Athens, Greece – Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have announced a historic agreement on the latter’s future name, paving the way for the final settlement of a 27-year dispute.
Severna, or Northern, Macedonia was one of three names left on the table since talks began in January. The leadership in Skopje chose it over Gorna (Upper) Macedonia and Nova (New) Macedonia.
“I believe all Greeks can today be proud,” Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said in a five-minute address from Athens on Tuesday night.
“This is a great diplomatic victory and a historic opportunity … not just for our nation but for our entire region. A source of discord that undermined the region’s ability to go forward together is ended, and a window of friendship, cooperation, prosperity and mutual growth opens onto the future.”
The agreement, he said, cemented Greece‘s status as a “leading power” in the Balkans and as a “pillar of stability”.
His northern counterpart in Skopje hailed the agreement as “historic”.
“We have been solving a two-and-a-half decade dispute … that has been drowning the country,” said Zoran Zaev, whose election in December 2016 presented a new opportunity for a solution in the long-running issue.
Zaev added that the deal “will strengthen the Macedonian identity.”
The two sides have not attempted to resolve their dispute since 1995. Conservative governments in Skopje have sought EU and NATO entry for two decades, seeing these as essential to the country’s long-term survival. Athens has held a power of veto over both, and wielded it at the 2008 NATO summit in Romania’s capital, Bucharest.
After Zaev’s election, talks began in January on the basis that Greece would allow use of the word Macedonia, and the government in Skopje would choose a qualifier, to differentiate the country’s name from the Greek province of Macedonia.
If all goes well, the European Union’s foreign ministers, who meet at the General Affairs Council on June 25, will decide whether to issue the former Yugoslav republic an invitation to join the bloc.
NATO would then, in theory, issue its own invitation at the upcoming annual summit on July 11-12. The two invitations would lend credibility to Zaev’s government, as it appeals to the country’s 1.8 million voters to back the deal in a referendum in the coming weeks.
Armed with a yes vote, Zaev would go to parliament this autumn to seek the two-thirds majority needed to alter the constitution in line with the agreement.
This would involve more than changing the constitutional name, “Republic of Macedonia”. Zaev’s socialist government will have to remove references to the “Macedonian people” as an indigenous race, implying ancient heritage. He will also have to remove references to past struggles to unite all Macedonians from Skopje to the Aegean, implying irredentist claims on Greek territory.
By the end of the year, Greece would ratify the agreement in parliament, and lift its veto on the country’s entry into the EU and NATO. Official entry would happen well ahead of elections scheduled for the autumn of 2019 in both countries.
For the Greek side, cultural issues have been paramount. The agreement will force Skopje to abjure any claims on Greek history and heritage, which could imply territorial claims on its northern regions. That means the people of its northern neighbour will be known as Macedonians from Severna Macedonia, softening claims to a Macedonian ethnicity with ancient roots.
“It will be [in the agreement] that this language bears no relationship with ancient Greek, [the state] lays no clame to ancient Macedonia, to Greek Macedonia, and this language belongs to the Slav family of languages,” Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said in an interview.
“I consider this honest and clear. They define their identity by saying it is other than the ancient or modern Greek, other than that of our Macedonia.”
A committee will be formed to revise school textbooks accordingly, Kotzias said.
Not everyone declared themselves satisfied on the Greek side.
“I don’t think there is any possibility of this agreement being accepted in the Skopje parliament or in a referendum,” said Defence Minister Panos Kammenos, leader of the nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL) party, which is the junior coalition partner to the ruling Syriza.
“But Greece has gained something very important,” Kammenos told reporters as he denounced the agreement before it was even made public. “It has shown that it is not Greece which is blocking Skopje’s path to the EU.”
Kammenos and his eight members of parliament will not vote for ratification in Greek parliament, he says, leaving the government shy of the outright majority it will need.
Kotzias has said that the government is able to secure the votes necessary without ANEL.
While many Greeks have recently demonstrated against any use of the word Macedonia by their northern neighbour, Kotzias has emphasised Greece’s interests in an agreement.
“Do we want these people to be Europeans, or looking to the east?” he asked rhetorically, a thinly veiled reference to Turkey’s courting of the country.
“Don’t we want young people to be brough up in friendship and good relations [towards Greece], rather than turn towards Turkey?”
Greece invested in NATO and EU membership to safeguard its own security during the Cold War, when it was surrounded by 1,000km of Iron Curtain.
It sees the expansion of both bodies in the Western Balkans as the completion of a jigsaw puzzle. Kotzias has embarked on a charm offensive to close the book on old disputes with Albania and former Yugoslav Macedonia, seeking instead to cultivate friendship and common positions.
A tortured history
The “Socialist Republic of Macedonia” held its first post-Yugoslav election in November 1990. The VMRO-DPMNE won on a platform of uniting all Macedonians in Macedonian lands under occupation in neighbouring Bulgaria, Greece and Albania into a Macedonian confederation, which would seek EU membership.
Greece watched with alarm as, on 25 January, 1991, the parliament in Skopje declared “sovereignty of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia” and the “right of the Macedonian people to self-determination”.
WATCH: ‘Macedonia is Greece’ – A look back at the decades-old row
On 8 September, 1991, 72 percent of the former Yugoslav republic’s citizens voted yes in a referendum on the question: “Do you support a sovereign and independent state of Macedonia, with the right to enter into a future union with the other sovereign states of Yugoslavia?”
That same month, parliament declared independence from Yugoslavia, and adopted its constitution two months later.
In December, following pressure from Germany, the EU declared it would recognise the former Yugoslav republics as individual sovereigns, precipitating the federation’s breakup.
Greece opposed the move but acquiesced following US assurances that it would receive diplomatic support on the Macedonia issue.
Greek nationalism was fanned by populists such as then-Foreign Minister Antonis Samaras. A rally in February 1992 gathered a million people in the northern city of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second biggest.
In July 1992, seeing that Greece effectively blocked the path to NATO and EU membership, the president of former Yugoslav Macedonia, Kiro Gligorov, changed tack and applied for recognition at the UN.
This caught Greece unprepared and created a two-track process Greece did not immediately address.
Meanwhile the deepening and broadening of the war in Yugoslavia added to European concerns that hostilities could extend to the south of the country if central government authority in Skopje were not quickly reinforced.
The socialist government of Andreas Papandreou placed an embargo on Skopje in 1994, excluding food and medicines.
Subsequent studies showed that this was largely ineffective, as Greek exporters sent shipments through Bulgaria rather than lose business.
It also backfired, isolating Greece diplomatically. Skopje now reaped a flurry of recognitions either as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, its official name in the United Nations, or as the Republic of Macedonia.
In September 1995 Athens admitted defeat and signed the Interim Accord with Skopje, whereby both sides recognised each other’s sovereignty, disavowed any mutual territorial threat, resumed trade and pledged to find a solution to the name issue.
This is the bilateral document that has governed relations between the two nations until now.