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In 'Macedonia' Name Dispute, Optimism In The Air

Graffiti in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, that roughly translates as "IT'S ABOUT THE NAME," a reference to the dispute over the use of the word Macedonia, which has dogged both countries for decades. (file photo)

It will not happen tomorrow, but a cloud hanging over neighbors Greece and Macedonia for more than two decades might soon be lifted.

Delegations from the two states, headed by their respective negotiators, Adamantios Vassilakis and Vasko Naumovski, are due to meet with UN mediator Matthew Nimetz in New York on January 17 to resume talks over Macedonia's official name, frozen since 2014.

Greece has objected to Macedonia's use of that name -- also a region of northern Greece -- since the former Yugoslav republic's declaration of independence in 1991. Unlike some, Macedonia did not have to fight a war to secure its statehood; but it has been engaged in a diplomatic struggle to keep its name for 26 years.

As a constituent part of Yugoslavia, it had been known as the "Socialist Republic of Macedonia," but its bid to simply drop the Socialist designation and become the sovereign "Republic of Macedonia" was repeatedly thwarted by EU member Greece.

At the forthcoming meeting, Nimetz is expected once again to present the parties with a list of names that have been under discussion before, with only minor changes.

So no one is expected to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

But the meeting could be a major step in the right direction.

'Positive Momentum'

Driving from Thessaloniki toward the Macedonian border, one will not come across any road signs for the state of Macedonia. There is a sign indicating an international border crossing, and the direction of the Macedonian capital, Skopje, is indicated.

Nimetz is nevertheless optimistic about resolving the dispute. He told Greek state television this week that there was "positive momentum" in both countries: "I think the people in both countries are maybe ready to hear some solutions that are consistent with national interests but also have some element of compromise that would resolve the problem."

So far Greece would only countenance referring to its neighbor by the acronym FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). The country was admitted to the United Nations under that name in 1993, and that designation is used by the EU among others. (Others, including the United States, China, and Russia, routinely use the name Republic of Macedonia in communications with Skopje.)

A compromise solution could involve substituting a new qualifier, such as "Upper," "Northern" or "New Macedonia."

But for many Greeks, even this might be unacceptable. According to a recent poll, more than two-thirds of Greeks are opposed to any mention of "Macedonia," and there are rallies planned in Athens and northern Greece in the weeks ahead.

Reportedly in order to avoid tensions, the Greek prime minister has called on the influential Orthodox Church to refrain from commenting on the Macedonian question.

Clash Of Identities

In Macedonia itself, opinion is divided.

An informal poll conducted by RFE/RL's Balkan Service on January 11 on the streets of Skopje found that many people would like to see the issue resolved one way or another. Yet others are firmly against any concessions, convinced that Macedonia has the right to its own choice of name.

Behind the dispute over the name is a deeper clash of identities. Among other things, there is a tug-of-war over the figure of Alexander the Great -- claimed by Macedonians as an important part of their national identity. The Greeks, meanwhile, argue that their own ancient heritage is being hijacked by their Slavic-speaking neighbors.

"The hardest part of the bargain is that we have to renounce our mythology in order to allow Greek nationalism to incorporate the newly created Greek-Macedonian identity into Ancient Greek mythology," Denko Maleski a professor at the Skopje University Law School, told RFE/RL.

A monument depicting Alexander the Great in the Macedonian capital, Skopje. (file photo)
A monument depicting Alexander the Great in the Macedonian capital, Skopje. (file photo)

However, Maleski, who was Macedonia's first foreign minister following independence, is optimistic.

"A solution to the name issue is both possible [and desirable], as it would improve [Macedonia's] chances of getting NATO membership," Maleski added.

Indeed, the day before the New York meeting, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was due to visit Skopje in what was being seen as a clear show of support for Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic integration, including NATO membership.

Ismet Ramadani, head of the Macedonian Euro Atlantic Council and adviser to Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, spoke of "a decisive week" ahead and a "historical moment."

But he also cautioned that optimism and good intentions alone were not enough, telling regional news agency IBNA that "there must be concrete results in reaching an acceptable compromises [sic] on the name dispute."

Having just emerged from a prolonged internal political crisis, the new Macedonian government may be keen to resolve a longstanding dispute with its neighbor -- particularly as it may smooth the way to EU and NATO membership.

'Historic Chance'

Greece, too, has an interest in shoring up regional stability.

According to Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov, both sides are obliged to seize the "historic chance" following a turbulent few months in the wider Balkan region.

"I think the public can be very happy that now someone is raising the name issue as it indicates that the country's stability has returned," said Skopje professor Toni Deskoski.

The focus on EU and NATO integration, and better relations among neighbors, appear to contrast with the policy of the previous Macedonian government. The government has shown a willingness to compromise, for instance by agreeing to become a NATO member as "FYROM" rather than Macedonia -- even if this is unpopular at home.

But political analyst Albert Musliu suggests that this flexibility could strengthen Macedonia's hand in future negotiations.

"We had to change the narrative while resolving the name issue, because we cannot box with Greece while negotiating, and I think that is exactly the strategy of the new government," Musliu said. "Let's not forget that Greece is a full member of NATO, and it's a voice we depend on for gaining membership in European institutions. I believe that the strategy now is improving and softening the relations with our neighbors, especially Greece, but it is for our partners to also help for Athens to understand Macedonia's position."

For most Macedonians, nomen est omen. But there appears to be a recognition on someone's part that short-term compromises on the name issue may benefit their country over the long term.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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