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On June 17, the Prime Ministers of Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev, signed an agreement aimed at resolving a twenty-seven-year old dispute over the name Macedonia. The agreement was reached just in time for the EU Council of June 28-29, and the NATO summit in July. If its provisions take effect, the deal will lift the Greek blockade on the Macedonian Republic’s long-awaited accession to these two organizations.

While briefly referred to as “the Macedonian name issue,” the dispute between Greece and FYROM is, in fact, about the historical, cultural, geographic and political meaning of this name. Which historical and cultural entities are entitled to the adjective “Macedonian”? Who is entitled to use it to define themselves and their ancestors? A majority of Greeks are uncompromising in their belief that Macedonia is a Greek word, inextricably linked to the Greek cultural heritage of Alexander the Great. In their view, the Slavic inhabitants of the region cannot call themselves or their Slavonic dialect Macedonian, and they certainly cannot appropriate Alexander and the symbols of his rule, like the Vergina Sun, as their cultural heritage.

Vergina Sun (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Vergina Sun (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

To the people who have lived in a republic that has gone by the name Macedonia since 1944, and who consider themselves ethnic Macedonians, it is inconceivable they would call themselves anything else. But there is still no consensus, within the country, about what constitutes Macedonian national identity and history. The nationalist party VMRO-DPMNE has pushed a radical view of Macedonian identity rooted in antiquity and with a culture, language and history distinct from Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece. They believe the ancient Macedonians were not Greek, and that they, the present-day Macedonians, are their true descendants. Other ultranationalists in the country, as well as in the Macedonian diaspora in North America and Australia, have flirted with the idea of a “United Macedonia,” that incorporates the current republic, the northern Greek province as well as parts of northwest Bulgaria, south Serbia, and east Albania. These nationalist views are opposed by the more moderate ethnic Macedonians and by the country’s Albanian minority.

The ultimate outcome of this dispute will, in short, be determined by the dynamics of domestic politics and society in both Greece and Macedonia.

From Fruit Salad to Apple of Discord, Macedonia 1850-1991

Throughout the ages, the boundaries of the region identified as Macedonia have been very fluid. Indeed, for centuries between Alexander’s ancient empire to present times, the designation was absent from the minds and maps of Europe. And when it reappeared, in the early nineteenth century, it did so as a near synonym for ethnic heterogeneity, lending its name to a mixed fruit salad that is still known as “una Macedonia.” Indeed, the region has been inhabited by, among others, Greeks, Slavs –who have identified as Bulgarians or Serbs–, Turks, Albanians, and the Roma.

When the Ottoman empire started to crumble, Macedonia became the center of a power struggle between the emerging states of Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria. Until the World War I, the three surrounding states each sought to annex the whole region. The Greeks were the first to lay claim around the 1860s. The Greek inhabitants of Macedonia had joined the fight for Greek independence between 1821 and 1830 and subsequently demanded integration into the motherland. Ironically, during their campaign, the Greeks themselves started to promote the idea of Macedonia as a distinct region, whose Slavic and Greek inhabitants shared the same ancient origins. By tying together the ancestry of Slavs and Greeks in Macedonia, the flag-bearers of the young Greek state tried to counteract growing Bulgarian influence in the region.

Around 1870, Bulgarian nationalism and the idea of a Greater Bulgaria that included Macedonia began to gain momentum. To increase its influence in the Balkan, Russia supported Bulgaria’s expansionist dreams. After Russia defeated the Turks in the Battle of Bulgaria in 1887/88, they crafted an agreement, the San Stefano peace treaty, that envisaged a Bulgarian state, which included almost all Macedonia. Its provisions were, however modified four months later as a result of diplomatic interventions by Britain and Austria-Hungary. Ottoman rule was restored and the Greater Bulgarian idea died out. Instead, Bulgaria fostered the Macedonian nationalist movement VMRO (Macedonian acronym for Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization). Although leaning towards Bulgaria in the beginning, VMRO became the first movement that strived for an undivided, independent Macedonia under the credo “Macedonia for the Macedonians.”

Meanwhile, in the 1870s, the ethnographer Georgi Pulevski had developed the idea of Macedonian identity, language, and history. Based on folk histories and on Slavic elements found in the ancient Macedonian language, but his writings did provide an ideological basis for the Macedonian nationalists of VMRO.

