The Foreign Ministry’s recall of the Greek ambassador to Skopje shows the dead-end that Greece has reached in the dispute over a permanent name for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
Theodora Grosomanidou committed the sin of commenting to a reporter for The Financial Times that “Greece has to face the new reality, as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has been recognized under its constitutional name by more than half of the members of the United Nations.”
What she did not need to add was that among those countries are the United States, China and Russia – which means that the big powers, all of them, have moved on and will not pay heed to Greece’s arguments. The only thing that Greece has to show for the enormous diplomatic capital that it has spent on this issue over the past 17 years is the (impatient) tolerance of its friends and the ridicule of its rivals.
However justified a country’s arguments might be on an issue – and Athens has all the right in the world to protest against Skopje’s behavior – there comes a time when its leadership has to estimate whether persisting with a specific policy is worth the long-term costs.
We need only remember that countries have fought wars and reached peace with their enemies in a less time than the dispute between Athens and Skopje has lasted. The US involvement in Vietnam began seriously in 1961 and ended 12 years later, with the Paris peace treaty in 1973.
One might say, of course, that this is not an apt example, that the dispute between Athens and Skopje does not create the same urgent need for a solution as does a war in which tens of thousands of people lost their lives.
But it is valuable for us to remember that however much passion has been aroused by the FYROM issue, it remains a dispute that is on paper, that has to do with theories, with fears, with suspicions, with history and possible future complications. But the fact that it has aroused such passions for such a long time – wherever in the world there are Greeks – shows the need for a solution.
The clash has been mighty from the start: Athens, with the grudging support of its partners in the EU (whom the conservative Mitsotakis government in the early 1990s threatened with a return of Papandreou’s PASOK in order to garner their backing) demanded the total surrender of Skopje. This entailed dropping the use of the name “Macedonia” in any form or derivative. The other side, with no way out but also with no wish to back down, gave way nowhere (other than in dropping the use of the Star of Vergina as the national emblem, something that was a bargaining chip to start with). And the political leadership in Skopje has certainly done all it can to provoke the Greeks. The renaming of their national airport as “Alexander the Great” last January is just the kind of decision that shows how right Greece was to complain about its neighbor’s irredentist propaganda – and at the same time how futile. On the one hand, Alexander the Great was a Greek warrior king who lived some 1,000 years before the Slavs who now call themselves “Macedonians” arrived on the scene; on the other, no one can stop anyone from calling himself or his airport or his dog by whichever name he chooses.
Our neighbors realize that they have won. From the moment that they can join NATO (which they will do soon) and the European Union (sometime in the future) under their temporary name (FYROM), they know that continuing their dispute with Greece will not cost them anything. When they accede to these organizations, they will be equal partners with Greece and will, in all probability, have more allies than Athens does – in which case they will achieve their renaming as “Republic of Macedonia” with few obstacles.
The dispute today is “a purely Greek problem – it’s not our problem,” a trade promotion minister in Skopje, Vele Samak, told The Financial Times in the same report that got Ambassador Grosomanidou into trouble. The fact that an experienced diplomat of Grosomanidou’s ilk incurs her ministry’s wrath simply for stating the obvious shows that Samak’s cynicism is justified. It shows also how much this problem will keep burdening Greece. When an issue which demands a serious national policy becomes a flag of convenience for every kind of political adventurism, when the sincere concerns of serious people are exploited by frivolous populists across the political and social spectrum, the problem keeps growing and cannot be solved by the main political parties that govern. But we are used to our politicians’ weaknesses. However, when the Foreign Ministry gets worked up and overreacts simply for reasons of domestic politics, then it appears that the only tactic we have is to allow ourselves to be dragged toward defeat, with the proud excuse that we never gave in, we never compromised anywhere. But is it policy to abandon the effort, to be at a loss as to the next step, to blind oneself to the facts of the situation?