Relations between Greece and Macedonia** are at a pivotal point.
One hundred and thirty-seven states recognize Macedonia under its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia. However, some Greek politicians reject the name.
They believe the name hijacks Greek history and culture. They also fear that Macedonia has territorial ambitions over the Greek province of the same name. Citing the "name issue," Greece is blocking Macedonia’s membership in NATO and the European Union.
Macedonia’s previous government used Greek obstructionism to bolster its nationalist base.
The atmosphere improved dramatically when Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, SDSM came to power in June 2017.
Zaev has proactively taken steps to assuage Greek concerns. Representatives of Greece and Macedonia who are meeting this week in Brussels will have an opportunity to make progress on one of Europe’s last intractable conflicts.
Civil society in both countries is clamoring for change. Columbia University has been facilitating contact and cooperation between Greeks and Macedonians since 2015. Our partners are promoting positive measures, with tangible benefits to people from both countries.
In March 2015, Columbia University launched the Southeast Europe Dialogue Project. Columbia created a web of contacts and cooperation between civil society in Greece and Macedonia, bringing partners together, helping them think strategically about joint activities, and providing financial assistance.
For example, Columbia facilitated contact between the Chambers of Commerce of Northern Greece, SEVE, and the Macedonian Chambers of Commerce, MCC, who signed a memorandum of understanding committing to work together.
SEVE and MCC now meet regularly and exchange trade delegations; Greek business leaders visited Skopje in September 2017 to discuss agro-industries, viticulture, and construction projects. SEVE published a roadmap – "Trade and Investment Opportunities between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia."
Journalists from Greece and Macedonia conducted joint interviews with Prime Minister Zaev, President Gjorge Ivanov, and Thessaloniki’s Mayor Ioannis Boutaris. Former Foreign Minister Nikola Poposki published an op-ed in Kathimerini, one of Greece’s leading newspapers.
Greece’s Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias was interviewed by Macedonia’s Telma TV. Macedonian journalists met Greek officials from the Interior Ministry, National Police, and humanitarian activists at the Diavata Refugee Camp outside Thessaloniki. Greek and Macedonian journalists reported extensively on conditions at Diavata.
At a roundtable in Athens hosted by the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), journalists explored a mechanism for regular exchange of information enhancing reporting of "the other."
A joint publication – "The Balkan Human Corridor" – included contributions from scholars at Pantheion University in Athens and Saints Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, as well other universities in south-east Europe.
Senior faculty at Pantheion and Saints Cyril and Methodius University brought post-doctoral students together for a shared history project. They published a collection of essays called "Balkan Crossroads." Faculty and students now interact regularly, attend conferences together, and have developed close scholarly and personal relationships.
ELIAMEP and the Skopje Institute for Political Research conducted a series of public opinion surveys on mutual perceptions, including the name issue. They developed parallel questionnaires, survey methodology, and dissemination strategies including events in Athens and Skopje. Updated public opinion surveys will be released early next year.
Hydrologists and water officials held a series of meetings on resource monitoring, information sharing, and flood control. They are working towards the establishment of a Vardar/Axios River Commission.
To this end, they collaborated on a preliminary assessment of sustainable water and river basin resources. Officials from Greece and Macedonia exchanged hydrological data and discussed watershed resource requirements for different sectors, including farming.
Many local partners stand out. None has been more dynamic than Yiannis Boutaris, a principled maverick who relentlessly pursues cooperation. Columbia played a catalytic role, initially arranging meetings for Boutaris with Zaev and Ivanov.
Boutaris and Ivanov are discussing a canal connecting the Danube and Sava rivers. A regatta from Veles to Thessaloniki is planned for the spring. He and his team have been valuable partners, encouraging municipalities on both sides of the border.
Columbia’s project does not directly address the name issue. We focused on confidence-building measures, preparing the ground for constructive bilateral negotiations. Columbia was transparent and independent, informing senior foreign ministry officials from both countries of our activities.
