After a long stalemate, negotiations on the name dispute between the former Yugoslavian country that calls itself Macedonia and Greece are showing new signs of life. In early December, representatives of the two countries sat down under the auspices of the United Nations to probe how to inch towards a settlement that could unlock doors offering access to some of the world’s most powerful institutions.
The debate over the name Macedonia, claimed as part of the historical heritage and identity of Greece, has locked around 2 million people out of the European Union and Nato. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia does have a seat at the United Nations, but under a provisional title which reads more like a one-line history lesson than a name.
Writing and rewriting history
The social-democratic party SDSM, in power in Skopje since the spring has shown willingness to move on some of the issues that are behind the row with Greece.
The world’s most celebrated Macedonian, Alexander the Great, was aggressively claimed by the previous nationalist FYROM government, led by Nikola Gruevski.
School textbooks were rewritten to play up links between the empire of antiquity and the modern Republic and statues erected in public places to ensure the connection was also visible to visitors. Such gestures were perceived as an act of “historical theft” by Athens."This practice is bothering Greece a lot," said former Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Yannis Valinakis already back in 2009. "It demonstrates Skopje's lack of goodwill and respect."
Prime minister Zoran Zaev, has indicated that he is ready to backtrack from his predecessor’s line.
“Macedonia doesn’t have the exclusive right to the legacy of Alexander the Great. History belongs not only to us, but also to Greece, and many other countries,” he recently declared.
Nevertheless, senior officials acknowledge privately that even disowning Alexander the Great, removing the monuments and pulping the textbooks would probably not resolve the issue.
Back to the name
So the name debate remains. “Upper Macedonia”, “Northern Macedonia”, and “New Macedonia” have all been touted as possibilities, but a senior FYROM diplomat told Euronews these were merely media speculation based on previous proposals.
In any case, the leader of the right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL) Panos Kammenos has recently set out his opposition to any inclusion of the term “Macedonia” in the new name.
“During a meeting of Greek leaders in 1992, it was agreed that the use of the word 'Macedonia' was a non-starter for Greece. Deciding otherwise would require a fresh meeting under the current president”, Kammenos said at a party meeting in the Dalipi military camp in the northern port city of Thessaloniki. He is also the defence minister in Alexis Tsipras’ SYRIZA government.
Either way, intransigence about the country’s name is visible on both sides of the border.
In FYR Macedonia, the public is acutely aware that their country has already introduced changes to its constitution and flag in the face of past Greek pressure with little apparent reward. As a referendum would be required to satisfy Greek demands that a name change be reflected both internationally and domestically, the government has little margin for manoeuvre.
Adding to the challenge is a rising Euroskeptic sentiment. While still enjoying relatively healthy rates of support compared to many existing member countries, the European Union has seen its poll ratings fall 15 percent over the past five years.
Nevertheless, solving the name dispute would be a clear “win-win” for both Skopje and Athens, according to David L. Phillips, Director of the Programme on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.
“Greece will benefit financially from good neighbourly relations, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras would garner prestige and respect as a strong leader, and [FYR] Macedonia will benefit through integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions,” he wrote on the Greek newspaper Kathimerini.
At this stage of the negotiations, both sides are working to create an atmosphere for positive discussion, before plunging into the name topic in the coming months. Nikos Kotzias, Greece’s minister of Foreign Affairs, has called 2018 a “watershed” year. Both countries have elections in 2019, which means that the two governments do not have much time to come to reach a shared proposal.
For the moment, FYROM is preparing itself to present a positive report about its improvements during the EU meeting for the Balkan region in the spring, and to receive an invitation during the summer to join NATO. All progress, of course, depends on whether the name dispute will be solved.
By Irene Dominioni