Skopje’s “mini-diplomatic offensive” to resolve the Name Dispute with Greece has morphed into a “mini-public diplomacy offensive” over the last week while Athens has been generally preoccupied with domestic political concerns.
Diplomatic observers are waiting for the not-yet-announced Skopje visit of Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias, now that the airport there has been renamed, as well as more clarity about the substantive proposals the Greek side is planning to deliver. UN Mediator Mathew Nimetz has been out of sight as of late, but the EU’s role became more prominent as the outline of plans for the start of EU accession talks for Macedonia/FYROM surfaced with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s Skopje visit on February 25 as part of a regional tour.
News from Athens over the next Greek steps to address the Name Dispute has been light over the last week, with the primary focus on the Novartis scandal and a mini cabinet reshuffle covering non-Foreign Affairs ministerial posts. The Greek side has made it known that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was personally reviewing the package of proposals to be delivered to Skopje, while the Syriza-ANEL government’s media spokesman has spent some time responding to the wide and sometimes conflicting range of press reports coming from the Macedonia/FYROM side, stressing above all a willingness to move forward, but only under the right conditions.
Deciphering the messages that Macedonia/FYROM Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has tried to send this week via the press has proven truly bewildering. Speaking to Reuters after a Western Balkans Summit in London February 27, Zaev asked whether there was “a real need” for his country to change its constitution, indicating even a small amendment would be extremely difficult.
“Of course we hope we would find a solution (on the constitution). But we must take care about the dignity and identity of both sides because friends take care of each other,” he noted. Zaev’s press office later clarified to Reuters that his official position was that “a solution can be found without a change of the constitution of the Republic of Macedonia.” (Most analysts would consider this a retraction of his remarks in the interview).
On the same London visit, Zaev told the Financial Times “Now the new requirement from Greece is that we need to change our constitution. But a constitution is a home rulebook. It doesn’t have implications outside the country. In any case, changing the constitution wouldn’t be a final guarantee, because a new government in the future could just change the constitution back again.”
On the name itself, Zaev revealed that his country preferred the use of a geographical qualifier in any Name Dispute deal. He said “the suggestions are Republic of North Macedonia, Republic of Upper Macedonia, Republic of Vardar Macedonia and Republic of Macedonia (Skopje),” none of which are new formulations, as most Name Dispute watchers know.
Zaev also faces visible domestic resistance to compromise. Several thousand people gathered in freezing weather February 27 in Skopje to protest against negotiations with Greece. They waved Macedonian flags and held banners reading “Stop Greek racism” and “Stop negotiations.” Video clips from the demonstration show Greek and Albanian flags set on fire during the protest.
Looking ahead, March will see highly a symbolic Kotzias Skopje visit and later a possible meeting between both countries’ prime ministers. Nothing has been announced in regards to another round of mediation/visits to the region by the UN’s Mediator Nimetz, who has repeatedly stressed the need to define the path forward in the first months of 2018. Accordingly, we should expect to hear of his next steps soon.