Author: Yannis Baboulias

Posted on: Foreign Policy | March 6th, 2018


The Balkans desperately need help, but Greece won’t stop picking a fight over what to call its northern neighbor

On Sunday, Feb. 4, the latest chapter of a 26-year dispute played out in Syntagma Square in central Athens. Hundreds of thousands of Greeks gathered in front of parliament to protest a potential deal that would conclude the dispute between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) over the name of the latter country. A march in Thessaloniki two weeks prior also brought to the streets hundreds of thousands. Another is to follow in Patras soon. And these protests seem to be only the beginning of a wave that will peak this summer, when Greece and FYROM expect to conclude negotiations.

Since 1992, when Yugoslavia fell apart, Greece has objected to the use of the name “Macedonia” by its neighboring country. Despite the fact it has since been recognized by most other countries as the Republic of Macedonia, Greece’s reluctance to come to an agreement over the issue has stopped it from joining NATO and working toward joining the European Union.

In theory, a deal should be easy: Greece and FYROM have already discussed proposals granting recognition to the latter for the name New Macedonia or Northern Macedonia.

In theory, a deal should be easy: Greece and FYROM have already discussed proposals granting recognition to the latter for the name New Macedonia or Northern Macedonia.

But the tightly packed crowds at Syntagma Square last month showed many Greeks will protest any name that includes the word “Macedonia” in any form — that is to say, they’ll protest any diplomatic solution at all. Under the shadow of a 140-square-meter flag hanging from a crane, the communal chant rang out: “Macedonia is Greek.”

History and conspiracy

The issue is clearly emotional, but the root of the problem is both historical and political. Since 1992, nationalist narratives have taken hold in both countries around the issue. In FYROM, especially under former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, the government tried to establish a direct link between modern inhabitants of Slavic Macedonia and Alexander the Great, a link which doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Greeks on the other hand, see a plan by dark forces to take over the Greek province of Macedonia, perhaps an echo from a post-World War II plan by Josip Broz Tito and Greek communists to establish a republic that included FYROM and northern Greece as part of Yugoslavia.

But in practical terms, both narratives are false. While the administrative region Macedonia extended into FYROM and Bulgaria under the Romans and the Byzantines, no link can be established between the ancient Macedonians and the Slavic populations that arrived almost a thousand years later in the area. But equally, for all the following centuries, these peoples were indeed called Macedonian alongside Greek and Bulgarian populations. Furthermore, it would be impossible for FYROM to enforce any claim to Greek territory, as its economic power and armed forces are minuscule compared to its southern neighbor. However, among the demonstrators on Sunday, it was commonplace to believe the rumor that FYROM’s constitution includes such claims Greek territory — even as there’s an explicit mention in that document that FYROM doesn’t have any border disputes or claims toward its neighbors.

Still, the narrative persists. “They are communists I’m telling you, they’ll sell off everything,” I overheard in a conversation next to me at the Syntagma protest. Prior to the demonstration, politicians of all shades had done much to fan conspiracy theories. Sofia Voultepsi, an MP with New Democracy, the opposition party in the Hellenic Parliament, said in an interview that “Tsipras has made a deal to sell off Macedonia in exchange for a debt haircut.” The same MP, who had served as a parliamentary spokeswoman in the past, had once accused the BBC of being ran by arms dealers.

An upended political landscape

But it’s a left-wing politician who has become the symbol of resistance to compromise: legendary composer Mikis Theodorakis, now 92 years old, who is widely known for his struggle against the Greek 1967 junta. Theodorakis, whose house was attacked with paint by anarchists the previous night over the Macedonia issue, said in a speech during the rally: “Yes, I’m a patriot, internationalist; I disdain fascism in all its forms, especially in its most deceitful and dangerous one, the left-wing one.”

It is a major departure for a man whose name has been connected intimately with left-wing culture in the country. But it’s also symbolic of how the issue has upended many certainties in Greece. For the ruling leftist Syriza party, it creates a headache on the domestic front while they are under pressure by the United States to conclude a deal. Their coalition partners, the hard-right Independent Greeks party, although unwilling to collapse the government over the issue, are more sympathetic to the protesters.

Opposition parties were quick to try and capitalize on these tensions. But for them, too, the issue poses problems: The center-right leader of the conservative New Democracy party, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, was too slow to take a position on the issue, and when he did it was simply “we shouldn’t come to a deal now, let’s leave it for some other time in the future.” This allowed the powerful far-right faction of the party, headed by deputy leader Adonis Georgiadis, to seize the spotlight and push for a “no deal that includes the name Macedonia” position, which was quickly adopted by protesters. ND also fears that splits in the party over the issue could result in the creation of a new party further to the right and modeled after Italy’s populist, anti-immigrant Northern League.

