March 19, 2019

Nomen Est Omen

Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev (right) welcoming his Greek colleague, Alexis Tsipras, at the signing of the Prespa Agreement in 2018.
Macedonian prime minister Zoran Zaev (right) welcoming his Greek colleague, Alexis Tsipras, at the signing of the Prespa Agreement in 2018.

A “Nameless” Entity’s Journey to the International Arena.

When Yugoslavia disintegrated in the early 1990s, one of its federal republics called Macedonia was in the position that its southern neighbour, Greece, did not recognise its name because it contained the toponym “Macedonia”. This was because an administrative region with the same name already existed in northern Greece. Greece had expressed its dissatisfaction in the 1940s when the Socialist Republic of Macedonia was formed within Yugoslavia led by Josip Broz Tito. Many Greeks feared incitement to separatism, but there were other factors as well: the connection with the ancient kingdom of Macedonia, whose most famous ruler, Alexander the Great, had conquered almost the entire known world at the end of the 4th century BC.

It is fact that the then Macedonia was located almost entirely on the territory of present-day Greece; Alexander spoke ancient Greek; and the Slavs (modern Macedonian is a Slavic language) arrived in the Balkans no earlier than in  the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Despite this, Skopje wanted to present itself as the offspring of ancient Macedonia in creating an identity in the 1990s (and later). In short, Greece refused to recognise the new country and tried to make recognition as difficult as possible for the international community.

Recognition was finally granted in 1993 for a temporary name intended for international use: the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. According to its constitution, however, the country’s name was still the Republic of Macedonia. In 1995, the so-called Interim Accord was concluded through the mediation of the UN, which required the two countries to seek a permanent solution to the name issue and stated that Greece would not formally prevent the officially long-titled Macedonia from joining other international organisations (including the EU and NATO, in particular).

However, Skopje began to seek international recognition under its constitutional name, and was quite successful as about 130 countries, including three permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, Russia and China) recognised it. Of course, the Greeks were extremely annoyed because they saw this as unwillingness to implement the Interim Accord. In 2005, Greece allowed it to become an EU candidate country (which also requires unanimity), but no more. Due to Greek opposition, Macedonia did not join NATO in 2008 and, again largely because of Greek resistance, the Council of the EU has not supported the country in starting accession negotiations since 2009, on the basis of a European Commission recommendation to member states. In 2009 I was working in the office of the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Olli Rehn, where I was responsible, inter alia, for Macedonia, and participated in achieving the first recommendation. At that time, no one would have thought that it would be ten years before this recommendation (repeated from year to year) would begin to have any chance of being accepted in the Council of the EU.

However, the reluctance of Greece (with whom economic relations, tourism links and so on progressed quite well) was not the only problem for the young country. There were also squabbles with another neighbour, Bulgaria, about the interpretation of history—this time over events in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the national revival. Bulgarians do not want to recognise Macedonian as a separate language, considering it a dialect of their own (there are no precise scientific distinction criteria here). However, most linguists now seem to recognise Macedonian as separate. In any case, it is clear that a nation that wants to establish a nation-state needs to feel that its language exists to reinforce its identity. Since 1991, the Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin languages have also been recognised. The situation in Macedonia, however, was more sensitive, as a quarter of the country’s population is made up of Albanians, who have a different language; there is a country that speaks their language just over the border and their relationship with the Macedonian majority isn’t always that rosy.

This is, of course, putting it diplomatically. In 2001, the country was on the brink of civil war. Albanians felt they were being discriminated against; for example, the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Macedonia had banned the use of the Albanian flag in 1997. As a result of the Kosovo War and in accordance with international rules, Macedonia had allowed hundreds of thousands of new Albanian-speaking refugees to enter the country, which had a significant impact on the economic situation and people’s sense of security. At the same time, the Macedonian Albanians had weapons in their hands, and Kosovo’s Albanian fighters also came across the border. Some cities were taken over and some 200 people died (the exact number has not been identified, as the parties provided differing data and dozens of civilians were missing).

The leadership of the international community—mainly NATO, represented by the then Secretary-General, George Robertson, and the EU, represented by the then High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Javier Solana—still managed to prevent a large-scale war and president Boris Trajkovski signed the Ohrid Framework Agreement with representatives of the main Macedonian and Albanian parties. Thus, the Albanians received much greater rights for their representation and language, at both municipal and national level. For example, the public sector had to start taking into account the ethnic composition of the country. The language spoken by more than 20% of its residents (i.e. Albanian) was supposed to become the official language of municipalities with a large minority population, and it was to become possible to appeal in Albanian to the authorities of these municipalities as well as to central government bodies (with certain conditions), who were required to provide a response in the same language. At the time of the Ohrid Agreement, deputy prime minister Bujar Osmani said that minority representation in the public sector was 0.2%; it is now 19%. (By the way, in the first decade of the 21st century Moscow pointed to the Ohrid Agreement as an example for Estonia, referring to an indigenous minority of similar proportions, but forgetting, of course, how different the situations in the two countries were—especially at a moment when there was a risk of civil war in Macedonia. It is, however, useful to remember this.)

