Which issues should have been addressed by the Prespes agreement?
A common criticism of the Prespes agreement between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is that its scope should have been limited to the name of the country without addressing any other issues. For example, a recent article titled “Why the Prespes agreement is a mistake” by Apostolos Doxiadis states: “Nothing else was required as our national agreement with Skopje other than to agree on a composite name erga omnes to consent to FYROM’s accession to NATO. Any additional line entered into the agreement was nationally harmful.”
However, the reality is that the long-standing differences between the two countries go beyond the name issue: Since independence, FYROM has systematically raised irredentist claims against Greece and a right to defend the interests of a so-called “Macedonian minority” within Greece’s borders. These issues were manifested in passages of FYROM’s constitution, as well as history books, with children taught that they are descendants of Philip II of Macedon and Alexander the Great.
The Prespes agreement allowed Greece to intervene on these important issues. Those paragraphs in FYROM’s constitution with irredentist content have now been modified appropriately. The same applies to constitutional references to a “Macedonian minority” in Greece. Textbooks are currently under review by a bilateral committee. To the best of my knowledge, the Greek side has already flagged certain instances of content that should be changed.
These successes would be feasible only if the negotiations between the two countries touched upon issues beyond the name. Consequently, the existing scope of the agreement was an overriding duty for Greece.
Another criticism of the agreement is based on the view that Greece has wrongly made concessions on identity issues, thus legitimizing a permanent claim on the region of Greek Macedonia by FYROM.
For example, in the same article, Doxiadis eloquently claims: “No foreign country, let alone one outside the European Union, defines how Greece self-identifies, and Greece does not define how any foreign country, let alone one outside the European Union, self-identifies. So why should it be good to do so for FYROM? It seems like we do not understand this simple thing: It is one thing for another country to do something of its own accord and free will, and yet another thing altogether to do so with our approval and signature. In the first case, they are responsible for their act. In the second, we are their accessory.”
Indeed, the Prespes agreement essentially recognizes something already granted to FYROM by the global community 28 years ago: that a Macedonian identity is not exclusively claimed only by Greeks but also by Slavic Macedonians. However, in this context, the agreement succeeds in placing boundaries on the identity of Greece’s neighbors, at least as far as this has repercussions on Greek history and the Macedonian identity of northern Greek people.
How has this been achieved in practice? Article 7 of the agreement specifies that: (i) in relation to Greece, the terms “Macedonia” and “Macedonian” denote not only the area and the people of the northern region of Greece, but also the civilization, culture and heritage of Greek Macedonia from antiquity to the present day; (ii) the history and cultural heritage of the people of North Macedonia are distinctly different from those of Greek Macedonia; and (iii) the official language of North Macedonia is not related to the ancient Greek civilization and cultural heritage of northern Greece.
Thus, for the first time in history, Skopje signed an official document detailing that Slavic Macedonians are distinctly different from the ancient Macedonians in terms of identity, language and cultural heritage. This is one of the main reasons why the agreement has been labeled as “treacherous” by FYROM’s President Gjorge Ivanov and the country’s main opposition.
If the scope of the Prespes agreement did not touch upon identity issues, Greece’s neighbors would have every official right to claim that they are descendants of Alexander the Great, while irredentist content in their books and constitution would remain. This scenario would not solve the problems faced by Greece, but would perpetuate them. In other words, this scenario would be nationally harmful.
The fact that the agreement recognizes that Greece’s neighbors claim a Macedonian identity (distinctly different from that of Greek Macedonia) does not legitimize FYROM’s potential expansive aspirations toward Greece in the future. On the contrary, a more pressing danger is present when the rest of the world forms the impression that the term “Macedonia” refers exclusively to FYROM, that Alexander was “Macedonian” but not Greek, and when it notes that all the historical monuments of the ancient Macedonian kingdom are located within Greek territory.
The Prespes agreement represents a major improvement compared to the international status quo over the last 28 years, one that has been increasingly unfavorable to Greece. The classic question, familiar to any Greek with friends overseas, asking, “Was Alexander the Great a Macedonian or a Greek?” will now be replaced by the question “Was Alexander the Great from North Macedonia or the Greek region of Macedonia?” The simple answer to this question is where the debate ends.
Failure by the Greek Parliament to ratify the Prespes agreement – on the pretext that a more favorable agreement is feasible in the future – would lock in the current unfavorable status quo for Greece: FYROM would continue to be recognized as the “Republic of Macedonia” by an overwhelming majority of UN countries, its citizens would continue to carry passports stating their nationality simply as “Macedonian,” while their language would continue to be recognized as “Macedonian,” without an official statement by FYROM that this language has nothing to do with ancient Greek civilization and the ancient Macedonians.
Dr Vasilis Sarafidis is an associate professor of econometrics, and an executive member of the Australian Institute of Macedonian Studies.