A woman passes next to posters reading ‘yes’ for the referendum in FYROM on changing the country's name that would open the way for it to join NATO and the EU, in Skopje.
The so-called Macedonian Question has been part of the Balkan geopolitical puzzle since the 19th century. Its latest phase started with the dissolution of Yugoslavia and has revolved around the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Greek concerns about “Macedonian” revisionism. The idea of a greater Macedonia, to include parts of Greece and Bulgaria, had been promoted by the Yugoslav leadership before the task was taken over by influential circles in the newly established FYROM (but also in communities abroad). An early opportunity to resolve the dispute was missed when then Greek Prime Minister Constantinos Mitsotakis was undermined by political forces in Greece that were opposed to the proposed Pineiro Package of 1992. Other opportunities were subsequently missed as there was a lack of synchronization between moderate political leaders on both sides.
The precarious balance in relations between the two main ethnic groups (Slavs and Albanians) in FYROM, which resulted in an armed conflict and international intervention in 2001, became a source of concern for both the international community and Greece – for whom a stable northern neighbor is a strategic necessity. Despite the bilateral dispute, Greece was for many years the largest foreign investor in FYROM and remains a popular tourist and business destination for the country. During the last decade, however, the nationalist-populist Gruevski government and its clumsy attempts to build an ethnic identity by claiming ancient Macedonia and Alexander the Great as part of FYROM’s past complicated bilateral relations even further.
The rise to power of the moderate Zoran Zaev created a window of opportunity and allowed for substantial progress in the negotiations. Pressure behind the scenes from the US – which is concerned about Russia’s role and involvement in the region, although the great prize is Serbia, not FYROM – and the European Union’s revitalized interest in enlargement in the Western Balkans (although obstacles, such as enlargement fatigue, are still there) contributed to the successful conclusion of the negotiations. Unfortunately, the attempt of the governing party in Greece to reap domestic political profit by dividing and weakening opposition parties backfired and caused high polarization and a very tense political debate in Greece.
From a Greek perspective, the agreed composite name – North Macedonia – and the erga omnes (i.e. for all uses, domestic and international) clause satisfy long-term Greek demands, but criticism is focusing on provisions concerning citizenship and language. Clearly this is not a perfect agreement, but negotiations usually result in compromise solutions and countries need to prioritize their negotiating objectives. The real question is whether it is in Greece’s interest to sign an agreement that would remove one important item from its foreign policy agenda, allowing it to concentrate on more pressing issues, while at the same time enlarging its sphere of economic and political influence in the Balkans, or should it wait for a better opportunity?
Unfortunately time doesn’t seem to be working in favor of either side (albeit for different reasons). The fact that more than 100 countries have already recognized FYROM by its constitutional name (Republic of Macedonia) begs the question whether and why future conditions will be more favorable for Greece. Further exclusion from the EU and NATO and fear that the rift along ethnic lines may widen make a solution quite attractive for FYROM.
Should the agreement enter into force (and this is far from guaranteed at this stage), then the international community should insist on meticulous implementation. There seem to be good prospects for bilateral cooperation on trade and energy, as well as on the management of regional issues and the hope is that the appeal of irredentist voices in FYROM will continue to decline as a result of its European vocation. Greece’s membership in the EU and the (im)balance of power constitute additional guarantees against future challenges.
It has rightly been said that the Balkans produce more history they can consume. In a region with several open security questions, although far less urgent than in the past, perhaps it is time to turn the page and close one old chapter.
Thanos Dokos is director-general at the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).