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Making progress in the Balkans? As frangible as chopping a Macedonian salad

After almost thirty years, the Macedonian naming dispute looks like it will finally be resolved but is it really the case? Europa United Editor Christos Mouzeviris looks at possible outcomes.

Last Friday Northern Macedonia’s parliament voted for changing its constitutional name, in order to end the dispute with its neighbouring Greece, over the use of the name “Macedonia”. The 27-year-old disagreement, which was the main obstacle to the Balkan country’s NATO and EU aspirations, seems to be finally about at an end. However, nothing is set in stone just yet. The new name and the ratification of the Prespa Agreement, signed by the two countries last June that paved the way to the recent breakthrough must be approved now by the Greek parliament.

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Greek Prime Minister Aleixs Tsipras and Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev at the signing of the Prespa Agreement

A difficult road ahead

A task that won’t be easy. After the euro-zone economic crisis, which saw the Greek economy shrinking, a humiliation of the country with three bail-outs and a serious downgrading of the population’s living standards, the Greek voters are ultra-sensitive on matters of national interest. As result, the country’s parliament has a strong percentage of nationalist parties and MPs, which will make almost impossible such ratification. Not only that, but the Greeks have taken to the streets numerous times until now about the issue, as is sure they will do again in the future.

The current ruling coalition is that of the left-wing Syriza and the right-wing party of the Independent Greeks which recently decided to pull out of the government over Syriza’s support for the Macedonian agreement. Independent Greeks leader Panos Kammenos has always opposed its ratification and he resigned Sunday last, forcing Greek prime minister Aleixs Tsipras to call for a confidence vote this coming week. Given the fact that Syriza’s government is highly unpopular due to its failure to reverse some of the austerity measures adopted to deal with the economic crisis, it is highly likely that Greece will head to elections much earlier than expected in October. Those who hope for a new Greek government in order to ratify the agreement should be wary. If Syriza is forced to go to elections, possibly it will lose as the party is quite unpopular right now among the Greek voters. Thus, New Democracy will gain power, in which there are many nationalist MPs also opposing such a treaty between Greece and North Macedonia. In order to halt the progress of Golden Dawn and other right-wing parties in Greek politics, the leading opposition party has itself been forced to give prominence to its more nationalist politicians.

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Panos Kammenos

In North Macedonia, the opposition nationalist party VMRO-DPMNE, boycotted the ratification session and is also against the deal. If Greece fails to pass the agreement, then there is a risk that the current ruling party in its neighbouring country will also lose the next elections and be replaced by the nationalists also, sadly, pushing any potential solution back for many more years. The Europeans and Americans are most keen to see the issue gone and resolved but as they are in an ongoing tug of war with Russia about influence in the region, things get complicated. There are numerous issues and factors involved, not just Greece and its sensitivity on the heritage, history and territory that feels that are threatened by its neighbour. The Balkans are a very strategic area, which if Europe manages to integrate, can be transformed to a very vital region for the continent.

A few vested interests

Naturally various players want a role in it. Turkey and Russia keep their foot in their region, as well as the US and Europe. This often hinders development, as the hostility and competitiveness of the big powers spill over and fuels nationalism and petty disputes. Bulgaria had its own issues with the small Balkan country, which like Greece, was about linguistics and ethnic identity. Although it was the first country to recognise its independence, it refused to recognise the existence of a separate Macedonian nation and language. It argued that the Macedonians are a subgroup of the Bulgarian nation, and that the Macedonian language is a dialect of Bulgarian. Yet despite their differences, the governments of Bulgaria and Northern Macedonia signed a friendship treaty to bolster the relations between the two Balkan states in August 2017. The treaty was ratified by the parliament’s of the Republic of Northern Macedonia on the 15th of and of Bulgaria on 18th January 2018. However, despite this, there have been occasional diplomatic fall-outs. Only last December, a junior partner in Bulgaria’s coalition government, the Bulgarian Nationalist Movement (VMRO-BND), raised the possibility of new hurdles for Skopje, by threatening to withdraw Sofia’s support for Macedonia’s Euro-Atlantic integration. The party led by Defence Minister Krasimir Karakachanov, was annoyed over recent arguments made by Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev about the existence of the Macedonian language.

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Krasimir Karakachanov

Incidents such as these make many Greeks wary about the point of such compromise. In addition, when they look at how many Central-Eastern European member states switched from pro-European and progressive governments back to more authoritarian, they doubt that EU membership for Northern Macedonia will control their irredentism and a slip back to nationalist identities. Given the fragility of the deal and the urgency the US and Europe to round up the integration process in the region, Athens will be facing pressure from its Western partners. However, dry diplomacy cannot always win over deep-rooted nationalist sentiments in all sides.

There is a major lack of trust, which combined with populism, lack of dialogue and communication,  a will to change and compromise that are aggravated and manipulated by foreign powers, as well as nationalist local ones, that make this ratification a huge challenge. One would wonder why on earth can’t there be a Macedonian region in Europe, inhabited by a number of ethnic groups-as it always has been the case- which can all be called “Macedonian”. And why one of these groups can’t establish a country named Northern Macedonia, which speaks Bulgarian and if it likes, can proudly hail Greek heritage through the famous ancient Greek kingdom instead of presenting it as its own, fabricating new history. The whole of Europe claims Greek heritage so I don’t see any problem here. And there are many countries with no separate distinctive national language, like Switzerland with four official languages, Ireland with English, Cyprus with Greek and Austria with German as their national language. Why can’t Northern Macedonia adopt Bulgarian as theirs, in return with guarantees from Bulgaria, that it will respect their right to exist as a separate distinctive nation?

What am I?

What we have instead is a tiny state with an identity crisis, rightly wanting to self-determinate and create a state, yet insisting on allowing misguided nationalists poisoning its relations with its two neighbouring countries, which should be its partners and brother nations. In addition, as a reaction to this madness we have Greek and Bulgarian nationalists blocking the country’s prospects to prosperity and stability, which is the only way to achieve a less nationalist sentiment in its population. Poverty as it is known, goes hand in hand with lack of education, populism and irrational nationalist ideologies. Not just in North Macedonia but in its neighbours too. It is no coincidence that austerity helped the rise of the far-right in Greece, exposing the Greeks’ weakness of keep feeling insecure about their future and seeing enemies all around them; instead of trying a different approach to the problems they are facing. Sharing the name is not a threat to their identity, if the people of North Macedonia learn to respect Greek sensitivities on their history and heritage. But that will require mutual understanding, dialogue and above all trust and time.

I wonder why the inhabitants of this region prefer to stick to old grudges and century old legends or history and allow what they can have in common, splitting them ever apart. No one can guarantee that Northern Macedonia will stick to its promises once it joins the EU, but as the block helped sooth the rivalries between France and Germany, I am hopeful that someday the Balkans will finally realise their common and shared future.

Should they fail in a process that took nearly three decades, the only losers will be the people of this region. Caught in petty nationalism and foreign interests, the region will remain the one of the least developed of Europe and most unstable.

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