This article was published by Al Jazeera International.
On Thursday night, Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) are scheduled to put to rest a 27-year dispute over the latter country’s name.
That’s when the Greek parliament is scheduled to ratify the Prespes Agreement, reached last June. FYROM agrees to abandon “Republic of Macedonia” - the name it chose for itself when it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 – and call itself North Macedonia. Greece agrees to lift its veto to North Macedonia’s membership in NATO and the European Union. A source of instability and ill feeling in southeast Europe is thus removed. There are economic dividends, too. North Macedonia’s premier, Zoran Zaev, reports an 18.7 percent uplift in mutual trade over the past ten months.
To the casual observer, an incomprehensible dispute has been resolved. Yet the compromise has brought political turmoil in both capitals. In Skopje, social-democrat Zaev was soundly beaten in a referendum on the deal; he ratified it in parliament by luring eight MPs from the nationalist VMRO party across the aisle.
In Athens, the agreement has triggered two votes of confidence in the government over seven months and cost Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras his junior coalition partner, the Independent Greeks party. His Syriza party is now a minority government, but the wily Tsipras is surviving by coaxing MPs out of small parties unlikely to return to the legislature should he fall and trigger a general election. He hopes for a larger majority on Thursday, but if necessary will use that precarious majority of 151 in the 300-seat chamber to ratify the deal.
So widespread is opprobrium over the Macedonia deal that few Greeks believe Tsipras will be able to rule until his term ends in October. Syriza is expected to receive a thrashing in European Parliament and local elections scheduled for May 26.
The problems on both sides revolve around identity, and how it may affect future security.
“The key position of the Greek state for many, many years -- not since 1991 when this state was created but long before -- was that we do not want any of the states of the area to monopolise the word Macedonia or Macedonian,” says Angelos Syrigos, professor of international law and foreign policy at Panteion University.
That is why Greece insisted that its neighbour qualify the term Macedonia with an adjective. Last year, both sides agreed to “Severna Makedonja”, or “Northern Macedonia”.
However, the same qualifier does not carry over to state attributes such as nationality and language. These remain “Macedonian”, and that has upset the Greeks.
“If you give nationality, if you give the language, this is called identity. And we do not want to open the door to one of the states to have the right to monopolise the Macedonian identity,” says Syrigos. The Greek position is that once established, such an identity can create a basis for territorial claims.
Naum Stoilkovski, VMRO spokesman, sees the identity issue in reverse. “You can’t rename all of Macedonia’s institutions, you can’t erase all that is truly Macedonian,” he tells Al Jazeera. “By this agreement, I couldn’t talk about Macedonian theatre. I need to talk about theatre of the Republic of North Macedonia. You can’t talk about Macedonia’s army. You have to talk about the army of the Republic of North Macedonia,
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The Prespes Agreement successfully adjudicated the naming of the state, which lies within the competence of international law; but questions regarding identity, which are a matter of individual conscience, lie outside its purview.
Those in favour of the agreement on both sides admit that its success largely depends on good faith.
“There is no better way to secure that they won’t become a pawn of foreign powers – Turkey or whoever – than to ensure that they become a very close ally and partner to Greece,” Says Ioannis Armakolas, professor of comparative politics in southeast Europe at the University of Macedonia in Greece. “We will allow this country into NATO and we will help them join the EU and through this process we’ll become best friends. This is how you resolve problems. You don’t just become defensive when you are the biggest economic and political power in the region.”
The previous, hardline administration in Skopje claimed ancient Macedonian heritage and erected gigantic statues to Alexander the Great and his parents, Philip II and Olympias. This alienated the Greeks, who see ancient Hellenism as a key constituent of their modern history and nationhood. Zaev denounces that policy, and has gone to great lengths to separate Greek and Slav Macedonian identities in the Prespes agreement.
“Everyone here is against [the statues], if for no other reason, because they cost a billion dollars,” Zaev recently told a Greek newspaper. “We are a poor country. One billion dollars! Moreover, it provoked the Greek side. We did not need this… We’ve learned from the past, and we certainly won’t repeat the same mistakes.”
Today’s Balkan borders were largely set in 1912-13, when Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria fought the dying Ottoman Empire for its European possessions. In the Treaty of Bucharest, Greece got 51% of geographic Macedonia, Serbia 39% and Bulgaria 10%.
In the years following, only Greece used the term Macedonia for its territory. Bulgaria called its part Pirin, and Serbia called its part South Serbia. Not until 1946, when the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was formed, was Serbia’s south named Makedonija, and it assumed a Stalinist ambition, articulated at the seventh Communist International in 1934, to create a “unified and independent Macedonian nation” by reuniting the Greek, Bulgarian and Serb territories carved up in 1913.
Greece’s Communist party vigorously supported the idea. During the 1946-49 Greek Civil War, Yugoslavia supported Greek communists with arms and materiel in return for a promise that Greek Macedonia would be annexed to Yugoslav Macedonia.
US Secretary of State Edward Stettinius had recognised the communist threat in 1944. In a telegram to US diplomatic missions, he wrote, “This Government considers talk of ‘Macedonian nation’, ‘Macedonia Fatherland’, or ‘Macedonian national consciousness’ to be unjustified demagoguery representing no ethnic or political reality, and sees in its present revival a possible cloak for aggressive intentions against Greece.”
Many Greeks believe that Tito weaponized Slav Macedonian identity as justification for expansionist designs and that this mentality cannot be erased from the new state’s DNA.
It is easy to see why, when Yugoslavia broke up and the Republic of Macedonia was proclaimed, Greeks viewed the entire project as the reincarnation of Communist hegemony. If the naysayers are right, the agreement will collapse in mutual mistrust. If Tsipras and Zaev are right, friendship will become self-reinforcing, Greeks and Slavs will develop their separate identities, and the ghosts of the past will be laid to rest.