Behind the scenes on the Macedonian issue

Behind the scenes on the Macedonian issue

Greek governments, from Konstantinos Mitsotakis (1990-03) to Antonis Samaras (2012-15), followed an ineffective secret diplomacy, while accepting, without admitting it, a double (or triple) name for what was then the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), with the word “Macedonia” included in every iteration.

At least that’s what former foreign minister (2015-19) Nikos Kotzias claims in his book “The Logic of the Solution: Political Theory and Practice in International Relations – Truths about the Macedonian Issue and the Negotiations,” to be published this week by Gutenberg. The former minister and architect of the Prespes Agreement uses classified cables and other Foreign Ministry documents to back up his argument, accusing all political parties of the 1990s of “inadequate theoretical background, limited grasp of geopolitical developments and lack of intellectual preparation in view of global changes.”

It would be unfair, however, to approach such a book purely in term of political polemics, since this part occupies only 130 of the book’s 1,008 pages. Even if this book comes to be disparaged by the many detractors of a politician who was a loner and a stranger to the Greek logic of good relations with everybody at any cost, “The Logic of the Solution” provokes thinking on many levels. The author has never been accused of excessive intellectual modesty and this will not happen now, either. 

Besides the legitimate intention of writing the history in which himself he was a protagonist, Kotzias attempts something more ambitious, even if he does not directly admit it. Using the “Macedonian issue” as an example, he wants to lay down the principle of a school of thought in foreign policy – a “philosophical toolbox.” 

Many will accuse the author of lack of self-criticism, but the self-criticism is most likely there, under the guise of a meditation on the limits of the attainable. Kotzias admits that perfection cannot be attained in life, but searches in history, philosophy, political theory and psychology for those terms and tools that allow us to retain as many features of the “ideal” as we can during the painful process of actualization. 

The book demands respect for the sheer scope of its inquiry, captivates the reader with the liveliness of the writing, but is most enjoyable when the author takes on some sacred cows.

“[Konstantinos] Mitsotakis was a man seeking a solution, but had not sufficiently comprehended its logic,” he writes. “Andreas Papandreou’s policy was strongly unbalanced,” he adds. “A show of tough politics with the embargo Greece unilaterally declared on February 16, 1994 and [then] full-speed retreat with the Interim Agreement imposed from the outside and which was never submitted to Parliament.” He calls the Simitis period (1996-2004) “a period of secret diplomacy on the name issue,” using secret cables by Greece’s Ambassador in Washington Christos Zacharakis in 1994 and at the end of 1996.

On November 19, 1996, Foreign Minister Theodoros Pangalos apparently told Ambassador Zacharakis that Athens would prefer “Republic of Macedonia – Skopje” as the neighboring country’s name. The Karamanlis government (2004-2009) followed the same logic, even though the author considers that, by vetoing FYROM’s candidacy as a NATO member at the Bucharest Summit in 2008, Karamanlis in effect nullified the 1995 Interim Agreement that called for exactly that (joining NATO as FYROM even without a solution on the name issue). After Bucharest, the government in Skopje started realizing that they must join a “logic of solution.”

The former foreign minister obviously aims to prove that the 2018 Prespes Agreement that he negotiated, with a single name for both domestic and international use (erga omnes) and with a revision of North Macedonia's constitution abandoning wording that favored irredentism, was a greater success than the one all previous governments and foreign ministers were seeking as realistic. The chronicle of the negotiation consumes 300 dense pages full of anecdotes and psychological portraits of the protagonists, but also includes a detailed analysis of the agreement terms. As expected, the book includes tough criticisms of Alexis Tsipras’ and Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ governments regarding the way they have treated the agreement since 2018. A book that is certain to provoke lengthy debates – and, finally, not always low-key ones.

Summer 2017, Dimitrov visit

“…It was his first trip abroad as foreign minister of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. A seasoned diplomat, he boldly came to visit me in Athens, despite being suspicious of me – he was afraid I would entrap him and felt uneasy. So was I. I hoped we would work toward a solution, but I was not certain we would succeed. What I felt certain about – based on my experience – was that we ought to build trust. I also knew that many things change during a negotiation. That, often, one enters a negotiation with one set of assumptions and ends up with another; that antagonistic relations can turn cooperative and conflicting positions can become a convergence of interests, at least regarding the need for a solution and the benefits both sides can derive from it. […]

“I noted our unease and a lurking suspicion. I suspect Dimitrov didn’t want to be suspicious and certainly neither did I. But it was there. We both wanted to be sure of the other’s motive. To me, it was important to seek out the positive attributes of my interlocutor. I would have to find safeguards to face any problems and to build a trusting relationship. I believe Nikola Dimitrov wanted the same thing. That is why, by the end of the visit, we had relaxed and we each tried to see the other in a positive light…

Scene from second negotiation

“…From all that, I learned that, when you prepare for a negotiation, and even as you sit at the negotiating table, it is better to listen than to talk. As I say publicly, ‘Speak sparingly, so you can be heard.’ Moreover, when someone talks, they should take note of Bertolt Brecht’s injunction never to forget that one’s ear does not receive the other’s speech with the same perception; they may not even be on the same plane. When the other talks, you should study their body language, especially the eyes and smile, if it is there. You should also carefully follow the reactions of their own team, whether it is satisfied or not, ready to question their leader or not, why and to what extent. You should try to understand what part of the speech is prepared and what spontaneous. If the opposite party is insecure or excessively self-confident.


“I always tried to find the reasons behind the other side’s points of insistence in a negotiation. Their fears, worries and inhibitions. Dimitrov and I discussed those as well during the process that led us to [the] Prespes [Agreement].

