Ending the Bitter Dispute Over the Name ‘Macedonia’

(Bloomberg) -- The Republic of Macedonia will hold a referendum on Sept. 30 over whether to change its name and end a dispute with Greece that has blocked it from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. The Balkan neighbors agreed in June that doing away with the ungainly “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” -- shorthanded as “FYROM” -- would solve the row that has divided them for more than seven decades. But it’s not a done deal. There’s stiff opposition on both sides of the border, and the vote is just one of several crucial steps.

1. What’s the referendum about?

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his counterpart, Zoran Zaev, agreed that the Republic of Macedonia -- the small independent state that was born out of the breakup of Yugoslavia -- will become the Republic of North Macedonia. The question that Macedonian voters will be asked is, “Do you support EU and NATO membership by accepting the agreement between the Republic of Macedonia and the Republic of Greece?”

2. What does that mean?

Greece, like all members of the NATO and the EU, has a veto over new admissions. It used that veto to block the Republic of Macedonia’s accession to NATO in 2008 and later halted the start of negotiations to join the EU, pending resolution of the name dispute. Athens argued that the name Macedonia should refer only to Greece’s northern region, which was Alexander the Great’s stronghold in ancient times. To Greece, Macedonia has nothing to do, historically and culturally, with any other country, including the republic to its north.

Ending the Bitter Dispute Over the Name ‘Macedonia’

3. How did we get here?

The roots of the conflict go back to World War II. The southernmost of six Yugoslav republics, the “People’s Republic of Macedonia” was cultivated under federal leader Josip Broz Tito. The U.S. State Department, in a telegraph from December 1944, called the designation “unjustified demagoguery representing no ethnic or political reality” and said it might be a front for aggression toward Greece. The dispute then simmered for decades until Yugoslavia disintegrated. In 1991, the southern region declared independence as the Republic of Macedonia. Greece lodged a protest at the United Nations Security Council, alleging theft of historic and cultural identity. In 1993, the new country joined the UN under its provisional name, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

4. Why is this coming up again now?

The two sides resumed UN-mediated talks in December 2017 after Zaev’s new government took office, replacing a nationalist party that had ruled in Skopje for more than a decade. Tsipras now says that if the Republic of Macedonia changes its constitution to allow for the name switch, Greece will support talks on welcoming the freshly branded Republic of North Macedonia into the EU and stop vetoing its neighbor’s admission into NATO.

5. What would Greece get from this?

Tsipras wants a foreign-policy victory to foster security in a tense part of Europe and boost his standing at home before elections next year. Greece is one of the biggest foreign investors in its northern neighbor, with its companies controlling the country’s sole oil refinery and the second-biggest bank.

6. Will the referendum pass?

Signs are pointing to yes. More than two-thirds of voters support the deal, and turnout is seen at 58 percent, above the 50 percent threshold needed for the plebiscite to be valid, according to a survey by the Societas Civilis Institute for Democracy on Sept. 10. Still, the opposition VMRO-DPMNE party doesn’t support the agreement. The ballot also has only consultative status, so lawmakers aren’t obliged to respect it when Zaev attempts to change the constitution to enact the name change later this year.

7. What’s the outlook in the Republic of Macedonia?

Even if the referendum passes as expected, Zaev currently doesn’t have the two-thirds parliamentary majority he needs to push through constitutional amendments that ensure his country will make no claims on Greek territory, a key part of the deal with Athens. He’ll have to find support from the opposition, which has vowed to torpedo any changes, and President Gjorge Ivanov, an ally of VMRO-DPMNE, has also denounced the agreement, saying it hurts his country’s national interests. Also, if the referendum approves of the name change and the constitution is changed, countries such as France and the Netherlands may still object to granting the country a potential date to join the EU, which would be a blow to Zaev’s government and could trigger instability across a volatile region.

8. What’s the outlook in Greece?

Demonstrators have taken to the streets chanting “Macedonia is Greek” in Athens and Thessaloniki, the capital of the Central Macedonia region. Trailing in the polls, Tsipras can ill-afford to be depicted as a sellout. Plus, he governs in a coalition with a nationalist party that opposes any use of the M word by Greece’s northern neighbor. On the other hand, should the Republic of Macedonia continue to be barred from NATO and the EU, it would be a plus for Russian President Vladimir Putin in the western Balkans. The region is a traditional sphere of influence for Russia, which remains opposed to NATO’s expansion in Europe.

The Reference Shelf

  • EU membership for all ex-Yugoslav states would be a beautiful ending to a tragic story, writes Bloomberg Opinion’s Leonid Bershidsky.
  • An International Crisis Group paper on the name dispute.
  • A commentary in Stratfor.com argues that the dispute is essentially a clash of national narratives.

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