In the latest volley of a long-running dispute on the right to the name “Macedonia”, an estimated 300,000 Macedonian Greeks rallied in Thessaloniki on January 21 against the use of the name by the country to their north, whose full name is the Republic of Macedonia. A follow-up demonstration in Athens is planned for February 4. The sheer size of the crowds and the strength of feeling on display makes plain that the row is very much ongoing – and after decades of rancour, it’s time to bring it to an end in sight.
Much of the naming dispute comes down to history. The Greeks arrived in the region in the 12th century BC, and the Hellenic cities forged ties with the ancient Macedonian kingdom there long before the Slavs arrived in the seventh century AD. While Macedonia hosted many different cultures for centuries, its inhabitants considered themselves “Macedonians” – and since Ottoman times, they have generally used that term for themselves regardless of language or national affiliation. At the heart of the argument is whether any one of the Balkans’ ethnic groups should monopolise Macedonia’s heritage or whether the name could be constructively shared by everyone in the region.
Today, more than 100 countries recognise Greece’s northern neighbour as the Republic of Macedonia, so until recently, its leaders had no incentive to compromise on the issue. But now they are intent on joining both the EU and NATO – and in both cases, Greece would have to consent as a member state. The prospect that the republic could join is much welcomed in the West as a way of limiting Russia’s influence, so the impetus to resolve the dispute has at last been renewed.
International mediators have fumbled several opportunities to solve this problem. Their last best chance was before the financial calamity of 2008, when Greece had moderate leaders willing to normalise the country’s foreign relations. Now, Greece is still struggling to recover from a decade-long financial crisis, and the government led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras lacks the time and energy for peace initiatives.
And as the post-2008 Greek financial tragedy illustrates, latent crises have a way of resurfacing at the least amenable moments, and any solution, of course, is neither obvious nor simple. South-east Europe is rife with unresolved foreign policy and minority issues, and not since the wars of the 1990s has this region been more fragile.
Yet even in the endlessly fraught Balkans, a skillful enough politician can turn a crisis into an opportunity.
Balance of power
Alexis Tsipras rules Greece in coalition with the right-wing Independent Greeks, who are likely to oppose any sort of compromise over the name “Macedonia”. But Tsipras is not as weak as some in the foreign media seem to think. A compromise will secure the solid support of his party, and at minimum, one of Greece’s more liberal parties, therefore contributing to a constructive realignment in Greek politics.
And as a keen tactician, Tsipras will have an eye on both the tangible benefits of NATO enlargement and the ebb and flow of national sentiment – particularly in Greek Macedonia, where the issue is most strongly felt.
Macedonian Greeks overwhelmingly consider the ancient Macedonian heritage an integral part of their own culture, and oppose any use of the name ( by the neighbouring republic. Greek Macedonia holds disproportionate sway over the government in Athens, and in recent decades the naming issue has even decided national elections. The region is in fact larger in population and area than its sovereign neighbour to the north – yet it has no formal voice in the two countries’ negotiations.
Unlike fellow EU members, Greece is a highly centralised state. One could imagine new devolved structures in the future and a “Republic of Macedonia” within Greece itself, with its own parliament and local administration. But in the absence of devolved structures, Tsipras himself has to convince his electorate and Greek Macedonians that an agreement will secure their own use of the name and cultural heritage. There must be grassroots efforts to bring together municipal and civic leaders and investigate confidence-building measures, such as a common travel area in the Balkans. To safeguard local legitimacy, Tsipras should avoid another risky national referendum and seek instead a “double majority” approval in the Greek parliament, wherein a majority of Greek Macedonian MPs would have to back any decision.
The other side
Meanwhile, north of the border in the capital, Skopje, PM Zoran Zaev’s new moderate government is now confronting the nationalism of its predecessors, who used the past decade mostly to enrich themselves and construct replicas of ancient Macedonian monuments in Skopje. The giant bronze statue of Alexander the Great erected in the centre of the city in 2011 was always going to lose the country friends and sympathy, but more importantly, it drove divisions and raised unrealistic expectations among the republic’s citizens.
UN lead negotiator Matthew Nimetz has suggested options using the Slavic pronunciation of the term – such as Republika Nova Makedonija and Republika Makedonija (Skopje) – but so far, these proposals seem unpalatable for both sides. A third more imaginative option would be to embrace a name that reflects the country’s recent achievements as a multi-ethnic society following the 2001 peace agreement with its Albanian minority.
The government in Skopje has taken on another challenge by committing to a referendum after reaching an agreement with Greece. As recent events in Cyprus, Colombia, and the UK prove, referendums do not have the best record of resolving complex problems. Yet to Zaev’s advantage, Albanian Macedonians, comprising about a quarter of the population, are likely either vote overwhelmingly in favour of the compromise or – depending on the framing of the question – abstain. Either would make it very difficult for those opposing the agreement to reach the 50% threshold required.
Still, while Zaev described the referendum as a guarantee to Greece that the agreement will be permanent, some parts of any agreement might also require a two-thirds approval in parliament, which his government cannot as yet command.
There are plenty of outside players who can help nudge the process forward, be they the EU with the prospect of full membership or the UN with its mediating role. But ultimately, this problem can only be solved if the leaders whose careers ride on the outcome can show the political and diplomatic skill required of them.