Thursday, 25 January 2018

Greece, former Yugoslav Macedonia, begin to mend fences

The prime ministers of Greece and former Yugoslav Macedonia announced their first concrete steps towards rapprochement in more than 20 years at Davos on Wednesday. 

Speaking on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort, the leader of the government in Skopje, Zoran Zaev, said he would strike the name Alexander the Great from the national airport and main national motorway. The latter will be renamed Friendship Highway, the Greek side said. 

In return, Greek premier Alexis Tsipras said, he will move to ratify in parliament a partnership agreement between the former Yugoslav republic and the European Union, as well as membership in a regional body.  

Confidence-building measures will also resume, Tsipras said, “in areas such as energy, transport and cross-border contact, with the most important being the opening of the border crossing near the Prespa [Lakes].” Greece shares the idyllic Greater Prespa Lake with former Yugoslav Macedonia and Albania, and has agreed on opening a three-way customs and border infrastructure. 

“We don’t just want to solve the problem of the name, but to put the relationship between our two countries on a stable foundation,” Tsipras said. “That means we must first confront irredentism in all its forms, with guarantees that we will leave no window open for similar provocations to arise in future.” 

“We want to be partners in the European Union and allies in NATO, to face all the hardships in the difficult era in which we live,” Zaev said. “We, as prime ministers, have the political vision, the sense of responsibility and the courage to find a solution to this problem which has existed for 25 years. The time has come… because it is of vital importance for our prospects of entering NATO and the EU.” 

As a NATO and EU member, Greece holds a power of veto against new members, and effectively exercised it in 2008, when former Yugoslav Macedonia applied to enter NATO. Both bodies have told the government in Skopje to resolve its differences with Greece as a pre-requisite to entry. 

A brief but painful history 

Shortly after communism in Eastern Europe collapsed in 1990, Serbia attacked other constituent republics of Yugoslavia, initiating the federation’s breakup. The European Union’s recognition of Slovenia and Croatia as sovereign states in December 1991, at the behest of Germany, precipitated that breakup. 

Yugoslavia’s southernmost state had been called Macedonia throughout the communist era, in what many historians consider an attempt by Yugoslav leader Marshal Tito to launch a territorial claim on the Greek region of Macedonia to the south. In 1991, the regional government in Skopje declared independence as the Republic of Macedonia, and circulated communist-era maps showing the republic’s claim to Greek territory as far as the Aegean, including the city of Thessaloniki. 

Greece objected to the new nation’s registration with the United Nations under that name, and it was temporarily registered as The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM. The European Union suggested a composite name that included the term Macedonia, such as “Nova Macedonia”, but the proposal split the Greek government and caused massive demonstrations in Thessaloniki. A Greek trade embargo aimed at forcing its neighbour to relent backfired in 1993, triggering an international wave of sympathy for the nation of two million, and a series of bilateral diplomatic recognitions as ‘Republic of Macedonia’. The last major diplomatic initiative between the two was the Interim Accord of October 1995, whereby they recognised each other’s sovereignty, disavowed any mutual territorial threat, resumed trade and pledged to find a solution to the name issue.  

With its strategy and public opinion in disarray, Greece quietly signalled it was willing to open talks on the basis of a composite name including the M-word, but after the 2006 election it was the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation – Democratic Party of Macedonia) government in Skopje that refused to compromise. 

The SDSM (Social Democratic Union of Macedonia) came to power on May 31 last year, following a December 2016 election, ousting the VMRO-DPMNE from power for the first time in a decade. Zoran Zaev immediately signalled he was willing to re-open talks with Greece. His foreign minister, Nikola Dimitrov, visited Athens on June 14. He and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, officially re-opened direct talks to resolve the name issue that day. 

Those talks are taking place on the basis of a composite name including the M-word, which the republic would use for all internal and international purposes. 

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