The Greek state never attempted to dominate the entirety of the geographical region of Macedonia, regardless of how it was defined internationally. It always accepted that some sections of the Macedonian geographical region belonged to other countries as well. However, it also tried to ensure that no other state or nation would lay claim to the entire geographical area either, and this constituted Greece’s steady policy line for some 150 years.
With the Prespes agreement, Greece has unfortunately abandoned that policy. For all practical purposes, the name change of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to “North Macedonia” is canceled out by the fact that the agreement allows the people of the neighboring country to call themselves “Macedonians” rather than “North Macedonians.”
This is, after all, foreseen in the country’s amended constitution and in the note verbale sent by FYROM informing Greece that it had completed all the necessary procedures for the enforcement of the agreement. The very unfortunate use of the term “nationality” by the neighboring country comes with the definition “Macedonian/citizen of North Macedonia.”
Apart from that, though, Article 7 of the agreement states that in reference to FYROM, the terms “Macedonia” and “Macedonian” denote “its territory, language, people and their attributes, with their own history, culture and heritage.” This certainly does not designate citizenship – it designates identity.
In Article 1.3, moreover, Greece recognizes a “Macedonian language,” with the inaccurate clarification that this is pursuant to that language’s recognition in 1977. This creates numerous problems:
First of all, it results in Greece taking a position on an identity dispute between two of its neighbors – FYROM and Bulgaria. Without having any benefit in doing so, it risks insulting the Bulgarian national sentiment, a major mistake in international relations.
Secondly, ratification of the agreement means that this language (without a qualifier) will also be recognized as such under Greek law. Article 1.8 of the Prespes agreement states: “Upon entry into force of this Agreement […] the Parties shall use the name and terminologies of Article 1 (3) for all usages and all purposes erga omnes, that is, domestically, in all their bilateral relations, and in all regional and international organizations and institutions.”
Erga omnes is not restricted to FYROM; the agreement clearly states “the Parties,” which means that Greece will also have to call the language by this name.
The argument we have been hearing that Greece can refer to the language by a different name is simply untrue. The Greek government is trying to pacify the public with inaccuracies.
It is true, therefore, that the Prespes agreement changes FYROM’s name so that it includes a geographical qualifier. It does not, however, prevent the country from laying claim to the identity of the entire region, including Greek Macedonia.
With this agreement, Greece abandons a policy position it has held for 150 years. The argument that the settlement is compatible with the policy of other Greek governments and particularly with the decisions taken in 2008 is odd indeed.
Every past Greek government has sought a change to FYROM’s name because, as per international custom, that would also change what the country’s people were called.
The claim that Greece spent 28 years striving for FYROM to change its name so that it could earn the right to call its people “Macedonians” is simply ludicrous. The Prespes agreement risks creating a huge identity problem for 3 million Greek Macedonians and sparking an explosion of nationalism inside the country.
In our book on the subject, we take a critical approach to the agreement, arguing that it will cause tricky and successive impasses, without constituting a basis for improving relations between the two states and peoples.
But we need to stress that the next few days, as Parliament debates the agreement, promises to be tough. We will also be in for hard times if and when the deal is ratified and its consequences start to become apparent.
It is important, therefore, for all sides to remain calm and collected and avoid extreme rhetoric and behavior. Citizens, furthermore, need to be aware of the new situation the likely ratification of the agreement will create for this country.
Angelos Syrigos is an associate professor of international law and foreign policy at Athens’s Panteion University. Professor Evanthis Hatzivassiliou teaches contemporary history at the University of Athens. They recently co-authored the book on the name deal, “I Symfonia ton Prespon kai to Makedoniko,” published by Patakis.