The Greek-Macedonian name dispute – good-neighbourly relations?

Greece’s continued violation of bilateral and international agreements with respect to Macedonia calls into question its commitment, and that of the international community, to good-neighbourly relations in the Western Balkans.

By Jana Lozanoska

Our friends and indirect mediators in the name dispute – the EU, NATO and the USA, but also the Greek representatives themselves – constantly emphasise and insist on observing good-neighbourly relations. Moreover, this principle was formally incorporated in the conclusions of the Council of the European Union, held in December 2009.

The principle of good-neighbourly relations is one of the pillars of international relations and it can be traced back to the United Nations Charter, where it is stipulated as one of the purposes of the organization. In addition to the UN Charter, this principle can also be found in several other important resolutions and documents brought by the international community.

Resolution 817 of the Security Council, which introduces the provisional name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYRoM) even states that ‘the differences over the name need to be resolved in the interest of the maintenance of peaceful and good-neighbourly relations in the region’. The 1995 Interim Accord between the Republic of Macedonia and Greece contains a provision which is directly related to good-neighbourly relations:’ the Parties (i.e., the Republic of Macedonia and Greece) shall encourage the development of friendly and good-neighbourly relations between them and shall reinforce their economic cooperation…’.

Evidently, the principle of good-neighbourly relations is at the basis of international law and international relations, but what does this principle actually cover? To answer this, it is necessary to analyse its content, which is not really apparent as it has not been clearly defined. The 1970 UN General Assembly Declaration (2625) on Friendly Relations and Cooperation Among States lays down, for the first time, the prerequisites for good-neighbourly relations among states, which include refraining from the use of force or threats to use force, the peaceful settlement of disputes, non-intervention in matters within the domestic jurisdiction of states, cooperation amongst the respective states, an equal right to self-determination, and the principle of the sovereign equality of all states.

In particular, respecting good-neighbourly relations is a logical consequence of the prohibition on the use of force in international law (Article 2.4 of the Charter of the UN), which many authors consider to be a jus cogens norm. It is a norm from which no derogation is permitted, except in clearly defined cases, like the right to self-defence in the event of an armed attack by another country (Article 51 of the Charter of the UN). The upper limit, i.e., the upper threshold, when it becomes clear that the principle of good-neighbourly relations has been violated is when there are cases of unlawful use of force against the territorial integrity and political sovereignty of a country. Thus, any unlawful use of force – regardless of whether it is a border incident, or an act of aggression – consequently violates all of the aforementioned elements of the principle on good neighbourly relations.

It is more difficult to answer the question as to what constitutes the lower limit of disregard for the principle of good-neighbourly relations, not taking into account, naturally, the threat or prohibition on the use of force. Does the violation of good-neighbourly relations entail disregard of one or of several of the elements, i.e., principles, contained in the Declaration (2625) of the UN General Assembly? To answer this question, one would need to analyse each element separately – a lengthy and demanding exercise beyond the scope of this paper.

In order to simplify the whole debate, one should analyse briefly Greece’s and Macedonia’s approach during the process of the name dispute, but also the attitude of the international community in correlation with the principle of good-neighbourly relations. Greece’s behaviour and the international community’s insistence on good-neighbourly relations, is obviously rather complex as Greece has been flagrantly violating bilateral and international agreements, in continuity. These violations include a trade embargo, preventing the Republic of Macedonia’s bid to join NATO and interfering in domestic matters by insisting to change the name of the country and by denying the right to self-determination. This violates several of the elements that are at the basis of good-neighbourly relations. The actions of the international community are not to be underestimated and they are quite supportive of Greece (for more on this issue, please click here).

The conclusions of the Council of the European Union from December 2009, which concern the Republic of Macedonia being granted a date for the start of accession talks with the EU, contained the following eye-catching phrase – ‘maintaining good neighbourly relations, including a negotiated and mutually acceptable solution on the name issue (…) remains essential’.

Several things can be noted from this sentence. Firstly, that the EU links good-neighbourly relations to reaching a mutually-acceptable solution to the name dispute. This element – a ‘mutually accepted solution’ to the name issue – does not exist in the UN’s Declaration on Friendly Relations, but, nevertheless, the principle of good-neighbourly relations is being extended to cover this criterion, in this case, due to pressure from Greece. It is questionable how much and whether this element is part of the elements of the principle of good-neighbourly relations among states. Or, what is more important, whether and to what extent it stems from them.

In addition, it is stated that this mutual solution to the name issue should be reached through negotiations. Although negotiations are a means for the peaceful settlement of disputes, and, therefore form part of the principle of good-neighbourly relations, they are not exclusive. The Charter of the UN prescribes the different methods for the peaceful settlement of disputes. Besides negotiations, they include – mediation, enquiry, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement before the International Court of Justice (the case initiated by Macedonia against Greece falls under this category) etc.

Therefore, this rigid conclusion by the Council of the European Union is ill-founded. First, it is because the ‘mutually acceptable solution to the name’ has nothing to do with good-neighbourly relations. Quite the opposite, it violates it, especially the principle of non-interference in the domestic matters of states, the principle of sovereign equality and self-determination. This has been concluded on several occasions by various authors. Second, it is because negotiations are not the only means for peacefully settling disputes.

Finally, one should analyse the conduct of the Republic of Macedonia and whether, if at all, it has violated at any occasion the principle of good-neighbourly relations. A retrospective analysis of Republic of Macedonia’s position concerning this issue leads to a contrary conclusion, i.e., that there is a sense of inferiority and even approbation of Greece’s continuous violations towards Macedonia (not taking any counter measures against the trade embargo, changing the Constitution, changing the national flag, consenting to negotiations over our own name etc). One might say that the newly-erected sculptures and the renaming of the airports constitute a violation of the principle of good-neighbourly relations. However, an accurate formal analysis of the content of the principle of good-neighbourly relations cannot lead to such a conclusion for the simple reason that historical and cultural heritage is not the exclusive right of a single state, but of humankind as a whole, and therefore, these actions do not violate any of the components of the principle of good-neighbourly relations among states.

Jana Lozanoska is director of the Divison for Applied Policy Research at the Euro-Balkan Institute in Skopje.

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