Saturday, April 05, 2008

Unbefitting Behavior

f NATO cannot pressure Greece to lift its childish blockade of Macedonia’s membership bid, the EU should.

Amid the fanfare of an agreement over US missile defense plans and the rejected membership aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine, news on NATO’s Bucharest summit largely overlooked the fate of Macedonia – or the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), as the country has been ingloriously called since it joined the United Nations in 1993.

While Albania and Croatia both received invitations to join the alliance, Macedonia was left waiting outside after Greece, to the chagrin of NATO’s leadership, blocked Skopje’s bid. There were no claims from Athens of a lack of military readiness on the part of the Macedonians, only a refusal to budge in the long-running debate with the country over its constitutional name. Since 1991, after Macedonia gained independence from the former Yugoslavia, Greece has protested again the use of “Macedonia” and “Republic of Macedonia” because it sees the name as implying a territorial claim on Greece’s northern Macedonia province.


The claim that Macedonia has designs on northern Greece appears patently absurd. Even the most fervent nationalist would be hard-pressed to explain how a poor country of 2 million could ever possibly hope to conquer a neighbor so much larger, richer, and more powerful. And precisely NATO membership serves to contain territorial ambitions and historic animosities.

The Greeks don’t need to look far for an example: NATO’s wise decision of 1952 to accept both Turkey and Greece has surely been a key factor in preventing disputes over Cyprus, as well as Aegean airspace and sovereignty, from escalating into war. More recently, the entry of Hungary, along with the other Central European states, helped assuage regional fears over Hungarian irredentism. If anything, Greeks would have less to fear if Macedonia joined the alliance.

Clearly, there is more at stake here, and it would be difficult not to assume that the wildly unpopular government of Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis has continued to use the name dispute to fuel its own flagging support and preserve its narrow parliamentary majority. A recent poll showed that 84 percent of Greeks approved of Greece vetoing Macedonia’s NATO bid if no compromise could be reached in time. The opposition, seeing the opinion polls, has also shamelessly sided with the government.

Yet, as TOL has reported, Greeks and Macedonians that deal with each other on a daily basis have no such problems getting along and hardly care about the name issue. They just want to get on with business.

The Macedonians haven’t really helped matters either. The decision in December 2006 to rename the airport in Skopje after Alexander the Great, whom the Greeks consider a central part of their heritage, was predictably viewed as a provocation. Was it really that difficult to pick another name, especially when the Greeks already have Megas Alexandros International Airport at Kavala in the neighboring Greek region of Macedonia? And this past week, in a case of extremely poor timing, billboards appeared around Skopje showing the Greek, blue-and-white-striped flag with a swastika instead of the classic cross. While the authorities were not responsible – the posters advertised a private art show – their reaction was slow, and only in response to an official diplomatic complaint.


The repercussions of a delayed NATO bid are very real. For many in Macedonia, the name issue festers, heightening their feelings of insecurity and defensiveness and feeding their nationalistic inclinations. Before the Bucharest summit, approximately 90 percent of the population supported membership. The decision to send soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan was largely supported as a fair price to pay for possible acceptance into the alliance. And, importantly, the common goal of membership served to unite the country’s two main ethnic groups, the Slavic Macedonians and Albanians, whose skirmishes in 2001 nearly erupted into a fully-fledged war.

Now all bets are off and the future unclear. The disappointment in Skopje gave rise to countless interpretations over what had transpired in Bucharest and what should be done. Some ethnic Macedonians – already much more inclined than Albanians to say the name issue is more crucial than NATO membership – have called for an end to any negotiations over the name and even suspending the agreement that allowed the country to enter the United Nations under the FYROM designation.

Others have talked of bringing the soldiers back, cutting off all ties with Greece, and forgetting altogether about membership in the EU and NATO. They see Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence and subsequent recognition by much of the international community and wonder why they shouldn’t try to gain recognition of the country by its constitutional name. Not surprisingly, support for NATO has sharply fallen.

Hopefully (and probably), cooler heads will prevail and the sting of rejection will wear off in a matter of weeks, if not days. NATO membership should remain front and center in Macedonia’s ambitions – even if it won’t obviously be a quick fix for all of the country’s ills, especially its 35 percent unemployment rate. But, as proponents of enlargement tirelessly argued before several Central European states were accepted in 1999, membership does convey a very real sense of reliability to the outside world, including potential investors. It is also, at least psychologically, a big stepping stone on the way to membership in the EU, both for the country itself (progress does have its rewards) and EU member states (if they joined one elite club, they might be ready soon for ours).


At every other instance of nationalism in the Balkans, in Central Europe, and elsewhere, there is incessant hand-wringing in Brussels, followed by a flurry of communiqués condemning the alleged perpetrators, calling for calm, and threatening this or that state that its actions could impede possible membership. Greece, on the other hand, has gotten away with blocking a country’s movement toward stability and prosperity over nothing more than a name that harms its pride over its glorious history and supposedly suggests territorial ambitions.

Are there really no buttons to push to force the Greeks to concede? While one may not agree with the view of some NATO states to postpone membership for Georgia and Ukraine so as not to antagonize Russia, it is surely an opinion to be taken seriously. But Greece? We are hardly talking here about a European powerhouse that drives the continent, politically or economically – a country to fear one way or another.

We have now reached a point where the EU, supposedly all about quenching such disputes on its territory, should consider isolating Greece. Only eight years ago, after Jörg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party joined a coalition government in Austria, EU member states stopped cooperating with Vienna. While the effectiveness of those “political sanctions” has been debated, something of the sort should at least be considered for an EU member state clearly engaging in a nationalistic, populist game with public opinion – a member state twice condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for its attempts to ban an association and a political party representing the Macedonian minority.

A precedent for a hard-line stance with Greece does exist. Back in 1994, Greece imposed a trade embargo on Macedonia over the name issue, cutting off the country from the port of Thessaloniki. Angered about the impact on Macedonia, already suffering because of an existing UN embargo on Yugoslavia to the north, the European Commission took Greece to the EU’s European Court of Justice, doubly embarrassing because Greece headed the EU presidency at the time.

Similar pressure today could, in the end, also serve as a face-saving measure for the Greek government. To be fair to today’s politicians, their intransigence is a product of the poor diplomacy of their predecessors and their tendency to play the nationalist card. Pushed into a corner over the name issue – where compromise would be viewed as failure – Karamanlis could instead blame the EU. He could say he had no other choice but to compromise, or face isolation. After 17 years, it’s time for a change in tactics.

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