Friday, 29 August 2008

Fyrom's missed opportunity

This was meant to be the year of the Macedonian issue. In view of a Nato summit where Yugoslav Macedonia was to be admitted as a member along with two other southeast European nations, United Nations mediator Mattew Nimetz submitted a shortlist of five name proposals in mid-February. Greece leaned towards Northern Macedonia, reversing a 17-year practice of ruling out any name containing the M-word.

Evidently trusting in the ability of the US to bring Greece on board, Nikola Gruevski, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Republic of Macedonia, stuck to his guns. Greece vetoed his country's membership, as it had amply warned it would do; it has already warned that it will veto Yugoslav Macedonia's candidacy status prior to the European Union summit in December.

Gruevski, whose coalition was returned to power on June 1, has gone on the offensive. The day after the election, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or Fyrom, as the country is provisionally entered in the UN, refused passage to a Greek relief convoy bound for Kosovo. On July 14 he wrote to Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis seeking redress for the properties vacated by what he termed ethnic Macedonians who fled Greece in 1949. He also requested due consideration for the language and educational rights of what he termed ethnic Macedonians still living in Greece.

The intended effect of such a letter cannot have been misjudged by Gruevski, himself the grandson of a Macedonian Greek who fled to communist Yugoslavia at the close of the Greek Civil War. Greece refuses to recognise a Macedonian ethnicity - something Karamanlis reiterated in his response four days later. With the exchange of those letters the prospects of a solution without outside help ground to a halt.

The negotiating position in Skopje is now that Greece must recognise a Macedonian people before proceeding to discuss the country's name.

The intended strategy behind pushing away a solution that is within reach is not clear. Most Greek officials have been ready to accept a composite name solution since the dispute began in 1991. It took the intervening years for public opinion to come on board. Polls conducted last March and a year earlier found that only 43 percent of Greeks would oppose a composite name containing the term Macedonia, as long as the agreement was binding on all Fyrom's bilateral relations with other countries. The conservative government of Karamanlis has committed itself to such a solution, which it wants sealed inside a UN Security Council Resolution.

What, then, can Gruevski be playing at? Perhaps he is simply putting bargaining chips on the table. If that is the case, he will need an opportunity to cash them in well before a European Commission report on his country's progress, due in October; but such an opportunity has not yet been tabled. Leaked reports of a new proposal to be tabled by Condoleezza Rice in September remain unconfirmed.

Perhaps Gruevski sees the Greek concession as granted and wants to play for what he can get. It is difficult to see what that could be in diplomatic terms. There is no international legal process for the recognition (or denial) of ethnicities, and the UN talks are strictly about the country's name.

While this inscrutable nationalistic game goes on, the country pays the price of remaining outside multilateral organisations. US ambassador to Skopje Gillian Milovanovic implied her reproach of this in an August 26 interview. "I don't think there is any positive prospect for Macedonia without membership in Nato, and I mean quick membership, " she said.

The sacrificing of Fyrom's membership in stabilising clubs is also displeasing the ethnic Albanian community, who see Nato and the EU as the main guarantors of their long-term equality. Also weighing against Fyrom is the damage to its long-term economic prospects. These are high risks and heavy prices to pay for a nationalism that ultimately fits into no long-term strategy for the country's future, but serves only to build more political capital for Gruevski and his party, the VMRO.

Greek diplomacy cannot address the ethnic preoccupation broadcast by Skopje, and attempting to could only backfire. The only thing Athens therefore need do is stick to its compromise position and look good to the rest of the world.

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