The moment of truth, the one that Greece’s politicians hoped to postpone forever, is arriving. The impasse in negotiations for a final name for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia suited them; it did not oblige any government, party or politician to do what all fear – to take responsibility for a compromise. This does not mean that the danger posed by our small northern neighbor was irrelevant; the damage, though, that was caused by the inability to find a solution satisfactory to both sides had consequences far greater than anyone predicted at the start of the problem.
The dispute between the two countries took the shape of both denying a compromise, while irredentist propaganda from Skopje confirmed Greek suspicions at the intentions of nationalists on the other side of the border. Athens imposed an embargo on its neighbor in the 1990s and representatives of the two countries would clash in any international fora or sports events where our neighbors appeared with the name “Macedonia.” The cost was not simply bad bilateral relations: The dispute had severe consequences on both countries’ domestic developments and their foreign relations. In both, nationalism was encouraged, prompting the pursuit of solutions that precluded any chance of compromise. FYROM remained in diplomatic limbo, while in Greece one government fell because of internal differences over the issue and others chose either to increase the pressure on Skopje or to let the problem fester, avoiding any decisions that would have a political cost. For close to three decades, Athens lost valuable political capital, with an indirect cost to the Cyprus issue and Greek-Turkish differences. Entering a quagmire at the end of the Cold War, Athens abdicated its opportunity to take a leading role in the politics and economy of the Balkans, when Greece was the only country in the region that was a member both of the European Union and NATO.
As long as there was no solution, Greece’s politicians could blame Skopje for its intransigence and wait for the other side’s unconditional surrender. They left the responsibility for a compromise to someone else, sometime in the future. (The same mentality, of course, led to the debt crisis.) Today, though, it is clear that even without the watershed of the coming summer’s NATO summit it is time for a solution. It will take political courage on both sides. If the issue divides our politicians, we will see who dares to seek solutions and who thinks only of the political cost, who takes on problems and who leaves them to others. The strife between the coalition government’s partners and within other parties is the smallest price we will have paid for the years the “Macedonian issue” remains unsolved.