The international implications

However much the Greek political landscape might be impacted by the ongoing negotiations, it’s developments in its northern neighbor that should be perhaps of more concern. Thanos Dokos, director of ELIAMEP, Greece’s most prominent foreign-policy think tank, told FP, “There is concern about stability in the western Balkans, which as far as the U.S. are concerned, centers around Russia’s efforts to gain footholds in the region.”

Costas Douzinas, a Syriza MP who heads parliament’s committee on foreign affairs and is a law professor at Birkbeck College, University of London, agrees: “The Western Balkans find themselves in a trajectory of the formation of new nationalisms and unstable governments. The first priority is to avoid the breakdown of this geopolitical region, to not return to the ’90s.”

FYROM has faced an onslaught of challenges to its political stability in the past decade. Gruevski’s government, mired in scandals, made a desperate grasp for power by attempting to politicize the judiciary and cracking down hard against protesters who demanded more democracy and transparency. Meanwhile, tensions between the country’s Slavic and Albanian populations have shown worrying signs, as evidenced by the violent clashes in the northern region of Koumanovo between an armed ethnic Albanian faction calling themselves the National Liberation Army and the national police in 2015. Gruevski, in his growing desperation following the wave of protests, and sensing he had lost the United States’ backing, turned to Russia for diplomatic support, sounding the alarm for both NATO and the EU.

The solution promoted by the EU and the United States, is for Macedonia, alongside Serbia, to be inducted into NATO and the EU. “The EU realized it had neglected the Balkans, which has resulted in pretty ugly situations in economic, political, and security terms in the region,” says Dokos, the think tank director. “We’re seeing them now opening up again the possibility of expansion, mostly with Serbia and Montenegro, but other countries, too, to signal they if they’re willing to try, the door is open in the immediate future.”

The prospect has significant implications for FYROM, but only if it can sort out its relationship with Greece. Athena Skoulariki, a lecturer in the University of Crete who specializes on the Macedonian issue, stressed that tensions with Athens “has created a lot of problems with the country’s accession program.”

But a window of opportunity has opened for Greece now that Gruevski, the main culprit behind the promotion of the nationalist rhetoric around FYROM’s supposed origins, has lost power amid a swelter of corruption probes against his government. Along with a new prime minister, a new atmosphere — one more conducive to compromise on the naming issue — has emerged in FYROM.

Domestic political football

Whether Greek politicians will be able to take advantage of it however, is another issue entirely. In exchange for Greece’s recognition of the name New Macedonia or Northern Macedonia, FYROM has agreed in principle to cease publicizing any official links to Alexander the Great and ancient Macedonia, The country has already renamed an airport and highway as a gesture of good will. But this hasn’t placated feelings among Greeks. And it’s difficult to spare any of Greece’s political factions from blame. 

“The handling of the situation by the Greek government on a strategic level was positive, because they realized there was a window of opportunity to close this issue once and for all,” Thanos Dokos said. He blames the government, however, for avoiding any compromise with opposition parties, by springing the issue on them without consulting them first. “On a tactical level, reaching some understanding with other political parties and preparing public opinion, there I’m afraid they didn’t handle it well. They saw it as an opportunity to impale the opposition.”

From the government’s perspective however, it is the opposition New Democracy that is being opportunistic. Douzinas, writing for the left-wing online daily EfSyn, put it thus: “New Democracy is not simply registering its different perspective on the issue but is actively trying to undermine trust [in the government] and create an atmosphere of terror, which would make citizens entrench themselves in their barricaded home and their ‘surrounded’ and ‘under threat’ country. Their aim is not the salvation of the ‘nation’s soul,’ but the creation of insecurity that will turn citizens against the government.”

“Greece, as a country, has double the GDP than all the western Balkan countries put together.” he tells Foreign Policy. “It’s in Greece’s best interest to stabilize the region. Because Greek businesses are involved in the process, normalization will be an economic boost for Greece, too. We can be in a mutually growing with our northern neighbors, and their path toward the EU is evidence of that.”

Dokos agrees that a failure to come to a deal would be a very bad outcome for both countries: “[If there’s no agreement] the current name might become permanent, a country that could be partner might be estranged and find itself open for others to play games in the Balkans, which Greece doesn’t want us the Balkans are its natural hinterland.”

The stakes are high. “I’m less optimistic than I was two weeks ago,” Dokos says. “I’m not saying I’d rule it out, but I don’t think the odds are with coming to a solution at this point”. It’s indeed hard to see the room for compromise right now. But Greece, the EU, and NATO have too much riding on the outcome to let the present opportunity go to waste, however strong the emotions of everyday Greeks.

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