Skopje’s political elite therefore sometimes felt it was being pressured by two parties: the country’s neighbours would not leave it alone, and its own minority had an internationally supported agreement to validate its wishes and demands. In response, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), which was in power from 2006 to 2017, made great efforts to consolidate the national sentiment of Macedonians in addition to realising mostly useful economic reforms and facilitating EU membership. However, this irritated both Greece and Bulgaria, as roads and airports were named after the Macedonian kings of antiquity, and the centre of Skopje was filled with monuments of heroes from both antiquity (which the Greeks claim as theirs) and the national revival (which Bulgarians consider shared history).

It is therefore understandable that Macedonia’s neighbours were increasingly against Skopje’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations, even though in 2008 the national government filed an action against Greece at the International Court of Justice, claiming that blocking accession to NATO was a violation of the 1995 Interim Accord. In 2011, Macedonia won the case, but there was no practical follow-up, as the court refused to take action against future potential vetoes and did not demand any measures from Greece. As there was no official voting in the EU it is not even legally possible to say whether it was Greece or Bulgaria that placed the veto. Of course, certain other member states were not that excited about enlargement either.

By 2017, the situation in Macedonia had changed. “Cold peace” between the two main parties was achieved largely through the mediation of Aivo Orav, who was the EU’s Ambassador to Macedonia until August 2016, and new parliamentary elections were held in December 2016, leading to the appointment of a coalition government led by Zoran Zaev in May 2017. Its backbone was Zaev’s Social Democratic Union (SDSM) and the largest Albanian party, Democratic Union for Integration (DUI). The new government quickly resolved the disagreements with Bulgaria and started to deal with the name issue. The logical precondition for this was that the weaker party, which needed the solution more, would take the first steps and make concessions—even more so because Greece had already shifted from its initial positions, allowing the country to use the name “Macedonia” (in the 1990s it clearly excluded the use of this name, and several Greek political parties still feel this way)—with necessarymodifier , of course.

The two foreign ministers, Nikola Dimitrov and Nikos Kotzias, and prime ministers Zoran Zaev and Alexis Tsipras managed to cooperate effectively and, according to the Prespa Agreement entered into by the countries on their shared border on 17 June 2018, the country’s new international name would be “North Macedonia” while the official use of the word “Macedonia” would be subject to specific rules. With great difficulty, the Prespa Agreement was approved by the parliaments of both countries in January 2019, and on 6 February NATO approved the Accession Protocol of the Republic of North Macedonia. This is expected to be ratified without major problems, and by the end of the year NATO should have 30 members.

It is clear that the government of North Macedonia is also looking forward to a decision of the EU General Affairs Council in June to open accession negotiations with the Union at last. In formal terms, resolving the naming issue is not a prerequisite for EU membership. The political wind, however, is now in North Macedonia’s sails, since it has gained the support of two distrustful neighbours, the two neighbouring prime ministers have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and, together with the Greeks, it has been proved that issues in the Balkans can be solved. Hence, the Macedonian question “If not now, when?” is more than justified.

What Could Still Go Wrong?

First, support for further enlargement is not particularly great. The EU has been struggling with internal crises in recent years and there are quite powerful voices saying that, before new countries can join the club, th Union  must get things in order at home. The steps taken over the rule of law by some of the member states that joined in 2004–7 don’t confirm the adequacy of previous enlargement decisions, in the opinion of some doubters.

Second, some domestic setbacks could stain North Macedonia’s current clean reputation, such as delays in some key reforms, for example in the justice system; politically motivated appointments in the legal system; irresponsible action by domestic politicians; and opposition boycott of the forthcoming (21 April) presidential elections. The implementation of other sections of the Prespa Agreement, such as the evaluation of the historical context of monuments, the replacement of passports and the joint review of history textbooks may also cause delays or emotional setbacks.

Third, Albania is also awaiting the recommendation of the European Commission and the decision of the Council of the EU on its membership. The Commission has deemed the pace of Albania’s reforms more modest than that of North Macedonia—are the countries to be bundled together and both put on hold? And finally, in connection with the elections to the European Parliament, the Commission will postpone publication of the annual enlargement package, which includes recommendations for opening negotiations. Because of this, there will be only three weeks to reach a consensus on important issues before the General Affairs Council convenes on 18 June. In a normal year there would be more than two months for this.

So, what else can be done before May and June? First, Macedonians must work with member states such as France and the Netherlands, who are usually more demanding over conditions for enlargement; and we, the enlargement-friendly countries, will help them. Second, both the government and the opposition must show a sense of responsibility, adopt additional key laws and resist the temptation of dubious appointments or boycotts. Third, it is clear that enlargement must remain an individual process based on each country’s achievements, and that candidate countries must not be lumped together, at least not at an early stage. Finally, much depends on the preparatory work for the General Affairs Council in June, which is chaired by the presidency—Romania, which, as a geographically well placed and long-standing enlargement-friendly member state, has a great opportunity and responsibility to be helpful. We can be realistically optimistic here.


This article was first published on the blog Gondori Kroonika and appears here with the author’s permission.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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