Macedonia and Greece sign historic name change


Greece and Macedonia have signed a preliminary deal that renames Macedonia and promises to end a dispute that has vexed the Balkans for decades. If ratified, it could pave the way for both European Union and NATO enlargement.

Prime ministers Alexis Tsipras of Greece and Zoran Zaev of Macedonia agreed in mid-June to change the name, formally Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM, to “Republic of North Macedonia”. The agreement was ratified on June 20 by the Macedonian parliament.

Macedonia will have to implement constitutional amendments by the end of 2018, requiring a parliamentary majority of two-thirds. The proposal will also likely face a referendum, where the result could be a close call. The incumbent president, Gjorg Ivanov, who has the right to veto the deal, opposes the renaming.

The agreement must also be ratified by both countries’ parliaments.

Both governments want and perhaps need this agreement, yet nationalist rhetoric persists on all sides. Seven out of 10 Greeks oppose the deal, and protests have taken place in both capitals and along the Macedonia-Greece border. Last weekend, police in the Macedonian capital of Skopje fired stun grenades and tear gas to disperse a protest rally of several hundred nationalists.

Many Greeks are dissatisfied with the deal and have described it as an act of national capitulation and betrayal. Thousands of protesters gathered outside Parliament last weekend, shouting “traitors” and “sellouts” at lawmakers.

The deal wraps competing claims into a codified set of definitions.

  • Macedonia, officially known at the United Nations as the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” will be renamed “’North Macedonia” in all internal and external communications.
  • The word “Macedonia” is to be given a double meaning. Macedonia can use the name to identify its people, territory, language and culture but abdicates any claim that these are related to the Ancient Greek Kingdom of Alexander the Great. Their language is recognised as “South Slavic”.
  • Skopje must erase all references to the Kingdom of Macedonia from public infrastructure and remove the Vergina Sun, a symbol originating in the ancient Macedonian dynasty, from its flag.  

    The Prime Ministers of Greece and Macedonia at Prespes after signing the deal, on 17/6/2018. Credit: Government of Macedonia. License: Public Domain

The history

The ambiguity in nomenclature is the result of centuries of shifting geopolitics and identities. In order to understand the origins of the dispute, some history is in order. This list is comprehensive but by no means exhaustive.

  • Alexander the Great was Greek and king of Macedonia in what is now regarded as contemporary Northern Greece. Later, Slavic people settled in the Balkans.
  • 1913: After the Balkan Wars, Macedonia is divided between Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia.
  • 1918: Yugoslavia is established and conducts Serbianisation, suppressing Macedonian culture.
  • 1934: the Third Comintern proclaims the Macedonian people exist and are divided.
  • 1946-1949: In Greece, Slavic and Greek Macedonians fight along the communists, who aim to establish a Balkan Communist Federation. The Macedonian cause is an independent state within the Federation.
  • 1945: Newly formed Yugoslavia grants Macedonia independent status within the federation.
    • Yugoslav authorities conducted foreign policy, which left the issue unresolved.
  • 1991: Macedonia secedes from Yugoslavia following a referendum. Now a sovereign state, it seeks international recognition under the name “Republic of Macedonia”.

The politics

Prof. Dejan Djokić of Goldsmiths University, London, explained that Macedonia is surrounded by three states which contest aspects of its existence:  

“Bulgaria recognizes the state, but neither Macedonian identity nor language. Serbia recognizes the nation and language, but not the Macedonian Orthodox Church. Greece does not recognize the name, ethnicity or language.”

Conversely, the three states claim Article 49 of of Macedonia’s constitution amounts to claims over their territories. Athens fears that any international recognition of Macedonia could fuel nationalism and kindle territorial claims.

“It is not a problem with the present Skopje. We are concerned for the future potential combination of forces in this region. There are three expectations — a Greater Bulgaria, a Greater Albania and a Greater Serbia,” said Antonis Samaras, who served as Greek foreign minister from 1990-1992.

One of the key issues at stake is Macedonian membership of the European Union and NATO.  Macedonia craves the security of NATO, access to the single market and EU funds. But to gain membership, Macedonia would have to address many of its domestic problems. Experts agree with the EU Commission that this would benefit both parties and bring stability to the Balkans.

Unlike Bulgaria and Serbia, “Greece holds powerful status in the region. It is the only Balkan state that is a member in both EU and NATO” said Angelos Syrigos, associate professor of international law and foreign policy at Panteion University in Athens. Syrigos said Greece has used this power to repeatedly veto Macedonia’s accession talks until the name dispute is resolved.

