Republic of Macedonia: how has its ill-fated candidacy affected broader EU and NATO issues?

In early 2018, the European Neighbourhood Policy’s Enlargement Negotiations Commissioner Johannes Hahn confirmed that Montenegro and Serbia are on course to become the newest Member States of the European Union, by 2025. As efforts are being directed at an enlargement that will bring Western Balkan candidate countries into the EU, the case of the Republic of Macedonia and the Greece-Macedonia (alternatively, Greece-FYROM) dispute has come to the forefront once more. The naming dispute has obstructed Macedonia’s integration to the EU and the NATO military alliance, as well as affected other European issues regarding self-determination and territorial integrity.

This piece seeks to examine why this decades-long dispute persists, how it has affected integration prospects of multiple European countries, and the broader Balkan politics involved.

What is the dispute?

When the former Yugoslavia disintegrated in 1991 and the former Socialist Republic of Macedonia became a sovereign independent state, it adopted the name Republic of Macedonia – in entering the world order under this constitutional name, the country incited a historical dispute with Greece.

Greeks and the Greek government claim the name ‘Macedonia’ and the culture this term retains to be Greek in origin and designation. Greeks assert that Macedonia – the name itself and the accompanying heritage therein – has historically always been Greek, and therefore the newly-established Republic wrongfully labels their culture and language to be Macedonian when it is actually of Slavic origin. For instance, the geographical Northern region of Greece, home to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-biggest city, is called Macedonia; and historical figures such as Alexander the Great or symbols such as the Vergina Sun are claimed by Greece at the same time that Macedonia uses them to name airports or design the national flag. For this reason, Greeks demand a name change that respects their territorial and cultural integrity and does not appropriate Greek culture, by labelling the culture present in the Republic of Macedonia a name separate from Greek nomenclature. The main slogan of the ongoing protests – the most recent of which was a large public demonstration in Athens on February 4th 2018 – is ‘Macedonia is Greek’, calling the Republic of Macedonia, the ‘Republic of Skopje’ instead.

The Republic of Macedonia and the Macedonian government, on the other hand, claim proper usage of the name Macedonia as a result of the democratic September 1991 referendum that established their independence. Landlocked in the politically-flared Balkan Peninsula and accommodating multiple minority groups within their borders (i.e. Macedonian, Albanian, Serbian, Turkish, Roma), the Republic of Macedonia embraces the term ‘Macedonian’ as the common ethnicity, language and identity that binds the country together, as voted accordingly by the people at the moment of the country’s foundation. They demand neighbouring, regional and international powers respect this under claims of the right to culture, the right to self-determination and people’s rights. Above all, Macedonian foreign minister Nikola Dimitrov has stated that Greece “cannot deny us the right to be Macedonian and to speak the Macedonian language”.
The political dispute has escalated to the highest ranks of international mediation in attempts to deescalate or settle the conflict, which more often than none has relied on biased propaganda or nationalist rhetoric from both sides. It touches upon cornerstones of international human rights, such as the right to self-determination and the right to culture. What’s more, in dealing with two sovereign states, the dispute has inevitably affected global politics and obstructed integration efforts, notably for the European Union and NATO.

How has it affected the European Union and NATO?

Although Greece has not blocked all international integration efforts supporting the Republic of Macedonia, the government’s refusal to recognise the country has certainly burdened efforts. As a post-Soviet country marred by political strife and a developing economy, attempts to dissuade Macedonia’s assent into multilateral organisations have not been favourable for national growth prospects. Similarly, it has prevented such multilateral organisations from also moving forward with enlargements or closer ties.


EU rallies in Macedonia

A Member State of the United Nations since April 1993, the Republic of Macedonia’s application was not free from controversy: not all Member States recognised the Republic’s constitutional name, which resulted in the country being admitted under the provisional reference name ‘the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ or FYROM. For this reason, the application process took much longer than that of other newly-independent countries from the Former Yugoslavia, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia, all admitted in 1992. Applications for NATO and the European Union have been much more difficult, in being organisations that are not global in their scope, unlike the United Nations.

