Sunday, April 06, 2008

George W. Bush Passes Macedonian Geography Quiz

Abstract: In 2004, the United States changed its policy toward Macedonia by dropping the awkward “FYROM” name. President George W. Bush’s administration promoted the name change as a reward for Macedonia’s democratic reforms. Despite Greek criticism, the decision has already paid dividends in bringing peace and stability to the Balkan country.

America’s Policy Change Toward Macedonia

United States President George W. Bush would never be mistaken for being a geography expert or someone with a photographic memory for country titles and locations. He has called Africa a nation, Europe a key ally, and the Kingdom of Jordan a Gulf Coast Country. In a reporter’s pop quiz during the 2000 election campaign, he only correctly identified one of four country leaders. Yet Bush has changed America’s policy on Macedonia’s name, ending more than a decade of identifying the Balkan nation by a clumsy name and helping bring peace and freedom to a country struggling with foreign recognition of its identity.

While most Americans’ attention was riveted upon the 2004 election and its aftermath, including a focus on the close vote in the state of Ohio, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed an agreement of cooperation which would refer to Macedonia by that name. Before that, the United States was one of many countries and international organizations that referred to the Balkan country by the name “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” a title quite unpopular with Macedonians.

The Greek-Macedonian Name Conflict

The Greek foreign minister slammed the Bush decision as unilateral and claimed it would have many “negative effects” upon the region. But this reaction was predictable. When Macedonia won its freedom peacefully from the old Yugoslav Federation in 1991, Greece slapped an economic embargo on its neighbor to the north. This embargo, which helped halve the average Macedonian per capita income at a time of economic transition from Communism, was supplemented with a Greek veto of European Union (EU) aid and lack of support for Macedonian membership in organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Greek critics of the Macedonian title also expressed their desire to have FYROM residents renamed Slavs. Greece also claimed the name was part of Greek heritage and would lead to irredentist designs upon their Thracian territory and surrounding lands, despite the fact that much of Macedonia’s military hardware was turned over to Serbia as the price for peaceful independence. Some Greeks tried to have others simply refer to FYROM by the capital “Skopje”

Greece was challenged by the European Union in the European Court in Luxembourg for its actions towards the Macedonian economy. And President Bill Clinton pressured the Greek President to seek a compromise with then-Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov.

American policymakers at the time were more interested in preventing a row between the two countries. Despite the urging of President Bill Clinton’s East European envoy Richard Holbrooke (who later became US Ambassador to the United Nations), who wished for Greece to accept the country name Macedonia and the peoples as Macedonians, the United States used the name FYROM. The United Nations sanctioned the title FYROM as well.

The Name Change Policy Boosts Democracy and Peace

While laboring under the FYROM title, Macedonia showed itself to be a good participant in the international community. It agreed to participate in the sanctions on the Yugoslav Federation at the time when its own economic situation was precarious (thanks to the Greek embargo). It housed hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Kosovo conflict, despite the fact that it taxed the resources of the small Balkan nation. When an Albanian insurgency broke out, Macedonia relied upon terms dictated by the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). These included some tough concessions to ethnic Albanians and Albanian insurgents of the National Liberation Army (NLA) spelled out in the Ohrid Peace Agreement.

According to a report by the AFP, the United States made its decision not to offend the Greeks, but to “reward Macedonia for its commitment to democracy.” This is hardly just rhetoric. Evidence of Macedonia’s democratic credentials is found in key democratic datasets such as Freedom House, Polity and Vanhanen’s Polyarchy Dataset.

Rather than have negative effects, as predicted by the Greek Minister, the Bush Administration’s decision to rename FYROM as Macedonia seems to have had a positive impact upon peace in that Balkan country. Before the American decision, Macedonians opposed to the Ohrid Peace Agreement rallied against parliamentary legislation designed to redraw municipal boundaries, which would give ethnic Albanians more autonomy. But after the U.S. decision to boost Macedonia’s international standing, controversy over the redrawn boundaries died down. A referendum designed to overturn the legislation failed due to low turnout. Local elections were held a few months later without serious incident.

Regardless of his fuzzy memory for country titles and locations, President George W. Bush understands the role names can play in bringing about peace and stability in a war-torn region. After all, he told the Economist on June 12, 1999 “Keep good relations with the Grecians.”

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