VMROs nationalist aspirations culminated in the Ilinden Uprising in 1903. This uprising was directed primarily against the region’s Ottoman rulers, but Greek Macedonians were targeted as well. Again, the European powers intervened to restore the status quo. Fifteen years later, during World War I, the same powers brought a final blow to the Ottoman Empire, partitioning Macedonia in the process. The Neuilly Treaty divided the region between Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria. It also provided for a population exchange between Bulgaria and Greece, with a view to weakening mutual territorial claims.

The Macedonian question appeared to be resolved. Then, during World War II, Josip Broz Tito, marshal of the Yugoslav partisans and named president of their executive body, revived the idea of a Macedonian unity stretching all the way to northern Greece and western Bulgaria. Tito established the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 1944, choosing August 2, the day of the Ilinden Uprising, for symbolic reasons. After becoming president of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, in 1945, Tito allied with the Greek communists and the Bulgarian leader Georgi Dimitrov, in pursuit of his expansionist plans for Macedonia. However, Tito’s strategy was rejected by Joseph Stalin, and turned out to be a dead-end in 1949, when Dimitrov died and the Greek communists were defeated in the country’s civil war. The Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia remained confined to its current territory, and Greece and Bulgaria more or less accepted the status quo. Though Bulgaria was still reluctant to recognize the existence of a Macedonian ethnicity and language, Greece did not object to the existence of a republic named Macedonia at its northern border, as long as it was firmly embedded in the Yugoslav federation. Both countries denied the existence of a Macedonian minority within their borders.

Rearing Up, Not Moving Forward: The Name Issue 1991-2017

While rooted in the history of Balkan nation building, the Macedonian name dispute as we currently know it emerged in 1991, on the heels of the collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and disintegration of Yugoslavia. In that year, the first multi-party parliament of the Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia declared independence after it had drawn support from more than 95% of voters in a referendum. Over the years, Europe and the United States have made a point of resolving the issue and integrating the republic into EU and NATO. But until today, domestic dynamics in Greece and FYROM have decisively shaped the course of events, and prevented this goal from being realized.

Back in 1991, the independent republic’s establishment had immediately drawn Greek ire. The country had chosen the Vergina Sun for its flag, and only narrowly avoided including an explicit reference to possible future claims to Greek territory in its constitution. The Greeks responded to all this with several radical steps: it closed its border with Macedonia several times and vetoed the European Community’s recognition of Macedonia. On February 14, 1992, hundreds of thousands of Greeks rallied on the streets of Thessaloniki to chant that the name Macedonia was exclusively Greek. The Greek stance was most ardently voiced, at the time, by Foreign Minister Antonis Samaras of the New Democracy party: Greece would resist recognition of the Republic as long as its name included the word Macedonia.

Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis, a fellow party member of Samaras, gradually expressed more openness to a compromise name under which Macedonia could be recognized by the international community. In 1993, he accepted a UN proposal to have the republic recognized under the name of FYROM. In the process, he lost support of the hard-line faction within his own party and faced strong opposition from the socialist party. His government was forced to resign over the issue soon after.

Mitsotakis’ successor, socialist leader Andreas Papandreou, resumed the hard-line position, blocking borders and denying FYROM’s access to Greek ports. In 1995, however, he gave in to diplomatic pressure from the European Commission and the United States, and reached an interim agreement with Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov: Greece would recognize the Republic’s independence and would not block the FYROM’s membership applications to international organizations. FYROM committed to refrain from any irredentist claims and agreed to redesign its flag. Both parties committed to continue working on a solution to the name issue under UN mediation.

What followed, however, was a period of deadlock. On the Greek side, hard liners continued to dominate in politics and government. For its part, FYROM was preoccupied with the rights of its Albanian minority, which almost culminated in a civil war — leaving EU and NATO membership beyond grasp until 2005. In that year, FYROM made its EU membership application. The following year, announcements were made that the republic would receive an invitation to join NATO by 2008.

