all major Greek parties, with the exception of the small, far-right LAOS, though it is not supported by a majority of the population. It is highly doubtful that there will be any substantial backtracking from this position.

It is unfortunate, from the perspective of resolving the dispute, that Athens’ new policy of not allowing any side to monopolize the term Macedonia coincided with the rise of the VMRO party. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and his political allies have persistently exhibited nationalism while at the same time pursuing the «Antiquitization» campaign. This has centred on a fixation with Alexander the Great and Ancient (ie Classical-era) Macedonia, and has involved renaming airports and highways, commissioning the erection on gigantic statues and even inviting Himalayan chieftains who claim descent form the Ancient Macedonians to the country.

Controversial but popular, these policies have made it harder to achieve the resolution of the name dispute. They are also interpreted in Athens with some justification as needless and misguided provocations.

Crucially, a unique window appears to have opened for the resolution of the name dispute. Greece has a strong new government that does not face elections until 2014, which has opted for high-level bilateralmeetings and has declared it has an «open mind» on the name dispute. VMRO dominates politics in FYROM and will not have to hold elections until 2013.

The EU and more recently the European Parliament, meanwhile, have recommended that a date be set for accession negotiations to begin with FYROM – but have also highlighted the need for the name dispute to be resolved first. The final decision lies with the European Council, where Greece has the power of veto.

If an agreement is finally achieved, FYROM would automatically join NATO under the new name, its accession path toward the EU would accelerate and the concerns of the country’s ethnic Albanian population assuaged in a manner conducive to regional stability.

Substantial pressure is being exerted on the parties by both the United States and various other European countries.

In other words, we have a moderate non-monopolizing name-related proposal on the table, powerful governments in both countries, EU accession and NATO membership at stake, a restless Albanian minority in FYROM, substantial international pressure and a decision to be made by December at the level of the European Council.

If an agreement is not reached even under these circumstances in the months after December, which remains a distinct possibility, the name dispute will probably remain unresolved for the foreseeable future. However, an agreement on the name issue is still possible.

It is also likely that if it is achieved, it will be made on the basis of a narrower in scope agreement, focusing primarily on the name and less on the thorny issues of language and identity. If the resolution of the dispute becomes imminent, there will be a concerted effort to prepare and «educate» the public in both countries for its acceptance. This will be the infallible, tell-tale sign that a long standing dispute is at last reaching its conclusion.

Aristotle Tziampiris is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Piraeus. The views expressed in this article are personal.


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