Awkwardly timed trolling by a minister in North Macedonia's caretaker government has angered Greece and reopened the former Yugoslav republic's most divisive issue ahead of campaigning for upcoming parliamentary elections.
Labor Minister Rashela Mizrahi, from the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, has repeatedly appeared in front of an old backdrop that doesn't include "North" in the country's name since being installed in early January as part of a custodial, multiparty cabinet.
The country officially became North Macedonia after the 2018 Prespa agreement -- and a subsequent referendum and parliamentary vote -- convinced EU- and NATO-member Greece to end years of obstructionism based on fears that Skopje's use of the name Macedonia implied cultural and territorial claims on northern Greece.
The push for adoption of the name change and a related drive for EU membership consumed two years of Social Democratic Prime Minister Zoran Zaev and his government's attention before Brussels signaled in October that EU expansion was on hold, prompting Zaev to call for early elections to be held on April 12.
Permanent backdrops reading "North Macedonia" are reportedly installed at government headquarters in Skopje but not at all ministries. The previous labor minister, Mila Casovska, had patched banners over the old backdrops that used the full name "Republic of North Macedonia" in multiple languages.
Mizrahi defended the use of the country's old moniker in a statement on the ministry's website on February 6 by saying "there are no old and new backdrops. There is only one backdrop" at the ministry.
But she also cited "a moral obligation" to respond to "injustice," and suggested, "we should thank the deputy prime minister for economic affairs for not changing the board and recognizing deeply that this is the Republic of Macedonia and this is the Macedonian people!"
The name change is still a hot-button issue on both sides of the 234-kilometer border that the two countries share.
The images of Mizrahi at press appearances in front of signs that said "Republic of Macedonia" roiled Greeks enough to prompt recent verbal protests from Athens that have embarrassed Skopje.
North Macedonia's foreign minister, Nikola Dimitrov, on February 9 called for Mizrahi to stop appearing in front of the old name or else be fired by acting Prime Minister Oliver Spasovski.
"The state will not allow such infantilism. The Labor and Social Policy Ministry is not her private apartment, just as the constitution is not merely a piece of paper," Dimitrov said, according to RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "The minister may not like the constitution or the Prespa treaty, but that does not entitle her to not apply it. Without the principle of constitutionality and legality, nothing will be left of the state."
On February 12, Spasovski proposed that the outgoing parliament dismiss Mizrahi.
The backdrop furor hints at a possible return to the kind of political acrimony that paralyzed the country, stoked ethnic frustrations, and stalled reforms for three years before a pro-Western government took over in 2017.
Parliament was expected to vote this week to dissolve itself, beginning the countdown to the April 12 voting with the country's two main parties expected to dominate.
They will be battling to lead North Macedonia's 2 million citizens through tricky political waters, with the consolidation of democratic reforms and possible talks on entry to the European Union hanging in the balance.
Mizrahi's conservative and increasingly pro-Russian Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE) spent years combating the pall of runaway corruption before spending the past two years in opposition.
Zaev's center-left Social Democratic Union was in opposition for a decade before governing alongside ethnic Albanian parties for the past two years.
VMRO-DPMNE appeals to Macedonians still angry over the Prespa agreement are likely a "populist" attempt at consolidating nationalists' support and battling perceptions that the party has lent legitimacy to Zaev's government, says Angel Mojsovski, a researcher at the European Policy Institute (EPI) in Skopje.
Many of the VMRO-DPMNE's supporters opposed the Prespa agreement and several senior party officials have vowed to seek to reverse the name change.
But the party also mounted only a half-hearted boycott and suggested voters should vote their consciences in the September 2018 referendum on the switch to "North Macedonia." The name change narrowly passed in the national assembly, known as the Sobranie, with four VMRO-DPMNE votes.
Mojsovski says the election campaign may be steered toward debate about the Prespa agreement "because that's what their supporters are asking from VMRO-DPMNE."
"I think that [members of the] VMRO-DPMNE are in a very tough position, because they have to have good connections with the international agreement, which is supporting the Prespa agreement," Mojsovski says. "But when they come home and are speaking to their supporters, they are saying that they will not respect the agreement [or will] find new ways to better it or change something. They are sending mixed statements."
He predicts that Zaev's Social Democrats will return to issues that earned them their second-place finish in the last elections, in 2016, including continuing economic growth and bolstering minority, language, and other rights issues.
"There is nothing more to address, at least for the ruling government coalition, for them to do something new or to say something new," Mojsovski says. "They should just implement what they said [they would do] in the 2016 campaign, because a lot of the stuff was not done -- they were focused solely on getting the EU date for negotiations."
EPI focus groups last summer suggested the promotion of democratic institutions and equality issues are high on the list of priorities for North Macedonia's 1.8 million eligible voters, Mojsovski says. They also include concerns about biased judges, stronger worker protections, corruption in public institutions, privileges given to senior officials, and language legislation.
Both the VMRO-DPMNE and Social Democrats have already announced overhauls to their programs in anticipation of the campaign, Mojsovski says. "I don't think that they will be focused on making 'black campaigns' against the opponents, but it may come out -- just to poke the opponent in the eye," he says.
Keeping EU Hopes Alive
A VMRO-DPMNE government fell in 2015 amid allegations that it had illegally wiretapped tens of thousands of Macedonians, including judges, diplomats, journalists, and religious leaders.
A mixed-party government took charge in late 2015 after an agreement mediated by the European Union and the United States, but 2016 elections proved inconclusive.
Finally, in mid-2017, the Social Democratic Union-led coalition under Zaev came to power following six months of political horse-trading.
Zaev's government negotiated and shepherded the Prespa agreement into effect despite significant public opposition to compromise on the country's name.
Prior to 2018, North Macedonia had been provisionally referred to as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) by the UN and some other international institutions, but most often simply as Macedonia.
Relations between Skopje and Athens have been mostly calm since Prespa cleared the path to Macedonian progress toward the European Union and other international institutions.
But in October, the European Commission delivered a heavy political blow to Macedonians by putting talk of membership negotiations with Skopje on hold, prompting Zaev to call for snap elections to allow voters to weigh in on the country's future path.
Under a 2015 deal mediated by the European Union and known as the Przino agreement, major Macedonian political parties pledged to allow a caretaker cabinet that includes ruling and opposition parties to govern for 100 days ahead of elections to ensure fairness.
That government, led by acting Prime Minister Spasovski and including Mizrahi, was sworn in on January 3.
The stakes in the April election are high, with the European Union said to be rethinking possible inclusion of North Macedonia in accession negotiations ahead of a planned EU-Balkans summit in the spring.
Washington is reportedly pressing the European Council to officially open accession talks with Skopje and neighboring Albania.