People pass next to the office of the coalition that supports the upcoming referendum. On the windows are posters with the phrases ‘A safe future for our children’ and ‘Come out for European Macedonia,’ in the center of Skopje.
On Sunday, voters in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are expected to endorse the agreement signed with Greece last June. Although participation in the referendum might come to less than half of the registered voters, the government of Zoran Zaev will press ahead with the necessary constitutional amendment mandated by the agreement. He will be helped by the disarray of the nationalist opposition and, to some degree, by the lobbying of the great Western powers, mainly the United States and Germany.
Securing the two-thirds majority in Parliament needed for amending the constitution requires some votes from VMRO-DPMNE, the right-wing nationalist opposition that governed between 2006 and 2017. Rumor has it that a deal is in the making, whereby voting with the government will secure amnesty from criminal prosecution for the corruption and abuse of power by VMRO politicians in the past. A more plausible scenario is that Zaev might exploit the momentum of his referendum victory to announce early elections and increase his feeble majority in Parliament before proceeding with amending the constitution.
Ultimately, the agreement is to be endorsed by the people of FYROM because of the willingness for a new beginning after the three lost decades that followed independence in 1991. Compared to European standards, FYROM is poorer today than it was back then and its population has shrunk by almost a quarter after people left for the West in search of employment and a better life. This desire for a new beginning is particularly strong among the country’s ethnic Albanians, who have no stake in FYROM’s nationalist dispute with Greece, and young people, who look more toward the future than the past.
From Monday, Greece will be increasingly faced with a government crisis. The extent to which this has been orchestrated by the two coalition partners acting in coordination is a matter of great speculation in the political circles of Athens today. On the face of it, the smaller coalition partner, Independent Greeks, which is led by Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, will have to decide whether it will in fact honor its word and bring down the government. While nobody can predict exactly how Kammenos’s theatrics will play out, his room for maneuver will be seriously diminished when, as it seems likely, the agreement sails through on the FYROM side. Furthermore, the stronger FYROM’s endorsement of the agreement, the greater the suspicion will be on the Greek side, especially among the nationally-minded, that it is a lopsided deal.
Although this mess might further strengthen the electoral prospects of the main opposition party, New Democracy, many believe that it will be better for the next government not to have to deal with the issue. If Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras fails to ratify the agreement, the next government, widely expected to be headed by ND, will be landed with a potentially explosive hot potato. Ratifying the agreement then will undermine New Democracy’s domestic credibility, going against its promise never to do so on the way to a crucial presidential vote in January 2020, while not ratifying it will undermine ND’s foreign credibility, especially among Greece’s NATO allies, who have invested heavily in the resolution of the name dispute. Greece might then be faced with isolation at a time when it will need all the support it can get from its friends as it struggles to return to the international capital markets.
The agreement itself is badly written and is already being interpreted differently by each side. Many claim that in exchange for a future and not fully secured erga omnes use of the composite name of North Macedonia, Greece had to renege on a century-old opposition to “Macedonianism” (i.e. the idea of one Macedonia for Macedonians). In addition, Greece has promised to look the other way on any bilateral dispute beyond the name and support FYROM’s accession to the European Union unhesitatingly and without reservations. There are plenty more – and many have argued unnecessary – concessions on irredentism, trademarks and so on.
These faults have to do with a major failure of Greek diplomacy, conducted personally by a secretive and centralizing foreign minister, without any effort to build a wider political consensus behind a deal. Nevertheless, the new government and the overwhelming majority of the people of FYROM genuinely want and seek better relations with Greece. They fully realize that Greece is their most valuable neighbor on the road to Europe, democracy and prosperity. Acting upon this reality is to the great benefit of Greece and regional security.
Dimitris Keridis is professor of international politics at Panteion University.