In-depth | Greece

New names and old in Macedonia discussions

By - 24.04.2018

The options for ending decades-long dispute between Macedonia and Greece.

Every 27-year-old citizen of Macedonia is the same age as the small Balkan country — and as old as the ongoing debate surrounding the ‘name issue.’

Macedonia and Greece have been at odds since the early 1990s about the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ as politicians in Greece believe that the neighbor implies a territorial claim on an identically named region of northern Greece. Since then, the name issue has cast a long shadow over bilateral relations between the two neighbors, fueling nationalism and frustration. Internationally, Macedonia is officially recognized under the name ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,’ a name its citizens are not willing to accept.

A decade after Greece vetoed Macedonia’s NATO membership bid at the 2008 Bucharest Summit, the two countries are now demonstrating new dynamism in an attempt to overcome the bitter issue. If Skopje and Athens manage to resolve the name issue, EU leaders are expected to set a date for initiating Macedonia’s accession negotiations at a Brussels summit due to be held on June 28-29 this year. Two weeks later, Macedonia could well be invited into NATO.

In recent months, the foreign ministers of both countries, Nikola Dimitrov (Macedonia) and Nikos Kotzias (Greece) — who share their own language versions of the same first name — have been meeting more regularly. However, their most recent talks in Ohrid earlier this month demonstrated that reaching a breakthrough for the name dispute will not be easy.

“As you understand, the closer we get, resolving all of our issues, fewer and fewer issues are left to discuss. But they are also the most difficult issues,” pointed out Kotzias. “We took the positive steps we could take today, and both of us hope we will also succeed in taking the major steps — in making the most difficult ones easy.”

Is there a readiness for a compromise?

Sefer Tahiri, an assistant professor at the South East European University’s Faculty of Languages, Cultures and Communications, thinks that Macedonia is in a critical political period and solutions need to be undertaken that might seem painful but are necessary for the country’s progress.

“It is crucial that both countries have demonstrated political will for solving the name issue,” he told K2.0. “We can see that [Prime Minister Zoran] Zaev’s government is projecting an idea for a solution that will respect the dignity and the interests of both countries.”

There are at least three problems that demonstrate the negotiations are between a rock and a hard place.

Political instability, either in Skopje or Athens, has often moved the goalposts in the past 23 years. Now, the optimistic tone that the decades-old row might be solved comes both from Greece and from Macedonia.

“For the first time we have discussed a time frame and the steps that should follow if a solution is reached, i.e. how it would look like and be implemented,” said Macedonia’s foreign minister after meeting his Greek counterpart in Ohrid on April 12. The Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also said that 2018 is the year when Greece will find a solution to the problems with its neighbors, including the name issue.

However, there are at least three problems that demonstrate the negotiations are between a rock and a hard place.

The first obstacle is the Greek request that any new name is used ‘erga omnes’ (toward all), meaning both internationally and domestically within Macedonia. This would require amendments to the name used in Macedonia’s constitution, something that Prime Minister Zaev has said is unreasonable and risks ruining the deal that each side says it wants.

The second stumbling block is that Greece is pushing to include sensitive identity questions — relating to the Macedonian ethnicity — in the negotiations for the diplomatically complex name issue, suggesting that there should be a way for third parties to differentiate between the separate Macedonian identities in Macedonia and Greece.

Skopje has said such discussions are unacceptable, and during a recent visit to Skopje, UN mediator Matthew Nimetz pointed out that questions about Macedonian identity are not part of his mandate; the American diplomat was appointed UN Special Representative for the name dispute between the two countries in 1999 and works for a nominal salary of US$1 a year in order to find a solution suitable for all concerned.

Nimetz has however reportedly offered suggestions relating to Macedonia’s demonym — as denoted on passports and official documents — suggesting either ‘Makedonski’ or ‘Nationality of Republika Nova Makedonija.’ In Macedonia, the term “nationality” is translated as ‘nacionalnost,’ and is more associated with ethnicity than with the idea of citizenship, hence the fear that the negotiations are touching on identity; officials in Skopje have suggested that changing the name of the language is a red line that they are not prepared to cross.

The Third problem that overshadows the opportunity for solving the emotionally potent name issue is the sensitive political climate in Greece and in Macedonia. Both Greeks and Macedonians have rallied against possible agreement on the name issue, although Toni Deskoski, professor of international law at the Iustinianus Primus Faculty of Law in Skopje, believes that citizens in Macedonia would be prepared to accept a name deal under certain circumstances.

“The public in the Republic of Macedonia is ready for compromise if it does not involve a substantial change of the name of the country, which will have implications for the identity of the Macedonian nation,” he told K2.0.

Zaev has won the sympathies of EU and U.S. diplomats by signing a friendship treaty with Bulgaria and making gestures of goodwill such as renaming Skopje’s airport and the country’s main highway, both previously named after Alexander the Great, whose historical legacy is disputed. The Macedonian prime minister has also said that there is a readiness to add a geographical qualifier to the country’s name, which has been requested by Greece.

At the same time, negotiations headed by UN mediator Nimetz have intensified and there are now a series of name alternatives on the table forming the basis of discussions. Unofficially, according to Macedonian and Greek media, the Nimetz package has five potential options:

  • Republika Nova Makedonija (Republic of New Macedonia)
  • Republika Makedonija (Skopje) (Republic of Macedonia (Skopje))
  • Republika Severna Makedonija (Republic of Northern Macedonia)
  • Republika Gorna Makedonija (Republic of Upper Macedonia)
  • Republika Vardarska Makedonija (Republic of Vardar Macedonia)

K2.0 looks at each of the options, some of which have been around — in one form or another — for years.

