After nearly 27 years of haggling, the race to the finish line for a formal end to the Greece-Macedonia/FYROM Name Dispute kicked into full gear after prime ministers Alexis Tsipras of Greece and Macedonia/FYROM’s Zoran Zaev reached a deal on June 12 that would see the former Yugoslav republic renamed “North Macedonia”.

The quarter-century-old dispute between the rival governments in Athens and FYROM’s capital, Skopje, goes back to when the old Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia tore itself apart in the early 1990s and the government in Skopje declared its independence under the name “the Republic of Macedonia”.

The name infuriated Greece, who regard the name “Macedonia” as an important northern province and a centrepiece of their Classical past when it was the birthplace and a powerful kingdom that was ruled by Alexander the Great in the third-century BCE. By hijacking the name of one of Greece’s historically most important regions, the Greeks have argued since 1991 that the Southern Slavs in Skopje – who arrived in the Balkans three centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire – are attempting to make a territorial claim on Greek lands and the country’s millennia-old culture.

In a fast-track move to get the newly independent state north of the Greek border into the United Nations, the Skopje government was admitted as “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (tFYROM)” in 1993, officially listed under “T” (for The) in the UN. Despite the provisional name, Athens has since refused to allow FYROM/tFYROM to become full members of NATO and the EU until the Name Dispute had been formally resolved – a move that Skopje has, until recently, steadfastly opposed.

Macedonia/FYROM has, for the better part of 25 years, demonstratively retaliated against Greece’s objections by completely ignoring historical fact and claiming to be the real heirs of Alexander the Great’s legacy and going so far as to name their airport and a major highway after the famed Greek monarch.

It was under these circumstances that the Name Dispute negotiations found themselves in as recently as last year. In an effort to bring his country out of the cold, the anti-nationalist Zaev extended an olive branch to Greece by dropping any claims to Alexander’s legacy or Greece’s classical heritage by re-renaming the airport and highway that had for almost a decade bore the name of Greek Macedonia’s most famous son.

By agreeing to rename his nation, “the Republic of Northern Macedonia” – which will also be known in the Slavic Macedonian language as “Republika Severna Makedonija” – Zaev could help bring to a close a conflict that has existed since Macedonia/FYROM declared independence a generation ago.

Achieving the Greek side’s unflinching demand for a single hybrid name for all purposes, using the now-familiar Latin term “Erga Omnes” is the great strategic victory for Athens as this essentially forces Skopje to totally reinvent itself, and not simply for “international contacts,” as earlier rounds of negotiations had intended. This will require constitutional changes by the Macedonia/FYROM government as will the removal of irredentist references from the new document, which Zaev has promised.

As expected, the early reactions in both countries have been negative as the gambit could improve the chances of political survival for both embattled leaders or in extreme scenarios, accelerate the departure of at least one of the negotiating partners.

It is under this cloud of uncertainty and with the action currently focused in Athens where a no-confidence motion against Tsipras should come to a head that the signing of the agreement is set to take place at the Greece-Macedonia/FYROM border town of Prespes. A range of important attendees from international organisations are set to be present, although some have had to cancel because of the one-day delay in finalising the ceremony caused by the political firestorm – including calls for a military coup by a far-right MP – in Greece.

Greek concession on Macedonian nationality seen as essential deal flaw

Observers in Athens are mystified, while many ordinary Greek citizens are outright infuriated by the apparent major concession by the Tsipras government on Macedonian nationality issues.

Article (1)(3)(B) of the agreement, states “The nationality of the second party shall be Macedonian/citizen of the Republic of North Macedonia, as will be registered in all travel documents”.

Even the General-Secretary of the Greek Communist Party, the notoriously hardline KKE, Dimitris Koutsoumpas, noted that this arrangement leaves the question so vaguely defined that Skopje’s irredentist claims are likely to arise in the future. The Greek political elite have joined ordinary citizens in asking how a country that held all the cards in the negotiations could have been so deftly outmaneuvered by a smaller, younger, former Communist state.

An open question is how Greece’s neighbor Turkey will interpret Athens’ unnecessary concession on a key issue to a weaker partner and whether it will conclude that Greek diplomacy is at the very least ineffective and unfocused, perhaps emboldening Ankara in the conflict over Cyprus or adding fuel to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman imperialist claims on Greek islands in the Aegean.

Greek firestorm expected, but the reaction was a higher order of magnitude

From day one, all parties to the negotiations knew there would be problems with the ratification of any deal in both countries. The intensity of the reaction, for the time being, was centered mostly in Greece. This has surprised many since Tsipras and his socialist SYRIZA party do not emphasise so-called “national issues” in their ideology or tap into this for electoral support. SYRIZA’s coalition partner, The Independent Greeks (ANEL) Party, on the contrary, do. This fissure will help the main opposition party, New Democracy, win the next elections, although much of the anti-SYRIZA protest vote will be over economic issues. New Democracy decided to focus its attention on a two-day no-confidence motion that it filed on June 14, which delayed the Prespes signing ceremony by one day.

