Greece and Macedonia edge towards solution to name dispute

16 January 2018

If an agreement is reached, the Macedonian government is in a strong position to approve it. From the Greek side it could be more challenging.

By Vladimir Gligorov

An agreement between Greece and Macedonia on the latter’s name is apparently at hand. According to reports, the agreement between the two countries has three key elements:

  • Issue No. 1: The name of the state. Provisionally, and only in international institutions, the name is currently the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (or FYROM). Greece cannot accept just Macedonia, while Macedonians cannot accept no mention of Macedonia in the name. The new agreement appears to pave the way for a permanent name: New Macedonia, a solution potentially acceptable to both sides.
  • Issue No. 2: Citizenship. For Macedonia, citizens of the state will be 'Macedonian', whereas for Greece they will be 'New Macedonian'. Internationally, there may be a split between the multilateral institutions (using the Greek version) and bilateral relations (using either one).
  • Issue No. 3: National identity. For Macedonians it will be Macedonian (there are also Albanians and a number of minorities). For Greece it will be 'Slavo-Macedonian'. Greece can also call its citizens Macedonian, if they so desire. The latter is probably irrelevant because of the strong preference within the country to use only Greek as a nationality, although it is possible that some will refer to themselves as Greek Macedonian.

Macedonian perspective: positive

The key tenets of the agreement, or a variant thereof, seem reasonable. Politically, the Macedonian government will face little opposition to this agreement. Macedonian identity, when it comes to the name, is not ethnic but regional - somebody living in the region of Macedonia. The nationalists (VMRO party) attempted to connect the identity to Alexander the Great and ancient Macedonians, which is unfounded and unreasonable (this is putting it mildly). In that context, New Macedonian is more accurate. The identity is really based on the political history of the independence movement in that particular region and on that territory and on the Macedonian language. It is not an ethnic thing (or racial, which is what the Slavic characterisation implies).

Greek population may be more resistant

The Greek government will have more of a problem selling the agreement domestically. This is because of the detour that the Conservatives took after the end of the Simitis-Papandreou government. The latter was close to an agreement essentially indistinguishable from the one which is being discussed now. However, for domestic reasons, Greece’s then-Conservative government needed to revive nationalism (as did VMRO), and subsequently stepped back from the agreement.

As a result, Prime Minister Tsipras may face a hostile public reaction. The argument he is making is the same one employed previously by Papandreou: that the agreement provides Greece with a leadership position in the Balkans and thus strengthens its influence in the EU. And the latter, Greece needs badly.