Friday, July 20, 2007

Greece-Macedonia: Sticks and stones

A name dispute that has dragged on for more than a decade between the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and neighboring Greece over has been given new life as a high-ranking Greek diplomat is summoned home and dismissed from her post.

The Greece-FYROM dispute – perhaps the most notably pedantic of the various similar disputes raging among Balkan countries since the 1990s – is a frequent cause of diplomatic outbursts. Despite its seeming insignificance, has easily intoxicated the public, with the xenophobic and intolerant nature of the dispute being reflected even in sports, theaters and literature.

There is little by the way of geopolitical strategy in the dispute, but local politics certainly plays a key role, with neither side willing to back down from their hardline stance now that the public has been consumed by the fires. Politicians who change their stance could risk re-election or be dismissed from office.

The nature of the dispute is illustrated by the fact that it has done nothing to hinder the two countries' excellent trade relations.

Macedonia gained independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991, joining the UN in 1993 under the temporary name of the FYROM, as Greece then demanded. However, government institutions, citizens and much of the rest of the world continued to refer to the country as the Republic of Macedonia, its constitutional name.

That fact has outraged Greek officials, who say that its neighbor's claim implies territorial claims to the northern Greek province of Macedonia.

Only Greece has raised issue over the name, even though there are nearly a dozen cities, regions and mountains also bearing the name "Macedonia" – six of which are in the US, with others in Australia, Canada and Brazil.
Expending unnecessary political capital

In the latest development in late June, Greece threatened to seek a veto on Macedonia's bid to join NATO and the EU unless the name dispute was resolved in its favor.

Macedonia turned in its application for EU membership in 2004 and was accepted as a candidate in 2005, but no date has been set to start entry talks. EU officials say the name dispute is not part of the conditions for organization accession.

Still, according to the latest poll conducted in June, more than 80 percent of Greek citizens would block their neighbor's bid to join to NATO and the EU under name "Macedonia," while some 60 percent would block it regardless of which name it was registered under.

Christopher Deliso, an American journalist and director of the Balkan-interest website,, believes that any attempt by Greece to block Macedonia's EU accession would be a major expenditure of political capital. In the end, Greece would be blamed for inhibiting the Euro-integration of the Balkans.

At this point, Macedonia is in a better position than its neighbor, since the name dispute is not among NATO and EU requirements and given the fact that most of the major world powers support Macedonia in the case or have demonstrated a complete lack of interest in the dispute. When Macedonia joins NATO and the EU, becoming an equal partner with Greece, most experts believe that it will only be a matter of time before Greece will have to admit diplomatic defeat.

But for now, the dispute rages on.
Realism dismissed

On 12 July, European Parliament adopted the report on Macedonia's progress toward EU membership and welcomed the achieved progress.

Two days earlier, the head of the Greek diplomatic mission to Skopje, Dora Grosomanidou, was summoned to Athens and dismissed after having given a statement to the press advising Greece to recognize FYROM as the Republic of Macedonia, and put an end to the 15-year dispute.

"Greece should face the new reality that Macedonia is recognized under its constitutional name by more than half of United Nations members and that Athens should show more realism on the issue," Grosomanidou, whose mandate was due to end in four months, said in the interview for the Financial Times on 5 July.

Soon after her interview, she was summoned to the office of Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis and told that there was no need for her to return to Skopje.

Some Greek media responded to the affair by suggesting that the Macedonian government had paid the Financial Times to publish the statement to further what they called Skopje's propaganda campaign. Some media also talked about Macedonia's "friendship group" in the US Congress.
Flags, symbols and constitutions

Greece was one of the few countries who refused to grant diplomatic recognition to Macedonia after it gained independence from the former Yugoslavia. In early 1994, Greece also imposed an economic blockade on the country, which lasted until a resolution was found to similar disputes over flags and constitutions in 1995. But the blockage cost the Macedonian economy an estimated US$2 billion.

After gaining independence, Macedonia used the Vergina Sun symbol on its flag, which is associated with King Philip II of Macedon – a symbol that deeply offended Greeks, who claim that it represents the birth of the Greek nation. Historians would argue that both are correct.

Other issue that led to a tense dispute between two countries was Macedonia's first post-independence constitution, which Greek officials claimed had territorial pretensions toward northern parts of the country, particularly the Greek region of Macedonia.

In that constitution, Macedonia said it would assist and make links with Macedonian nationals in neighboring countries. Greece interpreted the wording as having secessionist undertones.

An agreement was reached between the two countries under the supervision of and pressure from the international community, when Macedonian officials agreed to meet a number of Greek demands to remove the symbol. Weak diplomatic relations were then established.
Irreconcilable differences

Still, the unresolved name issue appears to be irreconcilable for the time being, with Macedonia refused to abandon its constitutional name and Greece refusing to accept it under any conditions.

In the meantime, while all UN member states have recognized FYROM, they are divided over what to call it. A number of countries recognize Macedonia's constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia, including the US, Russia, China and 103 others. However, the constitutional name is never used in relations where a country not recognizing the constitutional name is a party.

In 1995, the UN set a 2002 deadline for reaching a solution to the name dispute – a deadline that has come and gone. Though there have been a few instances of false hope, both sides have reverted to the drawing board, rendering the dispute unsolvable.

Recently, Greek officials proposed that the country be called the "Macedonian Republic of Skopje," or even the "Macedonian Republic (Skopje)," confident that the additional of the country's capital in the name would set Greek citizens at ease. Macedonia officials overwhelmingly rejected the idea.

The closest the two sides came to a deal was in 2001, when then discussed the potential use of "Gorna Macedonia" (Upper Macedonia). But negotiations collapsed when Macedonia was engulfed in an ethnic conflict between security forces and the ethnic Albanian minority, which was rebelling for more rights and greater representation.

Two special UN mediators, Cyrus Vance and Matthew Nimitz, since 1993 have proposed various compromise solutions without much success. The latest proposal came in 2005, when Nimitz proposed using three separate names for the country, depending on the situation.

The proposal suggested that the "Republic of Macedonia" be used by those countries that had recognized the country under that name, including international institutions and organizations, while Greece should use the formula "Republic Macedonia – Skopje."

Greece rejected the proposal as unacceptable, though Macedonians had no arguments.

Since this failure, the UN has not put forward any new solutions.

While many experts believe that the name issue can only be resolved by international arbitration, often the final solution in Balkan disputes, Delisio disagrees.

According to Deliso, "It will not be possible to resolve it successfully until the perception of the debate is changed and no longer viewed as a 'winner take all' scenario. A 'compromise' could be enforced, but if done under current conditions, would not be a healthy one," Deliso said.

An enforced solution would not improve the relations between the two countries and small scale incidents would likely continue - such Macedonian authorities' move last year to change the name of Skopje's "Petrovec" airport to "Alexander the Great."

The move caused immediate outrage among Greeks because of the existence of the "Megas Alexandros" Kavala International Airport in the neighboring Greek region of Macedonia.

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