For sure, confidence building is hard work. Our efforts were beset by obstacles: an economic crisis in Greece; a domestic political crisis in Macedonia; and the refugee and migrant crisis that effected both countries. Nonetheless, the participants persevered, forging meaningful professional and personal ties.
How will governments build on the efforts of their civil society?
The 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest affirmed the need to resolve the name issue before Macedonia could integrate into Euro-Atlantic institutions, such as NATO and the EU. Relations have been stuck for almost a decade.
To break the logjam, Macedonia is proposing NATO membership under the name "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia."
Article 11 of the 1993 Interim Accord allows Macedonia to apply for membership in international organizations using its recognized name. NATO membership would build momentum towards a full and final settlement of the name issue.
However, Greece insists on resolving the name issue first. It is also concerned about use of the term "Macedonian" to characterize the identity of Macedonians. Greece refuses to acknowledge the Macedonian language, saying that it is actually a dialect of Bulgarian.
Macedonia has floated alternative names such as the "Republic of Northern Macedonia" and the "Republic of Upper Macedonia.” The "Republic of Vardar Macedonia" and "New Macedonia" are other options. Macedonia could apply for NATO membership using one of these alternatives.
Macedonia is trying to create a climate conducive to the talks. It may rename Alexander the Great Airport as part of a deal to resume direct flights between Skopje and Athens. Macedonia may also rename Alexander the Great Highway, the E-75 motorway that connects Skopje to Greece.
Removing references to "Alexander the Great" would mollify Greek nationalists who feel Macedonia is absconding with their cultural heritage. Macedonia has also proposed to review textbooks and remove irredentist messages.
It will be difficult for Greece to compromise. The Greek government includes Defense Minister Panos Kammenos, who believes that Macedonia represents a security threat.
Nationalist Greeks are insecure about Greece’s northern border, which was only established in 1913 after the Balkan War. Kammenos adamantly opposes compromise.
Now is the time to act. Kotzias has called 2018 a “watershed” year. Both countries have elections in 2019.
Greek-Macedonian reconciliation is a win-win. Greece will benefit financially from good neighborly relations. Last year, two million Macedonians visited Greece for shopping and tourism. More will come.
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras would garner prestige and respect as a strong leader. Resolving issues with Macedonia would strengthen Greece’s sovereignty at a time when Turkey is demanding to upgrade the Lausanne Treaty, which created the boundaries of modern Greece and making designs on Greek territory in Western Thrace.
Resolving issues with Macedonia would also build on improved relations between Greece and other neighbors, Albania and Bulgaria.
Macedonia will benefit through integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions, which will consolidate its democracy, free market reforms, and fight against corruption. The rising tide will contribute to social harmony, promoting the minority rights of ethnic Albanians as enshrined in the Ohrid Framework Agreement, which ended Macedonia’s internal conflict in 2003.
The United States is an ally of both Greece and Macedonia. It wants to deepen cooperation with both countries to stem the tide of radicalization and extremism in the Western Balkans.
Washington wants to expand its military presence in Greece and set up new bases in the country. Improved cooperation can also help manage the possibility of another refugee and migrant crisis.
The EU, beset by Brexit, needs to show it is still viable as a proponent of peace in south-east Europe and beyond.
Progress requires vision and courage from statesmen in Greece and Macedonia. By intensifying mediation efforts, the UN, US and EU can help the parties reach agreement.
Civil society interests can be a can be a springboard propelling an agreement, or a safety net when talks are at an impasse.
* David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He directs Columbia’s "Dialogue Project in Southeast Europe." Phillips worked on the Balkans as a senior adviser to the State Department during the Clinton Administration. He also served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs expert to the State Department under Presidents Bush and Obama.
* * The use of the term "Macedonia" to denote the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) is the author's and does not represent Kathimerini’s position. Greece objects to the use of the name "Macedonia" by the neighboring country, contesting that it implies territorial aspirations.