Things don’t look good in Skopje

Things don’t look good in Skopje

The signs bode ill right from the get-go in North Macedonia, after the Balkan country’s newly elected president kicked off her tenure with an unnecessary swipe at Greece, causing ripples on what were otherwise calm waters in bilateral relations between the two neighbors. The 70-year-old constitutional law professor took it upon herself to create turbulence with Athens even though what North Macedonia needs right now is friends and allies, and neighbors with no designs on it, so it can continue making progress on its path to European Union membership – the ultimate goal.

Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova’s decision to refer to her country as “Macedonia” in her swearing-in on Sunday makes sense in some respects. It reflects the nationalist politician’s beliefs and her pre-election promises, even though she flouted the instructions of the parliamentary speaker, who asked that she take her oath using the constitutional “North Macedonia.”

Where her decision doesn’t make sense is that she is no longer speaking as an ordinary citizen, nor as a candidate addressing a pre-election rally. She is the president and her oath – which she violated from the very first moment – is to protect the constitution of the country, which is officially called Republic of North Macedonia.

Was it patriotic grandstanding from an academic who is, by all appearances, ignorant of the realities of politics and geopolitics, and who shot to the top post on the wave caused by the collapse of the socialists? Or had been instructed by her her party – as she claimed in her campaign – to defy the inevitable reactions from Athens and possibly from other Western allies, who recognize the country as North Macedonia?

The 70-year-old president took it upon herself to create turbulence with Athens even though what North Macedonia needs right now is friends and allies

We will know if the latter is the case very soon, when the government is sworn in and the newly elected prime minister, Hristijan Mickoski, makes his first program statement. Should they follow in the president’s footsteps, the new government in Skopje will be assuming full responsibility for upsetting relations with Greece and any impact this may have on the country’s relationship with NATO, which has stated that the Prespa Agreement cannot be called into question.

Siljanovska had been advised – and not just by Athens – to exercise restraint, so it was hardly surprising to hear shocked whispers from the audience, which mainly comprised foreign diplomats, when she ignored the parliamentary speaker and swore on the constitution of a country that doesn’t exist. Greek Ambassador Sofia Filippidou’s departure from the room was also inevitable.

Siljanovska appears to have chosen to take the risk of acting according to what her heart was telling her rather than what is required by her new title and office. She will soon be required to approve the constitutional amendments – vindicating Bulgaria and with Europe’s consent – recognizing the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia, another agreement the new president and her party have opposed.

Regardless of what comes next, the signs sent by the new president in Skope are anything but optimistic and the country’s new government will have to be prepared to deal with the fallout.

Athens, for its part, should refrain from acting on impulse and stoking the nationalist fervor of the neighboring country’s new administration.

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