Macedonia – also listed in the NATO-verse as FYROM and not the constitutional name ‘Republic of Macedonia’ – has been a partner of the NATO military alliance since 1995 and a member of the Membership Action Plan since 1999. Yet neither presuppose an automatic granting of membership, with the country’s path to becoming a full-fledged ally having been obstructed solely due to the naming dispute. At the 2008 Bucharest summit, the event which officially invited Albania and Croatia (both currently already members, since 2009) to join the alliance, Greece vetoed an invitation be extended to Macedonia. The official NATO website inclusively states that ‘’Allies agreed that an invitation to join the Alliance will be extended to the country as soon as a mutually acceptable solution to the issue over its name has been reached with Greece’’. Yet the Macedonian government maintained that all membership requirements had been dutifully fulfilled and, for this reason, submitted a case to the United Nations’ International Court of Justice (ICJ). They sought to contest Greece’s blocking of its membership to NATO in it directly violating the Interim Accord of September 1995 which stipulates that Greece could not block any bid to join the alliance rooted in the name dispute.

The ICJ judgement ruling of 2011 confirmed this, urging that the ‘’Interim Accord places Parties under a duty to negotiate in good faith with a view to resolving difference over name.’’ Although ICJ judgements are not legal settlements to contentious cases, but advisory opinions on legal matters, this decision held no binding value. It did however confirm a real and urgent need for cooperation and open dialogue between the two neighbouring states. Macedonia’s ill-fated membership to NATO affairs as an ally comes at a time when the alliance is actively moving forward with enlargement toward Balkans countries to counter Russian soft power influence in the region – Montenegro, for instance, became the latest country join, acceding in June 2017.

At a European Union level, Macedonia has similarly seen the path to membership halted due to the naming dispute with Greece, a Member State since 1981. Macedonia – once more listed in official EU documents as FYROM – was identified as a candidate country in 2005. The EU is the largest partner and provider of Macedonia, closely cooperating and financing efforts from rule of law and justice system reforms to improvements of public transportation and the health system. EU membership is a main priority for the Macedonian government – it is a circumstance that usually comes with increased soft power, higher international recognition, renewed political security and revived hopes of regional stability. Nevertheless, Macedonia’s final accession to the EU has been cut off by the ongoing naming dispute. While said tension has not prevented visa liberalisation for the Schengen area to be granted to Macedonian citizens in 2009, the launch of accession talks has been repeatedly and consecutively vetoed by Greece authorities. Bulgaria, a Member State since 2007, has most recently also raised issue with accession talks owing to bilateral tensions regarding ethnic minorities and shared recent history.

As the dispute remains unsolved, EU diplomats have lamented Macedonia’s involuntary exclusion from closer negotiations, seeing as it ostracises the country from broader international standing and positive integration efforts. Perhaps most importantly for European foreign policy is that this stalemate necessarily affects the already fragile regional stability of the Balkans, as well as EU ambitions for a new enlargement in the region. After 2004 saw ten former Warsaw Pact countries join the Union, Jean-Claude Juncker’s European Commission has made clear that a priority for the remaining months of the current mandate is to speed up accession talks with candidate countries, namely Montenegro and Serbia. The freshly-released EU-Western Balkans Strategy affirmed this commitment by setting new target dates for progress on negotiations. EU membership for Macedonia is therefore geopolitically mutually beneficial: it would give the country the push it needs to boost industries and stabilise internal political tensions, and it would offer new momentum of prosperity to the region.

At a Macedonian internal level, this past year of 2017 also brought about crucial political changes that have allowed the stalemate to slowly evolve: a new government has prioritised dialogue with Greece over nationalist identity-building policies. The nationalist VMRO-DPMNE government (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity), in power since 2006, had pushed an extremist agenda named ‘Antiquisation’ and an anti-Greece narrative, also fuelled by the NATO entrance-blocking during their mandate. When Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of the centre-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia party took office in May 2017, he dissipated his predecessor’s policies and talks with Greece took off. The results have come through, bearing in mind the tense decades-long dispute: the airport and major roads named after Alexander the Great were renamed in a goodwill gesture, reciprocated on Greece’s part with the decision to ratify the new phase of negotiations for the accession of Macedonia for the EU.

