AFTER THE September 1995 interim accord that ended a Greek embargo against the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom), and particularly after Costas Simitis came to power the following January, the two countries essentially ignored the name issue that divides them.
Behaving as neighbours should, they resumed commercial ties that saw billions of euros' worth of Greek investments enter Fyrom. Greece launched an aid programme to supplement a European one in August 2002. A host of bilateral agreements have allowed us to conduct everyday business - on border and police cooperation, sharing secure information, visa-free passage for diplomats and civil servants; on energy, aviation and military cooperation, including training; on roads and shared water resources. A trilateral accord with Albania even created a multinational park around the Prespa Lakes.
Given such a highly functional relationship, it would be nonsense for the Greek economy and national security to go back to the dark days of February 1994-September 1995, when Greece became an international bully for blocking all but humanitarian goods from reaching Fyrom.
Thirteen years of Fyrom calling itself the Republic of Macedonia, and being recognised as such by dozens of nations, have been demonstrably innocuous to Greek interests. To the Greeks' credit, they have come to realise this. Only 24 percent think Fyrom a threat in a Public Issue poll conducted for Kathimerini in late February, days after United Nations mediator Matthew Nimetz's proposals were leaked to the Greek press. The same proportion would consider a recognition of the Republic of Macedonia by Greece a "catastrophe" - a historically-charged word in Greece harkening back to 1922 and clearly disproportionate to the largely semantic predicament of the present day. By contrast, 69 percent of Greeks say Fyrom is a negligible threat.
The very smoothness of Greek-Fyrom relations lowers the pressure for a solution, however. Reasonable, non-nationalistic Greeks appreciate that caving in to a recognition of the Republic of Macedonia is unnecessary and beneath Greek dignity. Any government that concedes to it without a qualifier is bound to be punished, and rightly so. Fyrom is not all of geographic or historic Macedonia; it is only a bit of each. Greek acquiescence to a Republic of Macedonia no more ensures its stability than a throat lozenge cures cancer, simply because Greece does not pose a threat to Fyrom. The question Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis must be asking himself is: what level of risk is acceptable for something that is practically so inconsequential and politically so expensive if it goes awry?
The formula he and Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis have adopted is a reasonable one. They have accepted the least unacceptable of five names put forward by Nimetz - Republic of Upper Macedonia - as a basis for talks and made the veto threat to Nato membership official if Fyrom continues to refuse to negotiate on the basis of anything but Republic of Macedonia.
On the Greek side, there is genuine hope that all political parties will be able to live with this name, as long as it is Fyrom's only name. The Nimetz proposal leaves open the possibility of a double-name regime, in which the term accepted by Athens will be used in multinational bodies such as Nato and the UN only. Athens wants it to be retroactively interpolated upon all of Fyrom's other bilateral relations, correctly perceiving that the agreement would otherwise be a sop to Greece.
Greek opinion polls support that priority. More than two-thirds of Greeks remain opposed to any name that includes the M-word, according to a GPO poll conducted for the Mega television network programme Anatropi after the Nimetz proposals leaked.
But when the question was phrased as a choice between conceding on a Macedonia-composite name and conceding on the double standard, only 43 percent prioritised the first (the finding of a Kapa Research poll for To Vima conducted before and after the Nimetz leak). That is exactly consistent with a poll conducted in March last year by the Centre for Political Research and Communication, a think-tank. Since an absolute majority believes that it is more important to avoid the double standard than to avoid the M-word, a compromise between Athens and Skopje is technically possible.
Two things might derail it on the Greek side - a loss of nerve by Karamanlis, who governs with a majority of one MP, or a breaking of ranks by rightwing Laos, seduced by the prospect of garnering seats in a precipitate election. But George Karatzaferis no more wants to be George Samaras than Costas Karamanlis wants to be Konstantinos Mitsotakis.
The greater danger is that Fyrom, fearing an Albanian minority emboldened by the newly-independent Kosovo and trusting in American backing in Nato, may prove unyielding. In such a case, Greece should use its veto for a host of reasons.
First and foremost, it is simply not worth Greece's while to risk the death of a reformist government at a time of enormous political disillusionment. Pasok is not ready to govern (76 percent of Greeks said as much in the To Vima poll), and Pasok-Syriza or New Democracy-Laos coalitions could not govern responsibly or for long.
Second, Greece has little to gain by concession. The most damaging part of the creation of any kind of Macedonia - the invention of a Macedonian ethnicity - is irreversibly accomplished. That invention will remain the driving force for statehood, no matter what the political entity is called. Nor does it seem worth ratcheting up points in this matter with our most important ally since US foreign policy in the region is an inscrutable mess with no discernible carrots for good Greek behaviour.
Third, Greece has much to lose by showing weakness in foreign policy, not only because it inhabits a particularly primitive neighbourhood and nurses outstanding sovereignty disputes with Turkey, but also because it needs to preserve its mettle as a worthwhile ally to Cyprus as that country prepares to tackle reunification.
Perhaps the most telling Greek statistic is the low level of expectation - 85 percent of Greeks say they do not expect satisfaction of the Greek position. That is, more than anything else, an expression of our feelings about the US, which has tried to settle the former Yugoslavia's two outstanding basket cases with two initiatives over the last month.
Only four percent of Greeks told Kathimerini's pollsters that Greek foreign policy should rely on US support. A total of 50 percent feel it is the European Union that will be our mainstay and, most damningly to the US, 16 percent chose Russia. That is a low of historic proportions. As it tries to salvage a tattered Balkan policy, Foggy Bottom should not give the impression that it is neglecting standing investments in favour of those too desperate to choose their friends.