If there is an area where the June 2018 Prespes Agreement’s legions of detractors and a reasonable number of its mainstream but unenthusiastic supporters find agreement, it’s deal’s treatment of the nationality of the citizens of the newly-renamed country of North Macedonia.  Because the Prespes Agreement is in actuality much more than just a document with the limited objective of resolving the country’s name, nationalists on both sides found any compromise on the new nationality of North Macedonia’s citizenry a harbinger of a deeper existential conflict.  Some of that mistrust – focusing on the nationality question — bubbled to the surface in the past week, this time fuelling middle-intensity political grousing in Greece about the weaknesses of the deal and the motivations of those who rushed to June’s signature at Prespes, and its supporters.

North Macedonians need not apply — Skopje seeks to eliminate the term “North Macedonian” as an adjective

Heading into last weekend, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Skopje published new media guidelines February 22 to inform the journalistic community about changes in terminology flowing from the Prespes Agreement and the country’s renaming of itself.   A similar diplomatic note derived from these guidelines was issued by North Macedonia’s Mission to the UN Mission in New York, for global use.  The major purpose was to deter the media from using “North Macedonian” as the adjective in almost all cases and laying out when it was appropriate to use the terms “of North Macedonia” or “Macedonian” (its strong preference).

On January 28, New Europe laid out its editorial policy here https://www.neweurope.eu/article/welcome-north-macedonia/, which will not be changing.

Key excerpts from the document (full text linked below):

“The adjective “Macedonian” is to be used when relating to the ethnic and cultural identity of the people, our language, history, culture, heritage, territory and other attributes. Such terms in this context are distinctly different from those used and related to the region of Macedonia in Greece.

Correct examples: Macedonian ethnic identity; Macedonian language; Macedonian culture; Macedonian territory; Macedonian people; Macedonian history, Macedonian mountains; Macedonian literature; the Macedonian Cyrillic alphabet; Macedonian food; Macedonian churches etc.

Incorrect: Other adjectival references, including “North Macedonian,” “Northern Macedonian.” “N.  Macedonian” and “North Macedonian,” should not be used.”

Full text of the guidance, which is longer and somewhat more complex:

http://mfa.gov.mk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2975:prespa-agreement-media-guidelines&catid=52:press-releases&lang=en&Itemid=684

Why did BBC focus reporting on nationality issues in Greece now?  

Although Greek political commentators were amused by the media guidance out of Skopje, the BBC grabbed all the attention with its February 24 report entitled “Greece’s invisible minority – the Macedonian Slavs.”

The broad-ranging and well-researched article cast many different Greek governments as oppressors of the country’s Slavic, non-Bulgarian minority, and appears to place greater weight on the actions of the Greek government towards its Slavic citizens than those of the Slavic minority in World War II and later in the Greek Civil War, when many aligned first with the Axis occupiers and then with the Greek Communists, who were defeated after a bitter struggle.  Although these issues are unquestionably appropriate for historical debate, the article expressed hope that progress in Greece’s relations with North Macedonia might yield increased recognition and cultural freedom for Slavic-origin Greek citizens (those seeing themselves as Slavo-Macedonians) in Greek Macedonia, strongly implying that they face continuing oppression through continuing state-sanctioned pressure to assimilate. Greek media reports revealed that the article had been completed months ago, but for some reason the BBC’s senior editors decided it was appropriate to publish now.

https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-47258809

Coming on top of Skopje’s media guidance, most Greek political parties opposed to the Prespes agreement quickly interpreted the unfavourable BBC article as part of a broader international effort against Greece, or at least to undermine Prespes Agreement opponents by focusing on past unfavourable policies towards the Slavic minority by greek governments other than today’s SYRIZA and pressing for changes.

Most human rights experts working in the Balkan region can easily compile a list of Greek government policies towards other minority groups, whether they are officially recognized minorities or not, to add to the roster of problematic legislation and government practices that at the very least need modernization in line with EU standards.

In reaction, Greece’s main opposition party, New Democracy, called on Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to immediately and categorically communicate, in all directions, that there is no issue of a “national Macedonian minority” in Greece as laid out in the article.

Ambassador Dimitris Caramitsos-Tziras, Greece’s current Ambassador to the United Kingdom, sent a lengthy letter to the BBC challenging the article in numerous areas but specifically focusing fire on the BBC’s assertion that “by ratifying an agreement with the newly renamed Republic of North Macedonia, Greece has implicitly recognized the existence of a Macedonian language and ethnicity.”  He added “there is only one minority in Greece, as recognised by international treaties, namely the Muslim minority. Nevertheless, the article attempts to raise a non-existing issue by distorting the Prespes Agreement, while its writer has opted to not quote even its relevant provisions.”

Nationality tussle puts visiting American official in the line of fire

US Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Palmer, stopping in Athens en route to this year’s Delphi Forum February 27, encountered less than warm reactions from Greek journalists regarding the Prespes Agreement and the US role in bringing it to signature. As Skopje’s aggressive handling of the nationality issue is the topic of the day for many Greeks, he was asked about it.

While not attempting to justify Skopje’s stance, Palmer said a full implementation of the agreement will take time, and said both partners needed to demonstrate a positive stance to overcome whatever future glitches emerge. Palmer explained the goal of the “noteworthy” Prespes Agreement is to strengthen bilateral relations between Greece and North Macedonia, and to boost North Macedonia’s European prospects.

Palmer also noted that Moscow continues to try and undermine the agreement.

New US Assistant Secretary named, former US Ambassador to Skopje

Those inclined to interpret recent developments around the Prespes Agreement as dark harbingers for Greece got one more unpleasant surprise when the Department of State’s choice to replace departing Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Wess Mitchell emerged over the weekend.

Ambassador Philip T. Reeker has been named to replace Mitchell, who resigns at the end of February.  Reeker is coming from his current assignment as civilian deputy to the Commander of the US European Command (EUCOM) in Stuttgart, a slot normally filled by experienced State Department officers.   A public affairs specialist, Reeker has previously served as US Ambassador in Skopje (2008-2011), a source of concern for Greek analysts.  As a career diplomat, he has wide experience in Europe, having also served in Budapest and Milan, as well as in various senior European Affairs and Public Diplomacy positions in the State Department and farther back as spokesman for the US Delegation to the Rambouillet Process on Kosovo.

An announcement of a State Department Assistant Secretary level job switch in the year before US presidential elections would normally merit very limited US media attention, but to the countries involved, it’s always a major event.

While State’s decision is not quite as bad as naming a former US Ambassador to Ankara to that top European spot, Ambassador Reeker’s lack of positive professional interaction with Greece to date has not gone unnoticed by Greek analysts who will be watching his every move closely. However, Reeker’s Ambassadorial posting in Skopje occurred during the years hardline nationalist Nikola Gruevski ruled that country, one of the more difficult periods in the Washington-Skopje relationship.