Macedonia and Greece – back to square one?

Despite the ICJ ruling that Greece had breached its obligation under the 1995 Interim Accord, the dispute is back to square one, with few signs of genuine interest to find a lasting resolution.

By Marija Stambolieva

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) recently decided that Greece has breached its obligation under the Interim Accord of 1995 by objecting to Macedonia’s admission to NATO. Leaving aside the so-called “name-issue”, however, the ICJ’s decision – and its subsequent handling – have revealed several weak points of international relations, whilst elucidating important lessons for the future.

Macedonia joined the United Nations in 1993 following a Security Council resolution (817) recommending that the country is admitted to membership under the provisional reference “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. The ensuing Interim Accord between the two parties to the dispute provided the basis for the regulation of their mutual relations, and called for continued negotiations with a view to reaching an agreement on their differences over the name.

One of the provisions of the Interim Accord was that joining international, multi-lateral and regional organizations and institutions would not be hindered, as long as the reference is used. In its recent decision, the ICJ found that Greece breached exactly this obligation when opposing Macedonia’s application for NATO.

The reactions ranged from jubilation to panic. In Macedonia, the ICJ’s ruling was greeted with celebrations; in Greece, it was received with criticism. Others warned about the mismatch between the level of expressed emotions and the expected impact of the decision.

The sobering-up came exceptionally fast – only a few hours after the announcement, NATO’s Secretary General stated that, “the ruling does not affect the decision taken by NATO Allies at the Bucharest summit in 2008”, which can only be altered “as soon as a mutually acceptable solution to the name issue has been reached”.

The EU – membership in which Macedonia is also pursuing – although not explicitly reacting to the ICJ’s judgment, has continued to postpone the start of accession negotiations with the country.

The two political alliances, NATO and EU, seem to have moved past the interim agreement already three years ago, and this decision could now be obsolete.

It would not be the first time that states have chosen to ignore an ICJ’s decision which is not to their liking. The international legal order, however, does not have instruments of enforcement at its disposal, beyond the good will of the sovereign states. Thus, the issue has to return to the realm of international politics.

This does not mean, however, that international law is without value. The resolution to be bound by consensus in decision-making is already a fixed legal commitment of inter-state alliances.

In the UN, nothing can be decided without the consent of the permanent five. There were times when some members chose to undertake certain actions without the endorsement of the Security Council – like in the case of Kosovo, or Iraq – but even then the issues found their way back to the Council’s agenda. The most powerful players have admitted that they need allies for their missions.

On the other hand, one might say that the “name issue” is surely not as critical as cases where potential large-scale security threats or humanitarian disasters are in sight. It should not be forgotten, however, that back then, at the onset of the Yugoslav crisis, the fear of a potential new conflict was what motivated the Security Council to assume responsibility for facilitating the Interim Accord in the first place.

What now, therefore? Almost two decades later, this dispute is back where it was – at the beginning. Bearing in mind the historical background and the current state of international affairs, there are three possible three scenarios:

  1. The matter remains frozen – contemporary history has witnessed a proliferation of disputes and conflicts and the approach to many of them has been to localize and control, but not necessarily solve. The main players seem to have their hands full with pressing issues in Africa, North Africa, the Middle East and Kosovo, such that smaller, seemingly harmless ones will be kept at bay. Furthermore, Greece belongs to the club of established allies and, in light of the current financial and economic crisis, neither of the European states nor the United States has any interest in opening ‘new’ fronts. Macedonia’s applications for NATO and EU membership will, therefore, stay put.
  2. Powerful player(s) take(s) the lead – the United States has on many occasions demonstrated that it is willing to take on the responsibility for maintaining and building peace and security. Under its lead, agreements have been brokered; even seemingly impossible ones, such as that between Israel and Palestine, Israel and Egypt. One of the thus far disinterested European states could back the process. Macedonia’s claims along the lines of international law are respected, and so are its efforts to support international coalition operations. The root of Greece’s concerns is addressed. Heated rhetoric is cooled-off and both states are reasoned into an agreement.
  3. The UN decision is altered the Security Council recommends to the General Assembly that Macedonia is to be referred to under its constitutional name.

For the time being, the second scenario seems implausible and the third impossible. Those who made it their task to get the Balkans on track, however, cannot back down now. Perhaps efforts to create a “mutually-acceptable solution” should be intensified; perhaps alternative approaches to Macedonian approximation should be considered. The latest example in the EU on matters of the euro has shown how member states can push forward despite a veto. Or perhaps one should just wait for “better times”. In the meantime, Greece will probably be ‘saved’ by Europe. The Macedonians, meanwhile, are headed towards deeper isolation, manipulation and deprivation. Back to square one? Fine, as long as there is genuine interest to move things forward.

Marija Stambolieva is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Kassel in Germany. Her current research project focuses on studying the post-socialist transformations of the post-Yugoslav states in light of their social policies. She also holds a law degree and a Master in European Studies.

To keep up-to-date with the work of TransConflict, please click here. If you are interested in supporting TransConflict, please click here.

Email