Meanwhile, in Greece, PM Kostas Karamanlis and his foreign minister Dora Bakoyannis, both members of the moderate faction of New Democracy, prepared the path for accepting a new composite name for FYROM. Negotiations had hardly started, however, when national elections in 2006 brought VMRO-DPMNE to power. Its ultra-nationalist Prime Minister, Nikola Gruevski, embarked on a program to turn Macedonia into a Viktor Orbán-style illiberal democracy. The reinvention of Macedonian history was part of this program. Indeed, one of Gruevski’s first acts was to rename Skopje’s airport after Alexander the Great. His most notable attempt to re-assert Macedonian identity was, however, the ambitious state-funded building project “Skopje 2014.” The project was dedicating to creating landmark buildings with classical grandeur. Under the auspices of “Skopje 2014,” enormous statues of Alexander and his father Philippus were erected. Unsurprisingly, these actions did not have a positive effect on negotiations with Greece.

On substance, as well, the parties were still miles apart. While the Republic was willing to accept a composite name for external use, it insisted on using the name Republic of Macedonia internally. Greece would only go with one single composite name for both national and international use. With Macedonia’s NATO invitation in sight and under huge international pressure, the parties negotiated quite extensively, but without success. In response to the breakdown of talks, Greece blocked the NATO invitation from being sent to Skopje. Despite a ruling from the International Court of Justice concluding that this act breached Greece’s duties under the 1995 interim agreement, the negotiations remained deadlocked for as long as VMRO-DMNPE ruled Macedonia. During this time, attempts by social democrat, liberal and ethnic Albanian parties to steer the Macedonian government’s policy on the name issue in a more moderate direction all failed.

Picking Daisy Petals

Nicola Gruevski’s rule not only caused deadlock in the dispute with Greece; it also led to an utterly polarized political landscape in Macedonia, especially between the ruling party and the social democrats. The parties regularly exchanged allegations of corruption and fraud. Tensions culminated in 2015 in the “wiretapping scandal,” when social democrats revealed that government officials had more than 20,000 alleged critics of the ruling party wiretapped. Two years later, ninety people, including Gruevski, were tried on charges connected to the wiretapping. Elections in December 2017 resulted in a victory for the social democrats, who formed a coalition government with several ethnic Albanian parties.

Since then, the new prime minister, Zoran Zaev, has been dedicated to ending the dispute with Greece. His first conciliatory gesture on this issue was to undo the renaming of the Skopje airport, and to rename the “Alexander” motorway that leads to the Greek border the “Friendship motorway.” In February 2018, Zaev announced the formal end of the “Skopje 2014” project.

In December 2017, the two countries resumed talks at UN headquarters, and, by February 2018, negotiators had created enough common ground to transfer a negotiation package to the respective foreign ministers, who transferred a draft agreement to their respective prime ministers at the end of May. Zaev and Tsipras reached an agreement on June 12. Three demands proposed by Greece in 2005 were included in the draft deal: a composite name for FYROM with a geographic qualifier, “North Macedonia”; erga omnes use for the name; and amendments to the Republic’s constitution to remove references to irredentism and interference with minority groups living in other countries. In return, Greece recognized North Macedonia’s language and people as Macedonian, a significant victory for the country.

The story does not, however, end there. Both governments signed the deal on June 17 amidst huge domestic resistance in parliament and on the streets. In Athens, Tsipras faced a confidence vote, which he survived. In Skopje, the president of the republic, Gjorge Ivanov, who is a VMRO hardliner, refused to sign the deal. This means that after an initial ratification on June 20, the agreement was referred back to FYROM’s parliament for final ratification on July 5. Ratification cleared the path for the republic to start accession talks with NATO under its temporary name.

There are huge challenges ahead. The new name will most probably be tabled for referendum in FYROM in September. Only after a favorable outcome will the constitutional amendments be made. As this process requires a two-third majority in parliament and given the current political environment, it is highly uncertain whether the current government will be able to mobilize enough support. Assuming a new constitution is adopted in Skopje, the Greek parliament will then have to ratify the agreement. In its current composition there would be a small parliamentary majority in favor of the agreement. But the current coalition government is shaky, since governing party Syriza has to contend with a coalition partner, the nationalist ANEL, that opposes the agreement. Meanwhile the main opposition party New Democracy, which continuously challenges the coalition, seems to have closed its ranks towards opposing the agreement. If the current government falls before the ratification vote, new elections could well evaporate the parliamentary majority that supports the agreement. Indeed, a recent Greek poll indicated that that seventy percent of Greeks rejects the deal.

Despite the good faith and determination of leaders in Athens and Skopje, attempts to prevent the name dispute from entering its third decade might well fail once again.

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