Indeed, as both NATO and the EU are increasingly betting on the Balkan countries, the new Macedonian government was voted in just in time to conciliate a more solution-oriented approach that seeks to appease Greece in an effort to keep Macedonia within this enlargement wave.

How has the neighbourly dispute spilled to other countries or regional issues?

In international human rights law, international politics are all about creating precedents. In the case of the self-determination, for example, the Macedonia naming issue has proved to be a political dispute which indirectly fuelled many other bilateral disputes on national integrity and self-declarations of independence. Most notably, Greece does not recognise the independence of Kosovo, therein directly blocking integration efforts between the EU and Kosovo as a potential candidate country. The Republic of Kosovo self-declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. For this same reason also Spain does not recognise Kosovo as an independent country, in fear of how such recognition of a self-determined state could trigger even more separatist pretensions in the Catalonia region. What could have been straightforward accession phases and negotiations have turned into political nightmares of vetoes and empty promises, all rooted in national issues that exacerbate domestic borders to taint international disputes.



Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev

With regards to NATO, the naming dispute has led to a political nightmare of a more bureaucratic nature. In light of Turkey, a founding member and ally state, recognising Macedonia under its constitutional name rather than the provisional FYROM, it was accorded that every official NATO document or publication that cites ‘FYROM’ must dutifully be followed by an asterisk that notes Turkey’ recognition of Macedonia’s constitutional name. Albeit a smaller debacle, it perfectly reflects the ongoing political tensions between historically-linked countries, friend or foe.

When discussing the Macedonia naming dispute we are talking about the limits of the framework of self-determination as well as the gray areas of the right to culture or intellectual claim – and how these fit in the scope of international human rights law. In effect the dispute between the two countries deals with claims of integrity and intellectual property that have little no ground in legality – the claim is more of heritage and history in the form of symbols and figures than rightfully of geographical land or physical property.

Although cultural conflicts mustn’t be devalued in comparison to hard power conflicts, there is no proper way to reach a solution but through dialogue which leads to concessions. International human rights law has no further role to play in solving this dispute, which made Prime Minister Zaev’s rise to power even more consequential. The appropriation of symbols and names as a threat to national integrity is beyond law and the EU’s neighbourly relations. Ultimately, the solution lies in strict compromise and open dialogue between both parties. Living in the globalised world order as is, of transnational communities and hopeful integration efforts, clear-cut compromise must be done on both sides to at long last move past this impasse.

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3 replies »

  1. The dispute though is not only about the name. You mention in your well written article aspects of nationalistic agendas, but at the same time you do not mention beliefs such as great Macedonia, which expands to Thessaloniki. Nor you mention the motion of freeing the “enslaved” Macedonian brothers of Bulgaria and Greece.
    Even if not specifically written as such, in FYROMs constitution there existed aspects related to expanding views. This are also cultural aspects of the issue.
    Why not consider those as well as part of your mention? You depict the bad Greeks vetoing all the time, and the good will of the FYROMs government, which happened by name change. Greece has also decided to embark on these negotiations, which depict the willingness to resolve this issue.
    In the end though, if name and identity are so simple, such a minor issue, why not choose a different name on order to become a member state and a member of NATO?


  2. The people of Republic of Macedonia will always be Macedonian and nobody can change that. Countries’ names are temporary but identity is permanent. Greece finds justification of the occupation of Aegean Macedonia by claiming the name ”Macedonia” to be theirs. I know many people who were expelled from Aegean Macedonia, their homes burnt and property looted. Therefore, the dispute is not exclusively about ”symbols and culture” but rather practical – about territory.


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