After a delayed set of phone calls June 11 and 12, and a late June 12 intervention by UN Mediator Matthew Nimetz, the prime ministers of Greece and Macedonia/FYROM apparently reached an agreement on Macedonia/FYROM’s new official name – “The Republic of Northern Macedonia.”
Official announcements in both countries are forthcoming. A meeting at Prespes on the border of both countries has been set for June 16 for a formal signature on the twenty-page agreement. As expected, early reactions in both countries are negative to a gambit which 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.
Sequencing is key
The new agreed name will be “The Republic of Northern Macedonia,” in Slavic the “Republika Severna Makedonija.” The agreement has not been released for public scrutiny, causing great concern in both countries. It is not yet known what percentage of the “deliverables” (changes) which Greece expects from Macedonia/FYROM will be accepted on some form of delayed schedule later this year and what are Athens specific commitments regarding Skopje’s EU and NATO applications. Observers in Greece, a country for years forced to live under the tight foreign supervision of its economy, find it ironic that Greece is now the overseer in this deal.
Great giveaway or strategic victory? Time for reinvention in Skopje
If the deal is actualized it will close a conflict that has existed since Macedonia/FYROM declared independence in 1991, or much earlier, depending on how you interpret history. 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 Macedonia/FYROM to totally reinvent itself, and not simply for “international contacts,” as earlier rounds of negotiations had intended.
This will require constitutional changes by Skopje as will the removal of irredentist references from the document, which can be promised by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev but not guaranteed until after a referendum is held, as well as other important steps taken. Numerous observers in Skopje and abroad directly question Zaev’s ability to deliver. Another concern is how the draft agreement treats the so-called “Macedonian” nationality, an explosive issue for a large majority in Greece.
Reactions in Greece
So, the leaders have agreed. The question in the Greek political calculus is whether the deal is enough to rupture either of two fragile political fissures at a time when poll-trailing Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is also working to pass painful new economic reform legislation through his parliament before Greece exits its international bailout regime in August.
For now, Tsipras’ coalition with the right-wing Independent Greeks (ANEL) party is limping forward, although Defense Minister and ANEL Leader Panos Kammenos resolutely maintains his party’s deputies will not vote in support of the agreement, making passage in Greece an open question. He also believes strongly that the Macedonian/FYROM side will not be able to produce the promised constitutional changes or a successful referendum. Accordingly, he has argued much of the upcoming debate on the deal in Greece will be based on incorrect assumptions.
The second fault line exposed by the Name Dispute deal lies within the main opposition party New Democracy which is widely favoured to win the next elections. Party leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis must walk a fine line here, as his party’s right wing will have problems accepting any use of a compound name; in any event he will not give SYRIZA the parliamentary support it needs for passage and is already taking steps to challenge the “legitimacy” of the Tsipras government’s secret negotiating record. Late on June 12 Mitsotakis noted he had asked Tsipras not to sign this “bad agreement.” He called the acceptance of a Macedonian language and ethnicity “unacceptable national concessions,” adding “we will not divide Greeks to unite the Skopjans.”
The ruling SYRIZA party nonetheless hopes to weaken New Democracy by pressing Mitsotakis to take a moderate approach in the parliamentary debate on the deal, whenever that happens. There is some speculation that a vote on the agreement on the Greek side could be months off.
Reactions in Macedonia/FYROM
In Skopje the question remains whether Prime Minister Zaev can deliver the votes needed, when needed, to move ahead with constitutional revisions.
President Gjorge Ivanov, originally from the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party, has not publicly reversed his on-the-record opposition to constitutional changes. Without these, the deal falls apart.
Foreign intervention – was it the key?
While many in Greece will believe that PM Tsipras got his marching orders on the Name Dispute while visiting President Donald J. Trump at the White House in October 2017, the visible interference from American officials has been refreshingly low and nuanced. In fact, leading media commentators rate Berlin, Brussels, and Washington as key the foreign influencers on the deal, in that order, but tend to focus excessively on lack of visible US pressure while obsessing over each and every statement made by German officials.
The lack of strong interest by several key EU countries in immediate EU expansion is frequently cited in Athens as a reason to partially disregard the June 28-29 EU Council meeting as a real target date for the deal, yet it currently appears that target could well be met.