FYROM anxious but still uncompromising

SKOPJE – The cafes on the cobblestone bank of the Vardar River that crosses downtown Skopje fill up early in the morning with young people, who sit around talking mainly about sports. As the tug of war about the name of their country becomes more intense, one thinks twice about saying one is Greek and a journalist to boot. Like their counterparts in Greece, youngsters here are passionate about the name «Macedonia,» and around 1,000 of them showed it in violent demonstrations outside the Greek Liaison Office a few days ago. The climate may not be as hostile as it was in 1993-95, when the embargo by Athens gave people in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) the impression that Greece was out to stifle their economy, but things are still not calm. Now they are bitter at the Greek threat to block NATO accession if they do not reach a compromise on the name. «Why do you want to ruin our future? We young people dream of becoming like you Europeans one day, studying at better universities, going to and from Greece without passports. Why do you insist on the name? That can’t change. We are Macedonians; what’s wrong with that?» Risto, 18, is studying electronics. He’s a keen fan of the most popular soccer team, Vardar. He took part in the demonstrations outside the Greek Liaison Office with other members of a fan club but left, he said, because he didn’t like it when the others started throwing stones. The political leadership has realized that Athens was serious about using its veto in April to block Skopje’s accession to NATO. «It’s a convenient dilemma our prime minister has presented, that if we have to choose between NATO and the name, we’ll choose the latter,» a former diplomat told me, «but the consequences of not joining would be disastrous, and that’s what everyone is counting on.» Speculating on the outcome if FYROM does not compromise on the name and cannot join NATO, Former Foreign Affairs Minister Denko Maleski told Globus magazine that it might be forced into a compromise later under much less favorable circumstances. But a compromise with Greece will not be painless for FYROM. Since 1991, when FYROM gained its independence, all political parties have been in line with the public’s determination not to retreat. Now they will have to convince the people of the need for concessions. That would be a shock for the Slav-Macedonians and could lead to political friction. However, the ethnic Albanians in Tetovo, absorbed in developments in Kosovo, are not so concerned. They are more interested in participating in the negotiations, and in not having a name that designates a Slav identity, than in whether it is a simple or composite name. «We won’t accept any name change unless we participate in the decision making,» said deputy Xhevat Ademi of Ali Ahmeti’s Democratic Union for Integration. «Public opinion is changeable here, as it is everywhere. The government, political parties, and the media could present a just compromise solution to the public. The time has come. This issue needs to be resolved, without winners and losers. Because if one wins and the other loses, we’ll have ongoing hostility between two neighbors. Personally, I am optimistic that there will be positive developments for both sides,» said journalist Atanas Kirovski. Meanwhile, there is a sense of anxiety, as the Slav-Macedonians may react if they feel that a compromise on the name represents a threat to their ethnic identity. Diplomats and entrepreneurs believe that failure to reach a compromise will hurt both sides. Greece and FYROM have forged strong economic ties in recent years, and communities on both sides have opened up communication channels. The Greek Liaison Office in Skopje issues more than 500 visas a day, and in summer tens of thousands of people from FYROM visit the beaches of northern Greece. A rupture between the countries would spoil all of that. Residents of southern FYROM protested vehemently when the government recently decided to reintroduce the demand that Greeks use passports to visit and the local economy was heavily hit. «We are worried about developments, because they are certain to affect the atmosphere, whatever the outcome,» commented a Greek businessman who is active in FYROM. So far no problems have emerged for the hundreds of Greek firms in FYROM. Pressure on Skopje from abroad, mainly from the USA, to be less intransigent has been ramped up in view of the upcoming NATO summit. Washington and Brussels have to deal with enough fuss over Kosovo and do not need another headache in a troubled region, especially not one that will perpetuate friction between Greece and FYROM if the issue of the name is not resolved. FYROM professes itself ready to join NATO since it has met all the conditions. It even reinstated political dialogue with the Albanians in Tetovo, which was a non-negotiable prerequisite for accession. The major obstacle now is Greece’s demand for a mutually acceptable solution for the name. With the prospect of a failure on the horizon, the FYROM government has stirred up anti-Greek feeling among the population, blaming Greece in advance in case of non-accession. At the same time, politically and economically powerful figures and the church are fueling the public’s concern about any sidestepping of FYROM’s constitutional name. The Coordinating Committee of Macedonians from the Aegean part of Macedonia, which is active in the United States, Canada and Australia, wrote to the president of FYROM asking for «no concession on the constitutional name,» and arguing that one reason Greece has insisted on its position is that it has «a huge Macedonian minority.»