The Euro-Atlantic trajectory of the Western Balkans was cast into doubt after a referendum in the former Yugoslav Macedonia backfired over the weekend.
Prime Minister Zoran Zaev gambled on the popularity of European Union and NATO entry – which enjoy support of 83 percent and 77 percent of the population respectively – to carry a proposal to change the country’s name to North Macedonia. Greece agreed last June to lift vetoes to the Balkan country joining both bodies if it adopts that name.
While 91.4 percent of voters supported the change, only 36.9 percent of eligible voters turned out, making the referendum legally invalid. The hardline opposition’s call to boycott the vote is widely perceived as having won.
The result flies in the face of an array of dignitaries who visited the former Yugoslav Macedonian capital, Skopje, to support the yes vote, including Defence Secretary James Mattis and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The Prespes Agreement, named after the border-straddling lake on whose shores it was signed, was to have solved a 27-year dispute between Greece and former Yugoslav Macedonia. More importantly, it was to have inaugurated a new advance for western institutions.
EU enlargement stalled after the addition of Croatia in 2013, and was reversed with the departure of Britain in 2016. NATO enlisted Montenegro last year, but it has faced Russian military incursions in larger aspiring members Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014). These have appeared to define the alliance’s limits, and the limits of American hegemony. Both institutions feel it is time to reaffirm the Euro-Atlantic post-war order.
In a visit to Athens last December, EU Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn stressed the importance of Greece’s role in shepherding the six Western Balkan nations into the fold.
“We have to close a gap which exists when it comes to connectivity and border cooperation,” Hahn said. “Greece has very strong economic ties to the region in trade and foreign direct investment. It’s important for… foreign investors to have stability in the region. This is only possible [in the EU].”
The European Commission in February announced its goal to induct the Western Balkans by the mid-2020s. Greece launched a flurry of diplomatic activity to settle decades-long disputes with neighbours. It is delineating its continental shelf with Albania and ending a technical state of war with that country since 1940.
A political earthquake in former Yugoslav Macedonia made a rapprochement there possible as well. In December 2016, the hardline Macedonian Internal Revolutionary Organisation (VMRO-DMPNE) fell after a decade in power. Its VMRO-affiliated President, Gjorge Ivanov, refused to swear in the opposition, a coalition of social democrats, liberals and minorities under Zoran Zaev. When the speaker of parliament stepped in and invited Zaev to form a government, VMRO thugs swooped on parliament and rained blows on Zaev, who appeared on national television with blood streaming down the side of his head. His swearing-in after a US diplomatic intervention ushered in a new era.
“When we opened the chapters with Serbia, this triggered an investment boom in Serbia because fears were allayed over quality of the judiciary,” Hahn said. Something similar happened in former Yugoslav Macedonia.
“There was an extremely big optimism surrounding us,” says Miroljub Sukarov, a respected economics professor at South Eastern European University in Skopje. “Things started in a perfect way. The government adopted several laws in the economy, encouraging private investments and making no distinction between foreign and domestic investors.”
Sukarov contrasts this with the previous, politicized economy, where jobs, licenses and bank loans often depended on good terms with the ruling party. “[VMRO] had a lot of instruments to force companies to be their members or financiers. If you did not deal with them, they sent you an inspection and shut you down. Inspectors were advised to find something and make your business life impossible.”
The change of government and the re-opening of talks with Greece in January appears to have produced spectacular economic results. According to official figures, foreign direct investment tripled in the first half of this year compared to the same period last year, to 327mn euros. Exports soared to overtake imports. Job creation from July to July was up six percent and salaries grew by 5.3 percent.
Sukarov doesn’t now expect the government to reach its growth target of 3.2 percent this year because of political uncertainty. Zaev has vowed to try and push the Prespes Agreement through parliament, where he needs a two-thirds majority. His coalition controls 68 seats in the 120-seat chamber, so he needs 12 more votes.
“There is no possibility of any MPs of the VMRO to give legitimacy to this Prespes Agreement,” says VMRO spokesman Naum Stoilkovski. “The people voted, or did not vote, against this agreement… so this does not have any legitimacy to be put into any institution.”
The government’s final play would be to hold an election in November, the defence minister recently revealed. The government evidently calculates that one third of the electorate may be low by referendum standards, but it is conceivably a basis for a coalition by parliamentary standards.
The nub of the problem: Identity
Officially, the sole purpose of the Prespes Agreement was to find a mutually agreeable name for the former Yugoslav Macedonia. In fact, the agreement cuts to the heart of the identity issues that divide Greek and Slav Macedonians.
Referendum abstainers objected to the stipulations of Article 7, whereby “the official language and other attributes of [former Yugoslav Macedonia] are not related to the ancient Hellenic civilisation, history, culture and heritage [of Greece].”
In other words, those who self-identify as ethnic Macedonians must abjure all claim to Greece’s Hellenistic heritage – the empire of Alexander the Great and its aftermath - which Greeks see as a vital component of their nationhood. After all, it was Alexander who spread the Greek language and learning across Asia.
This contractual cultural bifurcation was included on Greek insistence, to sweeten the pill of sharing Macedonian identity with their Slav neighbours, something most Greeks still object to. They want it made clear that non-Greek Macedonians are so named by virtue of shared geography, not ethnicity or heritage.
The academic consensus favours the Greeks on the questions of identity and geography. “In antiquity, Macedonia was the area that is now the northern province of Greece,” says Stephen Miller, Professor of Archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley. “There is a geographical, geological distinction: the range of mountains that divides that from the area of Skopje. The area where Skopje is in ancient times was called Peonia. It was a kingdom. We don’t know a lot about it. We know that Philip, father of Alexander, defeated the king of Peonia and incorporated it into his kingdom. Alexander had as one of his allies the next king of Peonia who contributed forces in Alexander’s invasion of Persia. But it was a distinct area. It wasn’t Macedonia, it was Peonia.”
That geography was immaterial until the age of the nation state. For two millennia, southwest Europe was part of an empire – first Alexander’s, then the Romans’, including 12 centuries under Byzantium, and finally the Ottomans’. The Greek national project was the first to fragment the Sultan’s European dominions, followed by the Bulgarian and the Serb. By the end of the 19th century, the three were in overt or covert rebellion against Constantinople over its last remaining swathe of European territory, that loosely termed administrative region of Macedonia, which after two borderless millennia contained a multitude of languages and peoples.
The issue was settled in favour of the Greeks in 1913, when they took the Macedonian capital of Thessaloniki just hours ahead of Bulgarian troops and established today’s national border between Greece and its northern neighbours. The formation of Yugoslavia after World War One dampened identity issues but did not eradicate them.
In the quarter century since the fall of communism, former Yugoslav Macedonia has been recognized by more than 100 countries by its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia. Greece has failed to quell Slav Macedonians’ claim to the M-word, but has accepted a composite version with a qualifier, such as Slav or Northern Macedonia. This compromise has divided Slav Macedonians. Many would like to move on.
Others agree with the VMRO’s Stoilkovsky, that the Prespes Agreement is “a capitulation”. “There are a lot of things [in the Prespes Agreement] which are hard simply to read… would you have said to some other country to change their history books, change their code, change their name?... Macedonia has to take all these steps and Greece has only one – to not block Macedonia’s integration.”
NATO and the EU are sorely needed in southeast Europe, where the rule of law is weak and foreign investors hesitate to commit to the arbitrary and vindictive political climate. Building the political will to summon them is another matter.