Ending the ‘Macedonian’ dispute

Greece’s dispute with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) deeply engaged the country in the early 1990s. Mass demonstrations, intense popular passions and labyrinthine partisan politics created an explosive diplomatic situation. The apple of discord focused on the «rights of ownership» of the appellation «Macedonia.» In 1994, Greek sanctions, a comprehensive trade embargo against the small state, escalated tensions and created considerable displeasure among EU Commission and Council circles. Things improved following the signing of an Interim Accord in September 1995 that bypassed the name issue and normalized bilateral relations in most areas, especially in the realm of economics. Greece’s business community in subsequent years has invested more than 460 million euros in FYROM, which has created at least 8,000 jobs. Furthermore, Athens has steadfastly supported the new republic’s territorial integrity (especially during the 2001 ethnic crisis) and has consistently eschewed the use of inflammatory rhetoric, while budgeting some 74,840 million euros for FYROM as part of the Greek Plan for the reconstruction of the Balkans. To this day, however, the name issue remains unresolved – a thorn in the otherwise remarkably improved bilateral relationship – with the potential of a destabilizing relapse in Greek-FYROM relations. It is time now to resolve it, if not immediately then certainly after the upcoming Greek general elections. The temptation to continue indefinitely with the current composite name of FYROM should be resisted by Athens and Skopje, because inertia contains a number of potential difficulties for Greece. First of all, there is the possibility that the USA may in the near future recognize FYROM as the «Republic of Macedonia» (in which case a series of states will almost certainly follow suit). The US State Department named FYROM as the Republic of Macedonia in its list of the «coalition of the willing» during the war against Iraq, and again, more recently, it did the same in a bilateral agreement to exclude US citizens from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. A formal recognition by the US along these lines will weaken the UN’s designation of FYROM as the republic’s interim name, handing Greece a humiliating defeat without any FYROM concessions in return. Worse still, such an outcome would deeply disturb Greek-American relations, accentuating and perpetuating mutual stereotypes of distrust, mistrust and «backstabbing.» Secondly, as time passes, with Greece conforming to norms and expectations that derive from membership in the EU, the Greek government will feel constrained to make a series of unilateral adjustments, while losing potential bargaining chips that could have helped secure a more tolerable agreement on FYROM’s final designation. For example the Greek Parliament, on March 27, 2003, endorsed FYROM’s Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU. More recently, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed its willingness to resolve outstanding problems with Slav-Macedonian political refugees that date back to the Greek Civil War. The merits and timing of these decisions could be debated, but the fact remains that no concessions from Skopje on the name issue have been forthcoming. Thirdly, continued reliance on the term «FYROM» simply solidifies the worldwide practice, especially by the international mass media, of referring to our neighboring state simply as Macedonia, regardless of UN Security Council resolutions and Greek sensitivities. In reaching a final agreement on the name issue, Athens should not be deterred by accusations of inconsistency, given a marked shift from earlier positions. As Winston S. Churchill once argued: «A statesman in contact with the moving current of events and anxious to keep the ship on an even keel and steer a steady course may lean all his weight now on one side and now on the other. His arguments in each case when contrasted can be shown to be not only very different in character but contradictory in spirit and opposite in direction: Yet his object will throughout have remained the same. His resolve, his wishes, his outlook may have been unchanged; his methods may be verbally irreconcilable. We cannot call this inconsistency. In fact, it may be claimed to be the truest consistency. The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose.» Today, Greece’s «dominating purpose» in the Balkans, incidentally enjoying broad bipartisan and popular support, is to cultivate opportunities offered by continued stability, and at the same time to promote the region’s democratization, modernization and European orientation. The pursuit of a final agreement on the name issue should clearly be seen in this light. With respect to future negotiations, Athens could remind the Skopje authorities that they agreed in 1995 to the FYROM designation, subject to a future settlement on an agreed appellation. The obvious compromise will rest on the premise that neither side will have the right to monopolize the name Macedonia. Perhaps a name such as the «United Republic of Macedonia,» differentiating the country from the Greek and Bulgarian Macedonian provinces respectively, would help untangle the Gordian knot. It will certainly suggest that no irredentist goals are being entertained in Skopje, for surely a state that is «united» has reached its territorial completion. Furthermore, the proposed name would imply the willingness of Slav-Macedonians and ethnic Albanians to enjoy the privileges of citizenship in a secure and ethnically pluralist democracy. Finally, such a proposal would certainly enjoy broad support from the international community. It is crucial to stress, however, that Athens’s acceptance of what to the Greek public would appear a painful compromise, should be accompanied by some reasonable concessions by Skopje as well. Perhaps one of the greatest mistakes of successive Greek governments in previous years has been a tendency to concentrate efforts on FYROM’s name, while largely ignoring aspects of education and identity. These are indeed the areas amounting to a new «big cultural package deal» that ought to be Athens’s primary concern, in conjunction with a name deal. Concurrently, particular emphasis ought to be given to FYROM’s textbooks. A group of well-established scholars from both sides should pursue the systematic study of textbooks, aiming at accuracy, fairness and tolerance. In addition, the bilateral funding of exchange programs for both students and academics ought to be accelerated, thus nicely complementing the currently thriving economic relationship. Exchanges and programs of cooperation at the level of NGOs and civil society should also be encouraged and pursued. The Macedonian Question has been described with some hyperbole as «one of the most explosive issues in the universe.» The past decade has witnessed its rekindling, with the ethnic Albanian rebellion posing the most recent and serious challenge. FYROM’s future ultimately lies with its long-term integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. It is within this context that Athens and Skopje ought to pursue a lasting resolution of the name issue, albeit in a manner that takes into consideration not only political realities and potential dangers, but also the sensitivities of the Greek people that are firmly based on a specific and real historical and cultural legacy. (1) Theodore Couloumbis is professor emeritus at the University of Athens and general director of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). His co-edited volume «Greece in the Twentieth Century» has just been released by Frank Cass in London. Dr Aristotle Tziampiris is lecturer of international relations at the University of Piraeus and research fellow at ELIAMEP. His study «International Relations and the Macedonian Question» is forthcoming.