Sunday, April 11, 2010

Macedonia under the pressure of its neighbours

Ever since its proclamation of independence, Macedonia has experienced challenges from its neighbours in regard to its statehood, national identity and church. Had it not been for the EU, the USA and NATO, the country would have succumbed to internal conflict and probably also to outside aggression. But Macedonia has managed to survive despite its domestic problems, and become a candidate for membership of the European Union and NATO. These alliances serve also as guarantors of its continued existence and of the integration of its divided society.

Serbia recognised Macedonia in 1996 under the name of Republic of Macedonia, albeit with a demand for some minor border corrections. But the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) refuses to accept the independence of the Macedonian Orthodox Church (MPC) proclaimed in 1967. The issue of autocephaly of the MPC is closely linked to that of Macedonian statehood, i.e. with recognition of the Macedonian state.

The fact that Serbia does not have clearly demarcated borders with its neighbours will pose a serious obstacle to its closer integration into the European Union. As an integral aspect of regional cooperation, this is expected to become a major political problem in the region. This was stressed in the 2009 European Commission’s report for Serbia, which noted that Serbia has not established its borders with either Croatia or Bosnia-Herzegovina or Montenegro.

Serbia reacted strongly against the signing of a border agreement between Macedonia and Kosovo. Negotiations on such an agreement between Montenegro and Kosovo are due to begin soon. Since Serbia does not recognise Kosovo’s independence, fixing its borders with the states that have recognised Kosovo is bound to become a lengthy and consuming problem.

Taking advantage of Macedonia’s complex international position, Belgrade has been using Kosovo as a new instrument of blackmail. Aware of the complicated relations that exist between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians in Macedonia, Belgrade thought that Macedonia would not hurry to recognise Kosovo. But international circumstances and Macedonia’s chance to move faster towards Europe prevailed also in the case of its approach to Kosovo’s independence, and recognition of the latter undoubtedly contributed to the stability of this part of the Balkans.

Relations between ethnic Macedonians and Albanians proved to be more important than the earlier sharing of positions with Serbia towards the Albanian question. Following the Ohrid Agreement (2001), Macedonia gradually came to accept the fact that the Albanians are a crucial factor of its internal stability.

Macedonia recognises Kosovo’s independence

Macedonia recognised Kosovo’s independence at the same time as Montenegro (2008), and Serbia took this as a sign of hostility on the part of the two countries. Serbia promptly applied the Kosovo Action Plan, the details of which are revealed only in concrete situations. Belgrade’s first measure was to withdraw ambassadors from neighbouring countries, and to expel the Macedonian and Montenegrin ambassadors.

Macedonia and Montenegro justified their decision to recognise Kosovo in the following manner: ‘In view of the fact that the Kosovo institutions have bound themselves to fully implement the principles and rules envisaged by the UN general secretary’s special representative for the solution of Kosovo’s status, the two countries support the building of democratic institutions in Kosovo designed to establish a multinational society that would guarantee the right of all ethnic communities to their cultural, confessional and linguistic identity.’ (1)

Belgrade’s reaction elicited some serious diplomatic pressure on the part of the USA. The American secretary of defence, Robert Gates, sent the message that ‘Washington would greatly appreciate Macedonia’s prompt recognition of Kosovo.

Macedonia’s two most important ethnic Albanian parties, the Albanian Democratic Party led by Menduh Thaci and Ali Ahmeti’s Democratic Integrative Union played a key role in ensuring Macedonia’s speedy recognition of Kosovo. This also contributed to the country’s stability. The two parties’ document states among other things: ‘The status of Kosovo has for a long time been generating important political problems in the region, instability and armed confrontations ... Recognition of Kosovo is a realistic solution to the regional crisis.’ Menduh Thaci explained the Albanian parties’ initiative as follows: ‘Kosovo’s independence is not only an Albanian project but also one pressed for by USA, EU and NATO.’ (3)

Macedonian President Ivanov’s inauguration

The inauguration of the Macedonian president, Gjordje Ivanov, elicited also blackmail on the part of Serbia and Greece. The inauguration was witnessed by Albanian president Bamir Topi, Montenegrin president Filip Vujanovic, Croatian president Stipe Mesic, and Serbian president Boris Tadic. The Kosovo president, Fatmir Seidiu, did not come as a result of Serbian pressure, while the Bulgarian and Greek presidents, Georgi Pervanov and Karolos Papoulias respectively, did not turn up even though they were invited.

