February 24, 2018
By Irena Baboi – Junior Fellow
Only last month, a 27-year old name dispute between Greece and Macedonia seemed all but settled. After talks in Davos with his Greek counterpart, Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev declared that his country is ready to add a geographical or chronological qualifier such as “Upper”, “New” or “North” to their name, a change which Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras deemed acceptable. As negotiations were going in a promising direction, however, hundreds of thousands of Greeks took to the streets of Thessaloniki, the capital of the northern Greek province called Macedonia, to demonstrate against their government’s proposals on resolving the issue. Similar protests took place in Athens the following week, with demonstrators demanding a referendum before a decision is reached. Over a quarter of a century ago, it was a million Greeks who voiced a similar opposition – and just like a quarter of a century ago, what will follow will most likely be a similar compromise.
The name dispute between Greece and Macedonia goes back almost thirty years, and largely revolves around a disagreement over which people has the right to be called Macedonian. Athens argues that ethnic Greeks, as descendants of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon and its ruler, Alexander the Great, have monopoly over the name and this part of history. Despite the fact that, when part of the Ottoman Empire, the region of Macedonia covered their two countries and Bulgaria, Greeks believe that Slavic roots rule out any claim to this legacy. As a result, when Macedonia declared independence in 1991, Greece refused to recognise the country by this name, and the small Balkan state was from then on formally known as either the Republic of Macedonia or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It is under this latter name that Skopje joined the United Nations in 1993; the Security Council, however, has always acknowledged it as provisional.
Due to their size, nature and a few clashes between demonstrators and the police, the protests drew significant international attention and prompted concerns over the rise of nationalism in Greece. Contrary to what some media outlets have argued, however, the majority of Greeks that took to the streets of Thessaloniki and Athens were neither right-wing radicals nor ultra-nationalists. History has simply always been very important for Greece, and Macedonia keeping its name in one form or another has always been associated with irredentist aspirations on the part of the latter. After almost three decades of misinformation and ongoing mistrust, many Greeks continue to be convinced that the Macedonian constitution includes a territorial claim over their northern region with the same name – and they will not be satisfied until the word ‘Macedonia’ is gone altogether.
A lack of compromise, however, would most likely mark the end of Macedonia’s Western ambitions. The name dispute has been the biggest obstacle to European integration for the Western Balkan country, and has resulted in Greece vetoing Skopje’s NATO accession in 2008 and blocking its European Union accession talks before they even began. Regardless of how much economic and political progress Macedonia makes, it will never replace the settling of a territorial dispute – and the country’s integration is highly unlikely to move forward without it.
Skopje understands this all too well, and in a recently conducted poll on the issue, just over half of Macedonians said that they support the adding of a geographical or chronological qualifier, provided that this furthers their country’s European Union and NATO ambitions. A complete name change, however, would be a different matter, particularly for entire generations of people that have lived most if not all their lives as part of a country with this name. Aside from legal and administrative complications, the people of Macedonia do identify as Macedonians – and support for their country to be called something else entirely would be too much to ask.
Furthermore, the Social Democrats, who have been in power less than a year, have been having to navigate a difficult enough road on the matter, one paved by years of damage in Greek-Macedonian relations caused by VMRO DPMNE’s inflammatory actions. Having seemingly decided that conflict is better than cooperation, Skopje’s former government renamed airports, highways and sports stadiums in honour of Alexander the Great and his father Phillip, and filled the capital with statues meant to portray the former as a Macedonian hero. It is to no small extent that the actions of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s government fuelled mistrust among significant sections of the Greek population – and it is no small hurdle that Zaev’s government has had to overcome.
Despite this, alongside successful talks with Greece, the current Macedonian ruling elite has made significant progress in proving its determination to reach an agreement. Skopje’s airport and Macedonia’s main road route to Greece have both lost the name of the ancient warrior hero, and are now known as Skopje international airport and the Friendship highway, respectively. Prime Minister Zaev has also vowed to rid Skopje of the contentious statues, which will serve as a testimony of Macedonia’s commitment to improving relations between the two countries.
A further hurdle is also likely to be experienced by both sides of the name dispute negotiations. The relatively frail support that Zaev enjoys on the matter could be seen by the opposition as an opportunity to draw attention to themselves and try to further their political ambitions, as the Social Democrats do not have the necessary majority in the Macedonian parliament that would allow them to make constitutional changes on their own. Similarly, the protests are already being seen as an opportunity for Greece’s right-wing opposition to gain popular support and increase their voter base ahead of the next elections. Prime Minister Tsipras’s Syriza party is also in government with the Independent Greeks party, who have declared themselves against settling the name row and are likely to gain from creating political difficulties for their coalition partner.
For the majority of Greeks, the protests themselves are most likely seen as a chance to voice opposition to the current government’s actions in general, as Greece is nearing its eighth year of austerity measures and financial struggle. Greek people are angry, disappointed and vulnerable, and they feel that the current government is to blame for all their hardships. As such, and as Tsipras’ Syriza party has gone ahead with changes the Greek people were against before, his main goal now is most likely to get their coalition partner on board – not the people. Ultra-nationalists, hard-line clerics and lawmakers from Athens’ extreme-right Golden Dawn part did participate in the protests, however, and a revival of violence fuelled by the opposition would certainly draw the desired attention. Moreover, in recent months, several senior government officials, including Greek foreign minister Nikos Kotzias, have received death threats for their support of the name compromise, therefore Tsipras needs to thread carefully on all fronts.
As both the European Union and NATO want to limit Russian and Turkish influence in the Western Balkans, progress on membership for Macedonia is very much in the West’s interest. Similarly, as both Zaev and Tsipras have made good relations with the European Union a priority, negotiations need to be going ahead as planned. For Macedonia the stakes are obvious, and Greece is currently discussing the terms under which it will end its bailout programme, but also undergoing stress tests to determine its ability to manage its own finances. Both Greece and Macedonia need this compromise but also to ensure that a political crisis is not created in the process – and both Zaev and Tsipras need to prove stability internally, but also that they are capable and willing to maintain it in the region.
Territory will always be a contentious issue, and any compromise that is believed to leave the path open to territorial claims will always be unpopular. That Greeks are convinced Macedonia is fostering territorial ambitions over their northern province with the same name will be difficult to change, and decades of taunting and misinformation have made sure of that. The solution reached by the two governments, however, is beneficial to both sides – and both countries need to start seeing how many doors it will open.
Image: Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev visits the European Comission (Source: EC-Audiovisual Service/Georges Boulougouris)