‘New Macedonia’

The name ‘New Macedonia’ was offered by the Portuguese Foreign Minister Joao de Deus Pinheiro in April 1992 and instantly rejected by the Greek side. A similar name, ‘Nova Makedonija’ (in untranslated form), was proposed by the United Nations negotiators, Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen in May 1993, but was also rejected by Athens.

According to unofficial information from Greek media, ‘New Macedonia’ was again put forward by the UN negotiator Nimetz last year, and is one of the options currently up for discussion.

Greek professor Kalypso Nicolaidis and Macedonian professor Veton Latifi suggest that this name would encapsulate a message that Macedonia is a modern nation looking to the future and not to the past. “‘New Macedonia’ clearly states: Let us leave the fights over Alexander the Great’s legacy behind us,” underline both professors in an analysis published by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

However, Athens currently favors a name with a geographical indicator in it.

Republic of Skopje (Macedonia)

According to a document published by WikiLeaks, before the NATO summit in 2008, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed the Macedonian government to accept the Greek proposal ‘Republic of Skopje (Macedonia).’ However, of all the name variations discussed, it is thought to be one of the least acceptable names for the Macedonian side, due to the word ‘Macedonia’ only appearing in brackets.

‘Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)’

The name ‘Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)’ is thought to be acceptable for Macedonia but not preferred by Greece. It was first proposed at the end of 1992 by the retired British diplomat Robin O’Neil, who reported that Macedonia was ready to accept this name in all its international transactions.

In 2013, the then Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski suggested that he had accepted this proposal before the NATO summit in 2008. However, the proposed name was refused by Greece, with the then Greek minister of foreign affairs telling media that it did not meet Greece’s stated objectives.

In 2005, Nimetz had given a proposal suggesting that Macedonia’s international name be changed to ‘Republika Makedonija — Skopje’ (in untranslated form). This was accepted as a basis for negotiations by Athens, but rejected by Skopje.

A second Nimetz’s proposal from the same year caused strong dissatisfaction in Athens. The proposal involved the double formula: the name ‘Republika Makedonija’ was to be used from 2006 to 2008 in international organizations, treaties, communiqués and resolutions. From 2009, the name would become ‘Republic of Macedonia’ and Greece would be allowed to use ‘Republika Makedonija-Skopje.’

“This constituted the worse proposal from a Greek perspective since the beginning of the dispute and was immediately ‘returned as unacceptable,’” writes Aristotle Tziampiris, Greek Professor of International Relations at the University of Piraeus.

In January this year, ‘Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)’ was once again put back on the negotiation table as one of the five names suggested by Nimetz.

‘Republic of Northern Macedonia’

The proposal ‘Republic of Northern Macedonia’ as the country’s name was suggested by Nimetz in 2008, according to Greek media. Two years later, Nimetz again presented the same idea.

“The Greek position on the name issue is known; it wants a composite name with a geographic qualifier that is used in relations with all other states, so it is obvious that this idea meets Greek expectations,” Dimitris Droutsas, at that time Greek deputy foreign minister, told Greek media.

However this proposal was rejected my Skopje due to the insistence from Athens that the name be used both internationally and domestically. It is now reported to be back on the negotiation table.

Upper Republic of Macedonia

Variations with the adjective ‘upper’ have been on the negotiation table in the past. ‘Republic of Upper Macedonia’ was one of the five proposals given by Nimetz in 2008; at that time he also proposed: ‘Constitutional Republic of Macedonia,’ ‘Democratic Republic of Macedonia,’ ‘Independent Republic of Macedonia’ and ‘New Republic of Macedonia.’

In 2013, Nimetz gave a proposal ‘Upper Republic of Macedonia,’ with a language of ‘Macedonian’/’Makedonski’ and a demonym of ‘Nationality of the Upper Republic of Macedonia.’ Greece rejected the proposal, wanting the adjective to be placed immediately before the word ‘Macedonia.’

‘Republic of Upper Macedonia’

The proposal ‘Republika Gorna Makedonija’ in Latin transcription is another of the options on Nimetz’s current list of proposals. Some Macedonian media have reported that ‘Republic of Upper Macedonia’ is the proposal that might lead to a solution as it is also advocated by the international community.

For the Greek side, it could be deemed acceptable if there were to be a single word for ‘Upper Macedonia’ — ‘Republika GornaMakedonija.’

“For Athens, GornaMakedonija is one word and with its Slavic pronunciation it does not sound like Macedonia,” writes news agency and portal Greek Reporter. “At the same time, the word ‘Macedonia’ by itself is absent from the name.”

However, Macedonian Foreign Minister Dimitrov has stated that the proposal “GornaMakedonija” is not acceptable for Skopje, explaining that even the current provisional reference to ‘the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,’ which is translated into the six official languages of the UN, has the word ‘Macedonia’ in it.

Republic of Vardar Macedonia

The name ‘Republic of Vardar Macedonia,’ referencing the longest river in Macedonia, was considered as a possible solution in 2010, according to Greek TV Antenna. It is also the name that is currently favored by Greek authorities in the ongoing name talks, according to Greek daily Kathimerini.

It is unknown how Macedonia feels about this option.

Republic of Aardvark

Some of the extraordinary proposals show the frustration that diplomats feel about the long-standing quarrel between Athens and Skopje.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, irritated that the name issue has been blocking Macedonia’s membership in NATO, suggested that the new name of the country should be ‘Republic of Aardvark’ (referring to the mammal native to Africa), so that it appeared first alphabetically.

Feature image: Besnik Bajrami / K2.0. K