Macedonia – is the name issue close to an end?

A Greek veto at the upcoming EU council meeting threatens to further fuel growing animosity in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

By Luca Roberto Foti

The Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, whose country currently presides over the EU Presidency, is optimistic that a possible compromise over the name dispute between the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Greece can be reached before EU foreign Ministers meet on December 7th. Indeed, that is when a decision is supposed to be taken regarding whether or not Macedonia will receive a date to start talks over membership of the EU.

The Swedish foreign minister’s statement came after Zoran Jolevski, Macedonia’s representative in the talks on the name dispute, told the UN’s mediator, Matthew Nimetz, that Macedonia was ready for a solution to the name issue that will not affect the country’s dignity. Though Jolevski is expecting Greece to abide by the 1995 agreement and thus not prevent Macedonia from joining the EU, he would like to reach an agreement on the name dispute before the EU Council’s meeting on December 7th, maybe fearing a repetition of the NATO summit in Bucharest on April 2008.

Then, Greece vetoed Macedonia’s accession to the Alliance, despite the 1995 interim agreement, and everything suggests the Greek government will do the same in the next EU Council meeting. Indeed, Adamantios Vassilakis, the Greek representative in the UN-sponsored name talks, said that the most appropriate solution remains a name with a geographic determination, such as the ‘Republic of Upper Macedonia’. If this request is not met, Athens could then block the start of EU accession talks for Macedonia.

But why does the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia assume so much importance for Greek foreign policy?

It is evident that this dispute does not simply concern the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic but what is actually conveyed through it.

Since the independence of FYROM in 1991, Greece has felt threatened by the existence of a state over its northern border that, according to its new Constitutional Charter and recent history, claimed the right to control the whole of the Macedonian region. Furthermore, the new Republic manifested its claims over the ancient Macedonians’ cultural heritage, thus provoking the anger of the Greeks.

FYROM’s territorial claims were almost immediately put aside in 1992 by changing the contested constitutional articles, namely Art. 3 and 49, which gave the new Republic the right to intervene in Greek internal affairs by claiming cultural homogeneity with those Slav-speaking Greeks living in the Greek Aegean Macedonia.

However, FYROM’s claim over the cultural heritage of the classical Macedonians has not ceased. According to Greek sources, a process of ethno-genesis is still alive in the state-controlled educational system, giving birth to a generation who feel their cultural roots derive from the classical Macedonians; to the dismay of the Greeks who claim the Greekness of the people of Alexander the Great.

FYROM has made it clear that it has no territorial claims on its neighbouring states. Nevertheless, bearing in mind the role the Communist Republic of Macedonia was supposed to play in Tito’s design for the unification of the whole Macedonian region under Yugoslav rule, Greece continues to feel threatened by a state which claims a name that embraces the whole Macedonian lands and clamours for a cultural heritage that is firmly part of Greek history.

For this reason the Greek government is trying to make it clear that FYROM is and must remain only a geographical part of the Macedonian land. According to the Greek government, this can only be achieved with a name that underlines the geographical limits of FYROM – such as Vardar, Upper or Northern Macedonia.

Both the International Crisis Group (ICG), in a report issued last February, and the UN mediator, Matthew Nimetz, in his latest proposals, seem to have sided with the Greek position and called for the adoption of an international name for FYROM which will avoid any possible misunderstanding.

The Greeks, however, are not satisfied and demand that the new FYROM’s denomination shall apply erga omnes, that is for all proposes and by all, including by those 127 countries that have recognised the Republic of Macedonia under its constitutional name.

As December 7th approaches, a growing animosity can be felt in Macedonia. According to a Balkan Gallup opinion poll issued on November 18th, faith in the government has declined. The atmosphere in the Albanian bloc is also charged because of the statements of some politicians that “the Albanians will join NATO and the European Union with or without the Macedonians”. Another Greek veto will certainly incite nationalism amongst the Macedonian people. The country is not unfamiliar with acts of extreme nationalism and any failure in the EU Council meeting on December 7th could certainly reawaken those dark forces.

Luca Roberto Foti is a former student of International Relations at the University of Florence. He graduated with a dissertation on the ‘Macedonian Question’ and has a long-standing interest in the history of the Balkans.