Launching the no-confidence debate, New Democracy President Kyriakos Mitsotakis said “I have an obligation before the Greek people to try to avert the mortgaging of our country’s future with an agreement that is detrimental to our national interests”.

All of this sets up a dynamic whereby the ANEL party supports the government in the no-confidence motion to prevent a government collapse, but does not support the agreement or its coalition partner SYRIZA whenever the deal comes up for ratification, which could be many months away.

New Democracy is expected to make electoral gains at the expense of ANEL. Discussions about such an outcome are already under way, which could lead to ANEL and its leader, Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, being driven out of parliament and expand New Democracy’s base on the nationalist right.

This can only be seen in a positive light after one far-right Golden Dawn MP openly called for a military coup to block the Prespes signing before being escorted out of the debate, ejected from his party, and his party temporarily banned from speaking. It remains unclear, however, whether New Democracy will face an internal reshuffle after the no-confidence vote as several of the party’s former leaders will use the debate to justify their policies on the Name Dispute.

SYRIZA has promised to reveal a number of interesting facts during the debate and is reportedly rummaging through the files at the foreign ministry to locate additional useful reports about how the Name Dispute issue was handled under previous governments over the past 25 years.

The agreement calls for the Greek side to ratify the deal after Skopje has amended its constitution and held a referendum on the new name, meaning near the end of 2018, or even later. By that time, Greece will be in full pre-election mode. Observers are struck by the amount of time/energy apparently devoted to designing the political sequencing of the steps each side must take and the pro-active planning against democratic resistance to the agreement’s entry into force in both countries. The agreement also expressly forbids any amendments.

The Greek centre-left, formerly dominated by the PASOK party created by Andreas Papandreou, is openly divided on the agreement at the moment. The more left-leaning of the small parties in the loose coalition, now rebranded “the Movement for Change” have reportedly placed a premium on settling the deal now over nationality issues and could well replace the votes that ANEL will not supply when the agreement comes up for ratification later.

Beyond the official no-confidence motion debate, rival anti-deal demonstrations have been set for Athens’ central Syntagma Square and in Prespes, where the deal is supposed to be signed.

Reaction building in Macedonia/FYROM

The Macedonia/FYROM Council of Ministers approved the agreement, as was expected, on June 14 and published the declassified agreement on the government’s website. Anti-deal demonstrations by opposition nationalists in Skopje are more routine than in Greece and those continued sporadically after the June 12 announcement of the agreement. The main opposition, the stridently nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, has decided to up-the-ante on an already-planned demonstration in Bitola, near Prespes, by rebranding it as a major national protest action.

Macedonia/FYROM President Gjorge Ivanov, a known opponent of any compromise, stated that he believed the agreement gave too many concessions to Greece.

“Such a harmful agreement, which is unique in the history of mankind, is shameful and unacceptable for me,” Ivanov said in a TV address. “It violates the Constitution (and) the laws … I will not legalise illegal political agreements.”

The speculation in Skopje is currently focused on what steps Ivanov will take to fight the agreement other than refusing to sign it, which he can do only once before being overruled.

Problems have also emerged in neighbouring Bulgaria after Ivanov claimed the deal would stand in the way of a “united Macedonia.” Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borisov cancelled a scheduled meeting with Ivanov as he interpreted Ivanov’s remark as irredentist and aimed directed against Macedonia/FYROM’s close ethnic and linguistic kin in Bulgaria.

In the absence of any unforeseen developments, the deal is expected to be signed in Prespes, a town astride the Greek border with Macedonia/FYROM and Albania. Greek press sources have reported that the actual signing will take place on the Greek side of the border, followed by a celebratory meal inside Macedonia/FYROM, which is of interest to observers because there is currently no official border crossing in Prespes. The signatories of the agreement will be foreign ministers Nikos Kotzias of Greece and his counterpart from Skopje, Nikola Dimitrov. Both countries’ prime ministers, Tsipras and Zaev, will be present at the signing.

Greece and Macedonia/FYROM hope UN Mediator Matthew Nimetz, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn will attend, though not all have confirmed that they will be at the signing.

EU and NATO welcome agreement, warn not to waste not to ‘waste’ opportunity for solution

NATO and the European Union chief officials have welcomed the apparent breakthrough with the Secretary-General of NATO Stoltenberg and European Council President Donald Tusk issuing a joint statement expressing how they hope the new accord will help consolidate regional peace and stability in the Western Balkan region and that Athens and Skopje should do everything to avoid throwing away the opportunity to resolve the long-running Name Dispute.
“We welcome the agreement reached between Prime Ministers Tsipras and Zaev on a solution to the Name Dispute. We hope that this unique opportunity to relaunch the wider Western Balkan region’s European and Euro-Atlantic integration will not be wasted. This agreement sets an example for others on how to consolidate peace and stability across the region,” Stoltenberg and Tusk said in their joint release on June 14.