Greece ends Macedonia name dispute

Greece ends Macedonia name dispute

On 25 January, the Greek Parliament ratified the Prespa Agreement, thereby ending a 28-year-long dispute over the name of Greece’s northern neighbour. This heralds a new start in Greek-Macedonian relations, but it also has important international implications, especially for NATO and Russia.

Greek-Macedonian relations: What was the dispute?

At first glance, renaming a country from the Republic of Macedonia (also known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)) to the Republic of Northern Macedonia might seem like a minor cosmetic change. However, it is of huge importance to the national identity of both countries. Since FYROM gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Greece has opposed the name ‘Republic of Macedonia’. Greece’s northern region is also called Macedonia, and there have been fears that the neighbouring country’s use of the name implied territorial ambitions on Greece’s territory. In addition, the ancient Macedonian empire of Alexander the Great holds a special place in Greek history. Thus any use of the name Macedonia is felt to be a foreign appropriation of the king. Greece vetoed Macedonia’s membership of NATO and the EU whilst it continued to have the same name.

The previous FYROM government, run by the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, antagonized the Greeks by naming a highway and the main airport after Alexander the Great, as well as building a huge statue of him in the main square of the capital city of Skopje. This was accompanied by a neo-classical renovation of the city, to further cement the idea of continuity with ancient Macedonia.

How was it solved?

American diplomat Matthew Nimetz has been working on a solution for 25 years. The proposals for different names have not changed much over time. The key development was the election of the current pro-EU, pro-NATO government in Macedonia in 2017. Combined with the friendly, fellow socialist party SYRIZA in power in Greece, the prospects for finally ending the dispute looked far brighter than in many years.

The final concession involves Macedonia’s official name becoming the ‘Republic of Northern Macedonia’, with its citizens referred to as ‘Macedonian/Citizens of North Macedonia’. The EU and NATO have firmly supported the agreement, with the aim to see Macedonia fully integrated into both institution. Russia opposed the deal, seeing it as further Western encroachment into the Balkans, coming hot on the heels of Montenegro’s NATO accession in 2017.

The deal has had a rocky path to ratification in both countries. The necessary constitutional amendment scraped through Macedonia’s parliament amid protests. In addition a referendum to change the country’s constitution gave a positive result, but with a very poor turnout. This suggests that the opposition’s boycott campaign was effective.

In Greece too, there have been many large-scale protests against the deal, some of which turned violent. The influential Greek Orthodox Church as well as opposition parties have strongly opposed the deal. . There were many doubts that the deal would be ratified in the parliament. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had to survive a no-confidence vote and lost his parliamentary majority due to his support for the agreement. However, he gained enough backing from independent MPs to ratify this historic decision.

What happens next?

Macedonia can expect to join NATO by 2020, having already received a formal invitation. The nation can also anticipate further progress in EU membership talks, though prospects of full accession remain as far away as 2025 at the earliest. While the current government seems keen to implement the reforms needed for membership, it will take years. The political stability offered by the name deal may lead to better economic performance and more investment, though growth is still expected to be modest.

This accord has settled the main dispute between Greece and its neighbour. Greater cooperation between them can be expected in the future, including more economic links. While it is possible that future governments could renege on the agreement, a stance that would gain significant support in both countries, the process of changing it would be extremely arduous. The chances that a new government would spend its political capital to reverse the agreement are relatively small.

Domestic policies will now come under greater scrutiny in Macedonia, given that the government’s main foreign policy aim has been achieved. The popular opposition aroused by the name deal may now be directed towards other controversial issues, such as the legal status of the Albanian language.

Macedonia’s impending NATO accession will further embolden Russia to strengthen its political, economic and military links to other regimes in the Balkans, most notably Serbia and Republika Srpska (the Serbian entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina). Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia will soon be the only non-NATO states in South-Eastern Europe. NATO accession will not end Russian involvement in Macedonia, of course, many EU members are also flirting with Russia. However, in the long-term, the deal will realign Macedonia from a neutral country to an ally of the EU and the USA in a military and a political sense.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Luke Bacigalupo

Luke Bacigalupo is a political analyst currently based in Belgrade, Serbia. He holds degrees in South Eastern European Studies and Modern History from the University of Belgrade and the University of Oxford, respectively. He has previously worked as a political reporter at the Office of the EU Special Representative in Kosovo and at UNDP in Serbia.