Just a few days ago, I witnessed something unprecedented: the Macedonian and Greek Prime ministers, shaking hands vividly. Even the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Johannes Hahn, heralded the event as a landmark for both the region and the country:
“To provide tangible proof of our commitment to a resolution, I am announcing that we will change the name of the airport and the main highway,” Zoran Zaev told reporters after the meeting. He specified that the new name for the country’s airport was yet to be determined. However, the main highway link will be renamed “friendship,” Zaev announced, triggering varied reactions on social media.
Zaev’s administration is akin to regime change. The new government succeeds a regime that had elevated nationalism to main rationale of its existence, that also had an economic rationale for those who imposed it. Following the 2008 Greek veto on Macedonia’s NATO membership, the country’s main airport, highway, and city squares were renamed “Alexander the Great,” or Philip, in a statement of national defiance that went hand-in-hand with multimillion dollar national monuments. The message was clear and it still echoes across the country.
The name issue is a constant factor in a Balkan puzzle with many variables. However, the two sides are narrowing in on a UN-mediated solution, EU and US diplomats say, amid high praise for Zaev for reversing the nationalist politics of his predecessor, Nikola Gruevski. All the problems and players are same, except one: Zoran Zaev. The newly elected Macedonian Prime minister had the first New Year celebration after he took office in Greece! That takes significant courage or lack of good sense in any furiously nationalistic Balkan state. But, that is exactly what we needed, namely the courage to believe that obstacles are just challenges that we can overcome.
After returning from Davos, Zaev gathered all the leaders of the political parties represented in parliament, as well as the country’s President, in a meeting held late on Saturday afternoon. The meeting reflected on the latest proposal of the United Nations Special Representative for the name dispute, Matthew Nimitz. Following a six-hour consultation, every leader came out with a positive statement for the meeting itself, but not necessarily ready to extend political support for Prime Minister Zaev. Still, the process of political consultation was a clear message of inclusive engagement but also political responsibility towards Macedonian citizens of all political persuasions, on a matter that lies at the heart of national identity.
For the Macedonians, the name issue has turned into identity question. That should not have been the case: identity is a matter of self-determination, not recognition. When Greece accuses Skopje of irredentism, most people laugh, as if the tiny landlocked country of approximately 2 million inhabitants – according to an outdated 15-year old census – can really be a danger to Greece. Over the last 15 years, over 25% of the population has immigrated and there has been little progress, economic or social. Meanwhile, Greece is a NATO member, and much bigger geographically and demographically.
All public opinion polls show that at least 59% of the citizens would not accept a compromise on the name issue as a prerequisite to NATO membership. The latter is of outmost significance for the small Balkan state, as there is a history and tradition of parallel enlargement between the EU and NATO.
Macedonians hoped that electoral victory of Syriza in 2015 would bring to office a government that would be more leftist than populist, which did not happen. Additionally, the Greek Orthodox Church has joined with inflammatory discourse, playing a political role that one would think that a leftist government wouldn’t allow them to play.
It is clear that both governments, in Athens and Skopje, face different challenges. Athens enjoys a historical, institutional, and geopolitical advantage, as it always did in this dispute. Greece has little to lose in the barraging game except “exclusive possession over history” that cannot really happen. Macedonia too must negotiate between its past and future, and address if not entirely resolve existential problems.
After a long decade of conservative rule, social-democrats have fragile minority in the Parliament. The newly elected government inherited empty budget and large public debt, an over-inflated public administration, zero international integrity and, of course, the cost of the “Skopje 2014 project”. The country is still shaken by minor protests over the prosecution of former VMRO DPMNE officials, accused by the Special Public Prosecution envisaged by the Brussels-mediated Przhino agreement. Under this agreement, those held responsible for the “Bloody Thursday” events that unfolded in April 2017, will be brought to justice.
The same protesters object to the Law on (official) Languages, entailed in a bilateral agreement with Bulgaria, as well as Zaev’s resolve to settle the name issue as soon as possible. Some of those protests also mobilize the Diaspora: in New Zealand, Australia, Israel and so on. Zaev’s diplomatic campaign has so far been defiant of these challenges, focusing of improving the country’s international standing, prioritizing Euro-Atlantic integration and economic development.
Generally, Zaev enjoys high popularity ratings but the idea of negotiating identity and name is not popular: conservatives see it as a betrayal; social democrats generally feel affected by the notion that this situation violates international law and (their) human rights. Ethnic Albanian parties, especially Ali Ahmeti, the leader of DUI, prioritize NATO integration and urge solution of the name dispute in the same model and the friendship agreement signed with Bulgaria, highlighting that “the term Macedonia does not affect the integrity and sovereignity og Greece”.
This is the moment for the international community to step in and end the zero sum equation, providing a broader vision for the stakeholders involved. Zaev must find abroad the support he cannot find at home, which will be necessary to seal an agreement that will allow the country to move on and forwards. Incentives to finalize an agreement may also be useful in Athens, where the government has its own fragile parliamentary majority and its own nationalist challengers. Zaev presents an opportunity for an agreement, but as every historical moment in such a protracted dispute. That window of opportunity maybe narrow.
Vesna Poposka is an independent analyst, PhD candidate of international relations and security at the Macedonian Military Academy.