Sunday’s crucial name change referendum in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) is the second step in the process of normalization of bilateral ties between Athens and Skopje. It is a development which could prove mutually beneficial, provided that both countries make the right moves. After all, both sides have an interest in developing an axis of cooperation in the heart of the Balkan peninsula.
Following the signing of the Prespes agreement in June and if the deal is ratified by the majority of citizens in FYROM, we shall reach the third step, namely the revision of the Balkan state’s constitution.
However, in order to wrap up the process and implement all aspects of the agreement, including FYROM being accepted into the NATO alliance, the fourth step will also have to be completed: The deal must be approved by the Greek Parliament. Achieving this will require input from many different sides, including FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, whose recent attitude is not helpfull to those who want to see Greece ratify the deal.
Zaev, the leader of a country that could potentially be a very close partner and ally of Greece, should know that his repeated misguided references to a “single Macedonia” are of no service to what ought to be his government’s long-term strategic objective. He knows that the geographical area of Macedonia today is primarily divided among Greece (50 percent, mostly coinciding with the boundaries of Macedonia in classical times), FYROM (40 percent) and Bulgaria (10 percent).
Accepting this reality is the basis for a complementary rather than antagonistic coexistence with Greece, which would greatly benefit his country. Establishing an Athens-Skopje axis will not only have a stabilizing effect on the traditionally volatile Balkan peninsula, but would also upgrade the geopolitical and economic status of landlocked FYROM.
Zaev’s more immediate aim is to convince the citizens of FYROM to approve the deal in the upcoming vote, and this is understandable. But he should also keep in mind two more parameters: First, that the deal must also be endorsed by the Greek Parliament and, second, – which this writer believes is even more important – that the two peoples will have to coexist and cooperate on the basis of that deal.
If he wants to ease tensions and reap strategic gains from the agreement, Prime Minister Zaev must make sure he does not to estrange the Greek people. By giving in to what in essense is nationalist rhetoric, is an unfortunate move in the opposite direction.