Tadic stressed in his congratulatory address: ‘I congratulate you most sincerely on winning the presidential election. I am sure we shall work on strengthening neighbourly and friendly relations for the benefit of the citizens of Serbia and Macedonia.’ (4) Tadic stressed that in addition to the recognition of Kosovo, the two countries faced also the unresolved church question.

The Macedonian media were critical of Ivanov’s decision not to invite the Kosovo to the inauguration, arguing that ‘the regulation of inter-ethnic relations in the country should not be replaced by one-off favours to someone’s Serbian friends, be they Tadic or Ðelic...’. (5)

Macedonia between Kosovo and Serbia

The omission of an invitation led to an offer to Kosovo president Seidiu. to be the first foreign statesman to visit Skopje after Ivanov’s inauguration. Sejdiu declined, however, because the Macedonian president was not going to receive him with due protocol. This was another concession to Belgrade. According to Kosovo analysts, President Seidiu was right not to go, and this move did not upset relations between the two countries.

The Kosovo analyst Milazim Krasniqi says: ‘Macedonia is a country which, like Kosovo, is beset with many problems. Thus, for example, they [in Macedonia] have a great problem with neighbouring Greece, because they cannot agree on the name. And until a few months ago they had difficult relations with Serbia because of recognition of Kosovo - they don’t need additional complications in regard to Kosovo.’ (6)

Krasniqi stressed also that ‘both Kosovo and Macedonia have declared themselves in favour of regional and European integration’. ‘I therefore think that this is an isolated case. I think that the Macedonian president and government should carefully consider the message for the sake of continued good relations which should, however, conform to some standards of mutual respect.’ (7)

Macedonia’s view on Kosovo independence before the International Court of Justice (ICJ)

Thanks to pressure from Belgrade, Macedonia decided not to state its view on the legality of Kosovo’s proclamation of independence or submit any documents in this regard. The decision to remain neutral was made after the Serbian media criticised it for not supporting Serbia before the ICJ.

Relations between the Serbian and Macedonian Orthodox Churches

The Macedonian Orthodox Church - the Archbishopric of Ohrid (MPC - OA) or simply MPC - is the official Orthodox church in the Republic of Macedonia, but remains as yet unrecognised by its peers. The MPC proclaimed its independence from the SPC in Ohrid in 1967. The conflict with the SPC dates from that time, and the latter’s non-recognition is in essence non-recognition of Macedonian statehood. The Ecumenical Patriarch did not recognise the Macedonian church because it bears the Macedonian name, and the same is true of the Greek and other churches. The Macedonian church sees itself as the heir to the archbishopric of Ohrid. The SPC, on the other hand, recognises only the newly created Orthodox Ohrid Archbishopric headed by Jovan Vraniškovski.

In 2003 the SPC offered to the MPC autonomous status within the Serbian church, which would mean that the congregation and the clergy of the Macedonian church would be obliged to mention in every liturgy the name of the Serbian patriarch. The only bishop who accepted this was Vraniškovski.

The Greeks, on the other hand, reject the Macedonian nation and use of the Macedonian name for the state, because they see the name as belonging to their alleged historic territory (associated with Alexander of Macedonia). This is why Greece (and the EU too) continue to identify Macedonia as BJRM/FYROM - the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. A more recent suggestion intended to satisfy both sides is Northern Macedonia or Slav Macedonia.

The new Serbian patriarch Irinej recalled this problem in his first declaration: ‘We have a common history and culture, and the language is mutually comprehensible. What has been happening up to now is not normal. We have done everything to overcome this problem, but they did not understand this well enough, and now they do. ‘ He also said: ‘We now face a new problem because there exists now a new official church [the Ohrid Archbishopric] which all nations recognise, and it will require much effort on their part too for this problem to be mutually resolved. Our door is open, and my desire is that we find a solution. We shall do all we can, I as the patriarch and the church as a whole, to solve the problem.’ (8)

Secret negotiations were also conducted between the two churches during 2009. This was made public by the bishop of Backa, Irinej. He told the Skopje media that ‘there were contacts and talks, but without concrete results’ (9), adding that there is a desire in both the SPC and the MPC for dialogue and for overcoming the current status quo situation. Sources in the MPC say that the Serbian side softened its positions when it saw that the project with Jovan Vraniškovski had failed.

The Macedonian church seeks autocephaly, but the SPC insists on ‘autonomy’ which falls short of independence. The MCP knows full well that the path to strengthening its position goes through the Belgrade church, but it is difficult to expect that the Serbian church, which enjoys excellent relations with the Greek church, will grant autocephaly to the MPC in the situation of unresolved conflict between Skopje and Athens over Macedonia’s name.

