North Macedonia: gains, losses, and a precedent

North Macedonia: gains, losses, and a precedent

After a quarter of a century marked by acerbity, confrontation and occasional insults, Athens and Skopje have reached a compromise. It is painful for both sides.

We all knew that any accord to emerge from the name talks would entail concessions. Otherwise, we would have reached a deal a lot earlier. That is the nature of compromise. Now it is up to each of us to decide whether we choose to see the glass as half-full or half-empty.

The deal has both positive and negative aspects. A composite name with a geographical qualifier for universal use – if this is indeed the case remains to be clarified – has been Greece’s official position for the past decade, ever since New Democracy’s Costas Karamanlis was prime minister and Dora Bakoyannis his foreign affairs chief.

It was the position that allowed Greece to score a win at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest. If Greece at the time had adopted an absolute stance we would never have got the positive decision of the summit pegging FYROM’s NATO membership to a resolution of the name dispute.

I am not speaking theoretically here. I was at that summit in Bucharest and felt the pressure. I saw the look on the faces of Karamanlis, Bakoyannis and Defense Minister Evangelos Meimarakis. It was a tough situation. If Greece had gone into the discussion with maximalist demands, we would have lost.

I remember shortly after the famous phone call between Bakoyannis and her American counterpart Condoleezza Rice, meeting outside the State Department with an American diplomat involved in Greek issues. He looked at me almost with hostility and said, “That’s no way for anyone to speak to the US secretary of state.” It was not a pleasant time, but Greece persevered, largely because it maintained its firm but conciliatory stance.

Back to the present. Did Greece get everything it wanted? Of course not. The negatives foremost include the recognition of a “Macedonian” nationality and language, even if it comes with an explanation that they are of Slavic origin and are unrelated to ancient Greek Macedonia.

A lot of mistakes have been made by a lot of people. Some were not bold enough, others made exaggerated demands. Regardless, we have come to a deal now. It’s painful, and many of us are not happy with many of its provisions. But after many years, the international community is praising Greece and we are looking at the possibility of recouping our influence in our neighborhood.

If we back down from this position, it will come at a great cost to Greece’s image and its ability to play the role it deserves in the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Last but not least, whatever happens in the next days, weeks and months, the world community will know that a composite name is not only a compromise  Greece could live with, but it has also been accepted by our neighbor’s democratically elected government.

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