Has the Prespes accord increased nationalist sentiments?


In the summer of 2018, the prime ministers of Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev respectively, signed the historical Prespes agreement, whereby FYROM would be renamed North Macedonia. At the time, the international community and the European Union in particular, via its High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, congratulated the two governments for making a huge step toward the termination of what has been dubbed the most bizarre case of international dispute.

This state of euphoria did not last long, however. It very soon became evident that the following steps up until the ratification of the agreement by the parliaments of the two countries would be extremely challenging.

In both countries the opposition parties stood firmly against the agreement and mobilized public opinion to contest it. Rallies were organized in Athens and Thessaloniki, bringing together liberals, nationalists, neo-fascists, communists, social democrats and others.

Now that the agreement has been ratified by the Greek Parliament, we can begin to ask some questions about the imprint it might have left on Greek society. Has this agreement, with all the political turmoil it generated, increased nationalist sentiments?

We have attempted to answer this question by focusing on a specific manifestation of nationalism. Instead of looking at survey questions, trying to understand whether Greeks are more willing to say that they are proud of being Greek, we looked at the type of behavior that they are willing to engage in publicly.

A measure that captures this public manifestation of nationalist sentiments is the voluntary display of national flags on balconies or in the windows of houses and apartments.

The flag constitutes the single most salient symbol of national identity. It has been frequently shown that positive sentiments about the national flag are higher among people who classify themselves as nationalists and belong to the right of the political spectrum. This is especially the case in a country such as Greece, with a recent history of right-wing authoritarianism. Without the flag having become taboo in Greek society, as has been the case in other countries that have experienced military coups, there is an unequivocal relationship between the public display of the flag and the political ideology of the right.

Hence, we attempt to answer the following question: Has the Prespes agreement increased the prevalence of flags hanging from Greek balconies?

To answer this question we started by compiling a list of all the streets in Athens. We then randomly selected 315 and walked along them, coding the number of flags per street. Fieldwork took place between January 24 and February 4, 2019. Our coders began coding in the last week of January and finished at the end of February 2019.

To establish a benchmark, we repeated the same procedure in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. Again, 315 streets were randomly selected in the city and members of our research team walked along them during the same period coding Portuguese flags.

To further examine whether differences between Athens and Lisbon were due to the Prespes agreement rather than because Athenians are simply more nationalist than Lisbon residents, we needed to find a way to collect the same information but in previous years. We did this by using the map facilities of Google Earth, which has multiple measures of each street over time, dated with year and month. We divided the yearly observations into three time periods: 2008-09, 2014-15 and 2019.

Figure 1 shows the results. The trends in nationalism before the Prespes agreement in Athens and Lisbon were quite similar. In both cities, there was an increase from below 1 flag per street on average to over 1 flag per street between the periods of 2008-09 and 2014-15 (0.64 to 1.28 in Lisbon; 0.45 to 1.34 in Athens).

However, instead of following the downward trend we found in Lisbon in 2019, the Prespes agreement caused a large increase in the number of flags displayed on Athens balconies.

While the average number of flags per Lisbon street decreased to 0.21 in 2019, Athens witnessed an increase to 2.87. So, while in Lisbon the number of flags in 2019 fell by 1 flag per street on average, in Athens they increased by 1.5 flags per street.

Combining these two differences, we can say that the Prespes agreement increased the number of flags in Athens by approximately 2.5 flags per street. One can only wonder how much steeper this upward trend would have been had we chosen Thessaloniki instead of Athens for our analysis.

One could of course still argue that flags, in general, have become more popular in Greece over time. Figure 2 shows the same analyses, with the difference that this time we look at flags other than national flags. Our coders coded all flags, not only national ones. We can thus repeat our analysis but looking at the trajectory of other flags over time. This is shown in Figure 2 and the take-home point from this graph is that we can refute the alternative explanation that flags became more popular in general. Rather, it's a specific flag that became more prevalent on Greek balconies after the Prespes agreement.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from this exercise, we think that lesson should not be that the agreement had potentially disturbing side effects. Even if that were the case, this is no reason to refrain from implementing policies aimed at alleviating conflict in the Balkans. Rather, this exercise speaks more to the way the political debate was framed during this period and the role of political elites in escalating nationalist sentiments. True, regional identities are strong, deeply felt, and can be activated in front of an agreement that appears to challenge them. Perhaps for this reason it might be worth pointing to the role of political elites, who can either exacerbate these reactions or moderate them with their own stance in the public debate. It seems that this time, they opted for the former.

Elias Dinas holds the Swiss Chair in Federalism, Democracy, and International Governance, European University Institute – while on leave from the University of Oxford. Vicente Valentim is PhD Candidate, European University Institute. Sergi Martinez Soler is PhD Candidate, European University Institute.

The authors would like to thank Maria Niari, Mariana Mendes, Tiago Carvalho, Spyridoula Loukopoulou and Argyro Psichi-Fili for excellent research assistance.