Saturday, July 19, 2008

The row over Macedonia's name rumbles on

Can one of the world's more abstruse diplomatic disputes finally be resolved with the election of a man widely seen as an unyielding Balkan nationalist?

If senior foreign ministry officials in Athens are to be believed following the emphatic re-election of Macedonia's Nikola Gruevski, the answer is a resounding yes.

The hardliner's victory with a result that has surprised even his own VMRO-DPMNE party – his will be the healthiest majority in Skopje's 120-seat house in more than a decade – has unexpectedly been met with barely concealed delight in Greece.

Never mind that the fresh-faced leader campaigned on a wave of nationalist anger over Athens' disruption of his country's bid to join Nato. Or that the poll was marred by gun-battles and accusations of electoral fraud. Or even that, earlier this week, his foreign minister, Antonio Milososki, managed to up the ante by raising the taboo issue of the right of "Greece's exiled Macedonian civil war refugees" to reclaim lost property – a point of contention if ever there was one for the Greeks.

As he focuses on putting together a coalition government, Gruevski is being seen as the right man at the right time to finally end the 17-year-old festering row between the two neighbours over the mini-state's nomenclature.

Rather than believing the scale of his victory will give him no other option but to hold firm, Greek policy wonks hope that his re-invigorated credibility will allow him to accept a compromise solution in the struggle that has resulted in his country having to go by the tortuous name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or Fyrom, for far too long.

More specifically, there are hopes that from his consolidated power base Gruevski will be able to sell a new composite name, such as Northern Macedonia, to his people.

That the Greeks have been their own worst enemy in this dispute cannot be denied. Few beyond the borders of Greece can understand Athens' hypersensitivity, or hostility, to the mini-state calling itself the Republic of Macedonia. Nor can they really understand Athens' claim that the name conveys covert territorial ambitions over the agriculturally rich adjacent Greek province of Macedonia. After all, say skeptics, isn't Greece the region's pre-eminent EU state with an economy roughly 16 times bigger than that of dirt-poor, soldier-scarce Macedonia?

The miscomprehension has been reinforced by a propaganda machine whose spin-doctoring begins in 323 BC, the year of the death of the original Macedonian, Alexander the Great.

Mercifully, Athens' ruling conservatives have taken a more pragmatic approach, eschewing arguments that delve back into antiquity and raise the spectre of the great Macedonian soldier king.

Instead, they have focused on more recent claims starting with Greece's brutal civil war of 1946-49 when Tito, with the help of slavophone Greek communists, attempted to create a Greek Macedonia that stretched to the warm-water port of Salonika, then much coveted by Stalin. Textbooks, maps, articles and banknotes that have depicted the former republic expanding into Greek-held "Aegean Macedonia" have also been cited.

And despite loud opposition from Greek nationalists – a hardcore bunch who for the first time in years are now represented in parliament – Athens has agreed to accept a synthetic name that would include the M-word as long as it denotes the ex-communist nation's geographical designation. Not that long ago, that would have been unthinkable.

The need to resolve the issue has been highlighted by the violence that eclipsed the Macedonian poll – violence that resulted in two rounds of run-offs, elicited loud criticism from the EU and left several dead and nine seriously wounded.

Although limited to areas populated by the ex-republic's restive Albanian minority (abutting Albania proper and neighbouring Kosovo), the gun-battles have once again shown how easily the ethnically-divided country can descend into chaos. And why, more then ever, it is now so important that it joins that great stabiliser of nations: Nato.

Greece has come a long way from the intransigence of its stance in the early 1990s when it also staged a reprehensible trade blockade against its northern neighbour.

But it is clearly not going to budge any further. After acting on its threat to veto the statelet's entry into Nato this April, it has made clear that it will also stop the country joining the EU later this year if the row remains unresolved.

That can only mean trouble for a state wracked by mass unemployment, ethnic tensions and strained relations with its other neighbours, Serbia and Bulgaria.

It is hard not to feel a degree of compassion for Macedonians, especially the younger generation who unlike their former Yugoslav parents have only ever known themselves as such and are staunchly opposed to altering their country's name.

Nikola Gruevski is not going to have it easy. Later this month when UN-brokered negotiations are expected once again to begin in earnest, his will be a tremulous balancing act between catering to the patriotism of his core voters and playing hardball – tactics that could exasperate the west and anger local Albanians who want a compromise – and manoeuvring his country out of hardship and isolation.

The new leader may find it hard to believe but more than anyone it is the Greeks who are wishing him luck.

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