At its recent synod the MPC changed its name to Macedonian Orthodox Church - the Archbishopric of Ohrid (MPC-OA). According to a professor of theology at the university of Skopje, Dimitar Belcovski, who worked on changing the MPC constitution, the proposal for extending the name had been submitted to the synod back in 2005.

Serbia’s reaction to Macedonia’s establishment of diplomatic relations with Kosovo

Relations between Serbia and Macedonia have been strained ever since Macedonia’s recognition of Kosovo. President Tadic says that in principle ‘Serbia remains attached to regional cooperation, and supports Macedonia in regard to EU membership’. ‘We are moving forward together also in regard to the European states’ decision to abolish the visa, which is of great importance for our citizens.’ (10) Serbia believes that the Western Balkans should join the EU as a ‘package’. Hence this declaration and also Serbia’s behaviour towards its neighbours confirm its strategy of obstructing a more rapid integration into the EU of, in particular, Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Serbia insists that the status of Kosovo is the point on which the two countries’ policies diverge; but, as Tadic says, the imminent opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legality of independence could bring about changes in this field too. ‘Serbia will never recognise the independence of Kosovo. After the ICJ judgement, Serbia will be ready to initiate a new dialogue aimed at finding a compromise solution.’ (11)

The Serbian foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, said on the occasion of his meeting with the Greek foreign minister, Dimitris Droutsas, that Athens could count on ‘Belgrade’s full political, moral and any other support in solving the question of Macedonia’s name’. (12) ‘Greece has proved to be a sincere friend and a moving force in the process of inclusion of the whole Western Balkans into the EU, and in that context we fully understand - and will continue to extend our full support to - the efforts of the Greek government to solve all the issues important for the Western Balkans, including also the sensitive issue of the name of the state the capital of which is Skopje’, said Jeremic. (13)

Macedonia opened its embassy in Prishtina on 15 March 2010 in a practical confirmation of the establishment of diplomatic ties. Macedonia’s foreign minister, Antonio Milošoski, stated on that occasion: ‘Macedonia and Kosovo favour peace in the region, friendship and economic cooperation. The opening of the embassy represents for us a solemn moment and a new impetus in our inter-state relations.’ He also said that his country supported Kosovo’s territorial integrity and would help Kosovo in the process of visa liberalisation. (14)

Fixing the frontiers

Border agreement between the former Yugoslav republics is one of the conditions of their advance towards the EU. Defining the frontier is a bilateral problem that has to be solved before entering the EU. The commissioner for EU enlargement, Štefan Füle, says that ‘each state that seeks to join the EU must resolve its bilateral problems in parallel with the preparations for European integration’. (15)

The director of the Centre for Regionalism, Aleksandar Popov, stresses the problem. ‘Macedonia has already defined its border with Kosovo, and when Montenegro too has done this, we [in Serbia] will face a double problem. Demarcation will be one of the contested questions on Serbia’s road to the EU.’ (16) ‘If Serbia were forced to recognise Kosovo, it would also have to fix its border with it; but given what has been written into the [Serbian] constitution and the official state policy, this will take a long time’, says Popov. (17)

The Macedonian and Kosovan parliaments have recently ratified an agreement on the inter-state border, which caused a strong reaction from Serbian politicians. The Macedonian government’s spokesman, Martin Martinovski, believes that ‘the frontier question between Macedonia and Serbia was solved in 2001', and that the agreement with Kosovo posed no problems. Montenegro too holds the view that ‘the alleged border problem can be politicised, but there is no essential conflict in international law’. (18)

Vuk Jeremic has said that Macedonia’s agreement with Kosovo on the border was ‘a blow against Belgrade-Skopje relations’, which was ‘bound to have consequences’; that the Macedonian decision was ‘deplorable’; and that it made no sense to negotiate about Serbia’s borders with anyone but the Serbian government. (19)


Serbia should change its attitude to the unresolved regional problems in order to facilitate its own advance towards the EU. Open frontier issues create a space for manipulation and blackmail of neighbours whenever it suits Belgrade.

Open border issues allow Serbian conservative circles to question the new realities in this part of Europe, and to treat them as historically contingent. This is of particular importance bearing in mind the wars of the 1990s, which left many problems behind, especially those springing from interpretation of the wars and the associated responsibility for them.

Macedonia avoided war, but has been paying a price for years because of the pressure imposed on it by its neighbours. One way of creating new relations in the region is to put an end to border disputes and territorial claims.

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