While 2018 opened on a positive note with both Athens and Skopje making hopeful statements and gestures around the New Year pointing to the possibility of a quick agreement on the Macedonia/FYROM name issue, progress was stalling by mid-January. Negotiations will continue in an increasingly charged atmosphere with all parties committed to finding a solution.
After a New York meeting with both countries’ lead negotiators, UN mediator Matthew Nimetz on January 17 presented his initial proposals for a solution to the 25-year-old dispute, spinning both sides’ positions as positively as possible. “They don’t just say they want a solution. I think they believe it’s in the national interest of both countries to solve this problem.”
Nimetz noted he intended to accept invitations to visit both capitals in the coming weeks, and said he would be able to assess the potential for real progress after working the issue the next two months. Assuming he finds common ground, Nimetz indicated he thought a solution could be found in the next six months, in time to report a solution at the July 11-12 NATO Summit in Bucharest which is the unofficial deadline for this year’s cycle of negotiations.
On substance, Nimetz provided the press little detail, except for one key remark: “I myself don’t think it’s realistic to expect the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia not to have Macedonia in some form in its name.” His proposals, which have already leaked via Skopje, included five different potential geographic/temporal qualifiers for the parties to potentially agree on and find an acceptable compound name.
While the Greek leadership — at least the Syriza Party component of the ruling coalition — appears committed to resolving the name dispute in 2018, there has been a steady deterioration in Greek public attitudes supporting a compromise solution (involving a compound name) over the first half of January.
This plays into the fault lines of the ruling Syriza-Independent Greeks (ANEL) coalition, as the latter has a strong conservative base that does not view national security and identity issues as flexible as Syriza’s leftists. Perhaps motivated by the pro-resolution statements coming from Syriza Foreign Minister Nikos Kotsias, ANEL Leader and Defence Minister Panos Kammenos on January 14 called for a referendum on any name agreement, which in essence is a vote of no-confidence in his Syriza coalition partners, if he actually holds to it.
Needleless to say, the main opposition New Democracy party has been doing whatever possible to widen this potential fissure so as to trigger elections which it is fairly certain to win, according to polling over the past year. This doesn’t mean its substantive position on the name is actually different from the Tsipras government’s. Into this volatile mix, one should also add the strong diaspora Greek reaction which is resolutely against the use of the word Macedonia in any name agreement.
In addition, a major protest rally headlined by a retired senior army general is being planned for downtown Thessaloniki on January 21 with over 500 buses already chartered. Angelos Kostopoulos, a former US Foreign Area Officer who trained with many current senior Greek military officials, told New Europe “After the Thessaloniki rally on the 21st, no Greek politician will be able to support a compound-name solution.”
The one thing almost all Greek parties accept is the common plank often referred to in Latin as “erga omnes,” meaning the agreed name should be used for all purposes, not just an “international name” that only Greece would recognize, or some other dual name formula.
Bottom line, and particularly difficult for Skopje, is that this provision logically leads to an eventual “constitutional name” change/referendum as well as the end of any irredentist references to a “Greater Macedonia” (usually including Thessaloniki) that can still be found in certain maps and textbooks produced by Skopje and distributed to its active diaspora abroad.
To make things more interesting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov noted in his New Year’s press conference on January 15 that the pressure to resolve the name dispute in 2018 is due to the U.S. desire to expand NATO and that Greece should not make any important concessions to accomplish this, precisely what many hardline Greeks wanted to hear.
The leadership in Skopje is perhaps now regretting the overly optimistic statements and hopeful gestures issued at the New Year. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev spent the New Year holiday in Thessaloniki on a private visit, coordinated with Thessaloniki’s Mayor Yannis Boutaris.
Zaev spoke to Greek PM Alexis Tsipras by phone while visiting the city and followed up in early January actively engaging with Greek press outlets, indicating at that time he thought a quick solution would be put in place and possibly agreed in the coming weeks.
Zaev promptly learned how not to achieve one’s desired results via public diplomacy, as his press interventions helped provoke a strong negative Greek public reaction. Finally, Skopje’s initial reaction to UN mediator Nimetz’s January 17 remarks in New York has been anything but welcoming (even leaking the compound name proposals), but Skopje has little alternative but to keep working actively for a solution, as NATO entry and EU accession are Zaev’s top priorities.
Washington’s hand has so far been unseen in supporting any deal, and U.S. officials are doing their best to remain silent, keeping the UN’s long-running Nimetz mediation process front and center.
It is unclear whether senior levels of the Trump Administration have any real commitment to NATO’s continued expansion in the Balkans similar to the focused drive seen in the final years of the Bush Administration, when Greece actually had to block the entry of Macedonia/FYROM at the April 2008 Bucharest Summit over the lack of a solution to the name issue.
Even so, there can be no doubt that Washington is hard at work behind the scenes urging both sides to compromise and supporting where possible the efforts of the UN’s (American) mediator, Matthew Nimetz, who is routinely in very close operational contact with the State Department.