“I could claim that the multiple accusations and threats both foreign ministers faced – especially me – helped the negotiation, something which those who insulted and blackmailed us failed to realize. But such is dialectic and the majesty of life. Because, since these ‘dangerous events’ existed, Dimitrov and I talked about them, as well: how they bothered our families; how they worried our collaborators; how our governments and the relative agencies reacted or why they failed to react.


“It was important during the negotiation to address mainly the foreign minister of the future North Macedonia, rather than [US diplomat and United Nations mediator in the name dispute Matthew] Nimetz. Increasingly, we foreign ministers met alone in order to make some progress. When we had disagreements, when we fell back into our positions, Nimetz was there to be the mediator. It was also important, during the negotiation, to discover how much pressure one could put on the other side. When insistence took threatening tones. At which point we could get the feeling that negotiation would lead nowhere. We ought to be measured, both in our friendly attitude and our pressure.


“My experience shows me that ‘relaxation moments’ are often called for. A momentary relaxation could be achieved by teasing, telling a joke or presenting a position in an obviously extreme manner, outside the main negotiation itself. This method seems to me necessary to help move along even the most difficult conversation. A more general realization is even more necessary. This couldn’t happen during the day, not even during the lunch break, because that was the moment to brief our respective delegations and be briefed by them. Dinner, however, was different.

“Most times, we dined at two tables: one for the delegations and one for the two ministers, alone. Our dinner conversations created the good vibes for the formal talks to follow. We both respected each other and listened carefully. In a relaxed setting, without minutes taken, we exchanged views as to how we could solve our problems. We explained how we saw our negotiations and our visions about the two countries’ future relations. We talked about our families, the people dear to us.

“These conversations brought us closer. We no longer treated each other like an adversary, suspiciously…

From negotiations to Sounio

“…Dimitrov had mentioned two names he wanted and which his government would accept: ‘Republic of Independent Macedonia’ and ‘Republic of Macedonia – Skopje.’ We had rejected the second name long ago (see Part 2, Chapter 4 on the name issue). The other one, I was hearing for the first time. The plus was that it did not have the adjective before ‘Republic’ or after ‘Macedonia,’ but it was also not acceptable. It contained, inadvertently I believe, a suggestion that could be seized upon by the irredentists: that is, there is an ‘independent Macedonia’ and, by extension, a ‘dependent’ one. Some would seek to interpret the name as an invitation to ‘independent Macedonia’ to liberate the ‘dependent’ one. Thus, we would have returned to Macedonian irredentism, even inadvertently.


“After a couple of hours, we abandoned Nimetz and the directors of our diplomatic cabinets and continued the discussion on our own. Why did I take Dimitrov and leave the negotiation room, where everybody else was? Because Nimetz started saying that everyone would like us to conclude one of these days and go to the NATO Summit so FYROM could join with the agreed name. I told him to stop and not go further: I emphasized there was no way for this to happen because, as I explained to him again, first, the agreement had to be signed. Then, it would go to the respective parliaments for approval and, after FYROM revised its constitution, then we would contact third parties. So, he ought to forget any connection between our negotiations and any summit, be it NATO or EU. Once again, I estimated that Nimetz was useful and helpful on some inflection points, but that some difficult issues were better discussed with Dimitrov alone.

“We got two chairs and a table and moved them under a tree. The time of the name had come.


“The ensuing discussion also lasted three hours.

“All this time, we had often discussed the name with Dimitrov. But these discussions were neither exhaustive nor binding, more exploratory in nature. I believed, and still do, that’s how it should be. We ought first to build trust in one another, both us two and our delegations. Both sides, within themselves, but also between themselves, ought to adopt a pro-solution mentality. Define red lines and objections, our ‘wants’ and also the positive prospects. Having done this, we had created the conditions to solve the original issue.

“Nimetz had again submitted his proposal with the five names I mentioned in Part 2, Chapter 4. We had sporadically mentioned them during negotiations. One proposal was ‘Republic of Macedonia (Skopje) or Republic of Macedonia – Skopje.’ The first variant was worse that the second, because of the parenthesis, which, taken for what it was, would quickly be forgotten. But the second variant was also unacceptable, for a simple reason: It was not a composite name, but an addition to the ‘Republic of Macedonia.’ It could be construed as a transitional name, to be simplified in the future. 

“The FYROM side insisted on one of the two variants, because both had been accepted in the past by both New Democracy and PASOK/Movement for Change. But I had explained already, I would not accept either.

“The second name was ‘Republic of Macedonia of the Vardar.’ Since it contained ‘of the,’ the proposal had its positive aspects. There was the problem, however, that the River Vardar traverses both countries: in Greece, it is known as the Axios. Of course, one could argue that the name Vardar made a clear distinction from the Axios of our Macedonia. So this name had its pros and cons. However, the FYROM government did not want it because the name was associated with the fascist interwar Yugoslavia. 

“The third name, ‘New Macedonia,’ was liked by my friends in Thessaloniki, although it could be misconstrued as the ‘New Macedonia’ being the inheritor of the ‘old’ one. But the other side did not like the name, especially the ruling Social Democrats, who didn’t want a name that symbolized a break with their socialist past.

“The fourth name was ‘Upper Macedonia’ and Dimitrov was decisively against. This was because the only country with ‘Upper’ as part of its name (Upper Volta), disappeared. [NOTE: It did not – it is now Burkina Faso]. So, the name was, in a way, a bad omen.

“There remained the fifth name…”

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