The stalemate has lasted 27 years. “This moment is perhaps the sole window of opportunity that exists and shall not appear again in the near future. It consists of the nature of the two leftist governments, and the evident encouragement and pressure from the international community,” said Dr Natasha Gaber-Damjanovska, president of the Board of Macedonian Center for International Cooperation and a Constitutional Court justice in Macedonia.

Albanian factor

One additional complication for Macedonian politics is demographic: a quarter of its population is Albanian. Syrigos noted that “the northwestern regions that are predominately Albanian feel like a different country.” They claim they are unequally represented in government and public services and face discrimination in the job market.

Some are refugees and militants from Kosovo, where Albanians and Slavs fought one of the bloodiest wars in recent Balkan history. This conflict intensified the enmity and brought Albanian separatists into Macedonian lands. In 2001, Albanians took up arms against the Macedonian government, demanding an end to practices of discrimination. After nine  months of fighting and 140,000 displaced persons, the Orhid Agreement was signed, guaranteeing basic rights of the Albanian population.

Dr Djokić explained how this ethnic division bears on the name. “During the ‘nineties, there was some consensus around ‘Slavic Macedonia’. Albanians rejected this deal.”

“Nationalism in Macedonia is partly the result of these insecurities building up over the years,” said Dr Spyros Economides, director of the Hellenic Observatory, and associate professor of international relations and European politics at the LSE. The nationalist party VMRO-DPMNE has held power since 2006.

Dr Djokić said “All nationalists would like to claim that they are the first and the oldest,” which explains why Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski pursued an identity policy known as antiquization; public infrastructure emulating the ancient Greek aesthetic was built around the country. His aim was to establish a narrative link from FYROM to Alexander the Great. This intensified diplomatic tensions between the two neighbours.

Violent protests broke out in 2015, after the then leader of the Social Democratic opposition, Zoran Zaev, accused Gruevski of wiretapping 20,000 officials. Elections were scheduled for early 2016. The president of Macedonia ended the investigation into Gruevski in summer of 2016. Protests erupted across Skopje demanding the president’s impeachment.

Despite the upheaval, in December 2016, VMRO-DPMNE surpassed Zaev’s Social Democrats by two seats. Neither achieved a majority. The third party was Albanian DUI, with whom VMRO-DPMNE failed to form a coalition due to “ethnic issues.” Five months later, Zaev managed to form a government with minority Albanian parties, holding 67 out of 120 seats.

Greek worries about destabilization

Dr Economides described how Greek concerns about Macedonia’s potential to destabilize the Balkans evolved over time. “When the issue rose in the Greek Parliament in 1991, it was made into the most important foreign policy issue. It was completely fuelled by nationalism, and irrational to a certain extent. Greece was an EU member at the time, which put it on a different position to pursue these foreign policy objectives”.

Politicians in both countries have used the dispute to advance their political goals. In 1991, the then Greek prime minister, Konstantinos Mitsotakis endorsed a composite name such as “Nova Macedonia”. Now, the coalition government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is seeing its popularity plummet in favour of the leader of the opposition, Kyriakos Mitsotakis. “A foreign policy victory would help his chances in the upcoming 2019 parliamentary elections,” Prof. Syrigos said.

The opposition leader has vehemently protested the deal, disregarding his previous statements. In 2017, Mitsotakis supported a name that would include a geographical determination and mandate constitutional changes. When both demands were secured by Tsipras, Mitsotakis announced a vote of no confidence against him.

Greece’s third strongest party, far-right Golden Dawn, rejects the deal. One MP called for a coup d’etat.  

“The Greek government is eager to reach a deal on debt with its international creditors. They were keen to resolve the Macedonian issue” said Economides. The debt issue is being discussed at the European Finance Ministers’ meeting on June 21.

The name change also poses challenges and opportunities for the international community. Neighbouring Russia and Hungary both support Ivanonov as a bullwark against Western influence in the region, Prof. Djokić told Wikitribune.

The US is pushing for Macedonia to become a member of NATO. “Washington wants to remove itself from the Balkans, but it doesn’t want to leave loose ends that Russia can exploit,” Syrigos said.

At the same time, Germany sees an opportunity to stabilise the region with a social democratic government. Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, met Prime Minister Zaev in February and expressed her desire for diplomatic progress: “It would be wonderful if the remaining difficulties can be bridged.”

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