Immediately after taking office on June 1, Macedonia’s new minister of foreign affairs, Nikola Dimitrov emphasized that the path for the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration would start with rebuilding relations with Macedonia’s neighbors. Top of the list is southern neighbor Greece — with whom relations had stagnated and declined under the previous VRMO-DPMNE-led administration — and the so called ‘name issue.’
Many analysts believe that after the long internal political crisis in Macedonia, during which the name issue was set aside, there is a new, “historic chance” to put an end to a problem that has dragged on for more than 25 years.
The name issue is a political dispute regarding the use of the name ‘Macedonia.’ The Republic of Macedonia, was a federal unit of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia until it separated in 1991. At that point, Macedonia became an independent and internationally recognized country, but Greece has continued to oppose the country being called ‘Macedonia,’ which is the name of its own northern region. Foreign minister Nikos Kotzias said in April that “demanding the name ‘Macedonia’” was part of “irredentist tendencies” by its neighbor, that included “disputing the borders of a region.”
Greek Macedonia is larger than the Republic of Macedonia — as the state refers to itself in its Constitution — and millions of ethnic Greeks identify themselves as Macedonians, with no connection to the Slavic people who are associated with the Republic of Macedonia. Furthermore, Greece objects to the use of the term “Macedonian” being used for its neighboring country’s largest ethnic group and language.
In 1995, the two countries started negotiations on the name issue, under the auspices of the United Nations. Until a solution is found, the provisional reference ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ (FYROM) has been used by international organizations and states that do not recognize translations of the constitutional name.
The country obtained a recommendation to start EU negotiations in 2005, and it was set to begin NATO accession talks in 2008, but the name issue stalled the process. During a NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, Greece blocked Macedonia’s membership pathway, arguing that although the application had been submitted under the name ‘FYROM,’ its neighbor would likely refer to itself as ‘Macedonia’ within the organization and attempt to formalize the name once membership had been obtained.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer subsequently announced the mutually agreed text of the NATO members, in which the unresolved name issue was given as the reason for not extending a membership invitation to Macedonia; the government in Skopje was encouraged to resolve the issue through dialogue with Greece and told that an invitation would be extended as soon as a “mutually acceptable” solution was reached.
According to Toni Deskoski, professor of Private International Law and International Arbitration Law at Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, there are three international documents that have crucial significance on the name issue that give Macedonia leverage.
“The first one dates from 1992, when Macedonia gained a conclusion that ‘the usage of the name does not imply territorial pretensions,’” he says, referring to the European Community Council Declaration from Lisbon. That same year, in January, the Arbitration Commission of the European Community, chaired by Robert Badinter, published its opinion that the Republic of Macedonia meets all the criteria for recognition as an independent state, and that the name ‘Macedonia’ does not imply the existence of any territorial claims toward another state.
Deskoski also points to a 2011 verdict from the International Court of Justice in The Hague, after Macedonia had asked it to adjudicate on whether Greece’s 2008 blocking of its NATO membership had broken an Interim Accord signed by the two countries 1995. The ruling found that Greece had violated the agreement, which stated that it would not object to any international organization membership application by its neighbor, so long as it used only ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.’
A new direction
Ahead of meetings in Brussels this week with NATO and EU officials, Dimitrov finally said that Macedonia is ready to put the thorny issue back on the table and that it is ready to consider entering NATO with its provisional reference, FYROM. The foreign minister suggested that NATO membership for Macedonia would help the Balkans after months of political tensions in the region, and that this was an “historic chance,” for Greece if it wants a stable neighbor. However, he stressed that any definite resolution would be put to citizens in a referendum.
According to experts, this strategy may be the temporary solution that paves the way for the country’s NATO path and increased stability. Deskoski, says the momentum Macedonia gained from EU and NATO representatives after the last election victory of Zoran Zaev’s Party, is a huge opportunity and that the strategy is correct.
“The newly appointed government defeated a crucial obstacle in resolving the political crisis and gained a huge incitement from EU and NATO’s high representatives,” he says. “I think the public can be very happy that now someone is raising the name issue as it indicates that the country’s stability has returned.”
Political analyst Albert Musliu highlights that the reform agenda of the new government in Macedonia, prioritizing good neighborly relations in order to get back on track with EU and NATO integration, is a distinct change of tone from that of its predecessor. While compromises, such as accepting the ‘FYROM’ label to enter NATO are likely to prove unpopular domestically, he believes the more assertive strategy will strengthen Macedonia’s position on the name issue in the future.
“We had to change the narrative while resolving the name issue, because we cannot box with Greece while negotiating, and I think that is exactly the strategy of the new government,” he says. “Let’s not forget that Greece is a full member of NATO and it’s a voice we depend on for gaining membership in European institutions. I believe that the strategy now is improving and softening the relations with our neighbors, especially Greece, but it is for our partners to also help for Athens to understand Macedonia’s position.”
Prime Minister Zaev has made it clear that Macedonia is not just seeking a temporary solution by offering a compromise to enter NATO, but that it is also ready to sit down with Greece and have serious discussions about resolving the name issue for good.
There have already been indications that the change in approach has breathed new life into Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic ambitions. On June 12, Zaev met with NATO’s Secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, who reaffirmed NATO’s position on the name issue, but also offered encouragement. “At the same time I would also like underline that we welcome the very clear message from the new government that they will now intensify the dialogue with Greece to try to find a mutually acceptable solution within a U.N. framework,” Stoltenberg said.
Finding a compromise
Deskoski believes that the noises coming from NATO send a clear message: “Bearing in mind the current situation, the only possible entrance to NATO and the EU is resolving the name issue. Greece wants us to change the name to show that we are not leaning towards irredentism and it is important to know that NATO partners have accepted that as a compromise,” he says, reminding that this initiative goes against the country’s mood.
He asserts that with the 2008 Bucharest summit conclusion not to invite Macedonia to join NATO, it is nearly impossible for Macedonia to enter NATO without making compromises. “This conclusion from that summit will probably have to change in 2018 and for now Macedonia can enter NATO with the provisional reference [FYROM], while at the same time resolving the name issue,” he says. “Now there is momentum for resolving this issue.”
Musliu also expects recent developments to pave the way for Macedonia’s NATO membership in the next year, while opening the possibility of coming to an agreement with Greece in the longer term over the name issue. “It is feasible that Macedonia enters NATO, and I expect that to happen in a year’s time, under the FYROM reference, and in the meantime there are negotiations for a definite resolution, where Greece would not have a chance to blame Macedonia for being irredentist,” he says.
However Dimitrov’s first effort to re-establish connections with Greek politicians by visiting Athens this week for his first official visit as foreign minister, highlighted that despite the optimism, there will be no quick fix. Using the term ‘FYROM’ throughout, his counterpart Kotzias affirmed that Greece’s stance remains unchanged for now: “First the name issue, then Euro-Atlantic involvement.”
Kotzias did however welcome Macedonia’s new government making efforts to resolve the longstanding issue, saying that it was the previous VRMO-DPMNE-led government that had imposed irredentism as an issue between the two countries, and expressed his government’s willingness to discuss the name issue further. He added that Greece respects the territorial independence of its northern neighbor and that no one should interfere in the negotiations.
Many analysts see this first meeting as promising. But time will show if there is willingness from both sides to end the longstanding dispute.K
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.