Matthew Nimetz (left), the United Nations mediator in a name dispute between FYROM and Greece, addresses the media after talks with Greece’s Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias (right) in Vienna, Austria, on Friday.
Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) are tantalizingly close to resolving their dispute over the “name issue.” Skopje created conditions conducive to negotiations by eliminating irredentist symbols. Alexander the Great Airport was renamed Skopje Airport and Alexander the Great Highway became the Friendship Highway. In a breakthrough, negotiators agreed to a new compound name with a geographic modifier – Upper Macedonia (“Gorna Makedonija”).
Progress has been possible because both countries made a strategic decision to address their differences. A deal on the name and related issues would enable integration of FYROM into Euro-Atlantic institutions. It would also advance Greece’s security and economic interests, while affirming its leadership in NATO and the European Union.
Normalization would be an economic windfall for northern Greece. Activities at the port of Thessaloniki would expand, enhancing its role as the portal to the Balkans. Goods from Asia via the Suez Canal would flow to Europe through Corridor 10, which connects Greece with Serbia, Hungary and Central Europe. Increased EU investments in infrastructure mean more jobs and liquidity.
One million tourists from Skopje already come to Greece annually for shopping and leisure. This number would expand dramatically, especially when Aegean Airways resumes direct flights from Skopje to Athens.
Greece’s goodwill could translate into debt forgiveness and future financing that Greece needs to consolidate its economic recovery.
Greece would also derive security benefits. A deal would buttress stability of Greece’s northern neighbor at a time when Turkey’s influence in the Western Balkans is expanding. Turkey recently called for a review of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty and expressed territorial designs on Western Thrace and Greek islets in the Aegean.
NATO membership for FYROM would not only enhance its sovereignty. It would make it a stronger security partner, countering Islamist extremism, combating terrorism, while strengthening cooperation on refugee and migrant issues.
Negotiations are at a crossroads. A tipping point could be reached if people in FYROM believe the government has made too many concessions and not received enough in return. This could lead to collapse of the government and early elections. In a worst-case scenario, state failure could lead to fragmentation and demands for a greater Albania or a greater Bulgaria.
Like all people, citizens of FYROM are proud of their identity. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev agreed to “erga omnes,” which means that the new name would be used in all matters concerning the international community, including the .mk internet code. Greece insists that the same principle apply internally, which would disallow use of the term “Macedonian” to characterize ethnicity or language.
Greece also insists on a new constitution that would eliminate all references to the “Republic of Macedonia” or “Macedonia.” Zaev’s government has a slim two-vote majority in the parliament. It is not clear he could pass such a constitutional amendment. Changing the constitution requires a two-thirds vote twice separated by six months.
Negotiations are up against the clock. The NATO Summit is scheduled for July 11-12. If Zaev cannot make progress with NATO membership, negotiations could fall apart.
Though Greece has a veto over NATO decisions, which are taken by consensus, it should allow FYROM to enter NATO under its new name even if its constitution has not yet been changed. The invitation could include a snapback provision, conditioning membership on constitutional reform within one year.
Citizens of FYROM would derive tangible benefits from Euro-Atlantic integration. Concurrent with the NATO decision, the European Council could authorize the start of negotiations for EU membership. Zaev would have popular support for constitutional reform if he realized progress with practical benefit to people’s lives.
This scenario is a win-win for Greece and FYROM. US and European interests would also be served when Athens and Skopje resolve their differences, thereby affirming a shared European future.
David L. Phillips is director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University. He has served as a senior adviser to the US Department of State and the UN Secretariat.