In the shadow of the failed Cyprus talks, another critical regional issue for Greece and the Western Balkans is apparently coming back into sharp focus: the long-running dispute over the official name of that country called interchangeably “The Republic of Macedonia” (by many world powers) or “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM) as recognized by the UN and a number of countries but especially Greece and Cyprus.
Since the change of government in Skopje in late May, it is easily possible to list a growing number of reasons why Skopje’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations of joining the EU and NATO might be coming into reach. And there is certainly an expectation that Zoran Zaev’s new multi-ethnic coalition government in Skopje will be extended every possible helping hand. And of course, resolution of the Greece-Macedonia name dispute is the key to unlocking almost all of the Euro-Atlantic support efforts that would anchor the country in Europe and NATO.
Washington’s interest in supporting Macedonia’s integration process could not be clearer, especially since the State Department as of late has had much to say about Russian Malign Influence (RMI) in the Western Balkans and has calibrated its assistance strategies for countries in the region to counter Russian destabilization initiatives wherever possible.
As the Greek side clearly recognizes the need to support full Macedonian integration into Euro-Atlantic structures as well as the general objective of countering Russian mischief in the Balkans, one would hope that Athens and Skopje will be able to generate movement on the name dispute without too much external interference. That seems to be happening now, and in the coming days and weeks we will have a clearer view of the U.S. and EU role in all of this. Skopje wasted no time in dispatching Foreign Minister (and former negotiator for the name dispute) Nikola Dimitrov to Athens in mid-June for consultations with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias. It seems both countries recognized the need to jump-start the process even before UN Special Envoy for the name dispute Matthew Nimetz could engage. He visited Skopje July 2-4 after a three-year absence, and is meeting Greek FM Kotzias July 17 in Brussels, after a hoped-for early July Athens meeting failed to materialize.
In the past, practically any mission Matthew Nimetz undertook on the name dispute was tightly coordinated with Washington. Although the players in the State Department have all rotated through the years, there is no reason to think that close coordination isn’t occurring already and that he isn’t working on a program for high-level meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) meetings in September, despite low expectations for quick results voiced when he was in Skopje.
So what of an enhanced American role in bringing the dispute to a resolution? Time will tell, but the stars appear to have aligned in a positive formation. The U.S. State Department is of course nowhere near full strength in terms of senior political appointees, but the career officers in place are fully qualified to take advantage of the current positive political situation. In fact there has been a rumor for some time that the current Deputy Assistant Secretary responsible for Balkan issues is to be assigned to Skopje as Ambassador whenever the heavily bogged-down system for transferring diplomatic personnel in Washington permits it. This likely means the resolution of the name issue would clearly become one of the top operational priorities for the European Bureau at State.
The U.S. is in a particularly strong position to persuade the Tsipras government in Athens to move towards a rapid solution. Recalling that PM Tsipras will be visiting Washington in the near future, progress on the name dispute will be an important regional issue and near the top of the agenda. Recalling also that the Syriza party’s coalition government partner ANEL (Independent Greeks) has voiced serious concerns about any compound name – (upper-Macedonia, etc.) formulation in an eventual solution, the U.S. Government could help clinch a deal with number of quiet bilateral commitments to Athens. These can ultimately make sense because all parties to these negotiations agree on the need to bolster democratic development in Skopje and to contain Russian efforts in the region. It will be up to the experienced diplomats in Athens, Skopje, Washington, Brussels and New York to figure out precisely what kinds of sweeteners could be sufficient (we can think of a half dozen) to increase Athens’ confidence and allow progress towards an agreement.