Averting the Next Balkan War: How to Solve the Greek Dispute over Macedonia's Name

By Edward P. Joseph

The 17-year conflict over Macedonia’s official state name has taken a new turn. Greece’s successful effort to block Skopje’s entry into NATO has fueled nationalist dynamics in both countries. But there is more at stake here than a name: Macedonia’s stability -- and Kosovo’s -- rests on urgently finding a reasonable compromise with Greece.

Skopje, Macedonia: Protestors at a February rally in support of keeping Macedonia in the country's future official name.
AFP

Skopje, Macedonia: Protestors at a February rally in support of keeping Macedonia in the country's future official name.

Following a winter of discord over the question of Kosovo’s independence, NATO heads of state convened in Bucharest in April, largely unified on the Balkans. The alliance was poised to invite three countries from the region to be new members: Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia. Like its neighbors, Macedonia had fulfilled NATO’s reform criteria. It had also met various political demands by Western powers concerning the country’s peace agreement between the majority ethnic Macedonians and minority Albanians. In addition, since 2003 Macedonia had continuously deployed troops to the US-led engagement in Iraq as well as to the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

As the summit began, President Bush proclaimed the “strong support” of the United States for Macedonia’s NATO bid. In contrast to the contentiousness over Kosovo, virtually the entire alliance backed an invitation for Macedonia. The lone exception was Greece because of its long-standing objection to Macedonia’s name.1 But in the end, Macedonia was denied an invitation.

In the aftermath of Bucharest, NATO’s Secretary General visited Athens and Skopje, urging resolution of the problem by July so that Macedonia can be admitted to the alliance on schedule with Albania and Croatia. Unfortunately, the prospects for this are remote, in part because NATO unwittingly strengthened the Greek position at Bucharest. The truth is that few in Europe understand the seriousness of the dispute. They scoff at the prospect of tiny Macedonia launching an armed assault to recover the patrimony of Alexander the Great in Greece’s adjacent province that is also called Macedonia.

Trivializing the matter this way distorts the problem and saps the urgency required to deal with it. Identity clashes in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo were primary drivers of those conflicts. The identity stress in Macedonia is no less pernicious. In other words, it is not merely unfortunate that Macedonia did not get a bid to join NATO at Bucharest; rather, it throws into question the entire basis for Macedonia’s internal cohesion. By keeping the Macedonia question open, Serbia, Russia, and other countries can advance their agenda to keep other questions, including Kosovo’s final borders, open. Should Macedonia again descend into conflict, it would almost certainly not remain confined to its current borders.

The urgent task for Europe and the United States is to devise a strategy to deal with the name dispute. This requires understanding its dynamics. Both Macedonia and Greece see challenges to their identities and both have behaved irresponsibly, with Athens resorting to what the Greek scholar Anna Triandafyllidou calls “the strategic manipulation of nationalist feelings by Greek politicians.”2 Clinging to a narrow majority and warily eyeing the far right, the conservative government led by Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis has been highly vocal about the name issue. However, the record shows that no matter which government is in power in Athens, its position is remarkably constant. In Skopje, the center-right government of Nikola Gruevski has blatantly exploited nationalist sentiment, taking the provocative step of re-naming the airport after Alexander. But there is a fundamental difference in approaches in the two countries: Greece objects to the Macedonian claims to the legacy of Alexander the Great, but Macedonia does not object to corresponding Greek claims.

This asymmetry yields great insight into the root causes of the dispute -- and how to resolve it. Greece is bothered not just by the name, but what the name represents -- an independent ethnic Macedonian identity. The mere existence of the neighboring nation state founded on national identity carries perceived existential risk for many Greeks. This explains why no amount of written assurances by Skopje can mollify Athens; it also helps explain why after 15 years of UN mediation, the matter has defied compromise.

Endangered Stability

In 2001, Macedonia nearly produced the fourth major conflict since the breakup of Yugoslavia. All the hallmarks of Balkan war were in place, including ethnic flight. In a few short months of fighting, nearly ten percent of the population was displaced. And as in neighboring conflicts, identity was a major factor in the struggle. Leaders of the substantial ethnic Albanian minority (about one-quarter of the population) demanded and won painful concessions from the Macedonian majority to use their language and fly the Albanian national flag. To this day, the provisions of the Ohrid peace agreement that deal with these issues are often contentious. To many Macedonians, the need to change their constitution in order to affirm the Albanian identity was an affront to their own national identity. It is axiomatic, then, that the more threats mount to their own identity, the less inclined Macedonians will be to continue to make concessions --not only on identity related, but in other, equally painful spheres -- to their Albanian partners.

No one knows this better than the ethnic Albanians of Macedonia themselves, who have wisely backed the Macedonian position on the name -- up until the Bucharest summit. According to a recent survey conducted in the wake of the NATO summit, the number of citizens opposed to changing the country’s name has dropped markedly. Analysts believe that this reflects a dramatic change in opinion among Albanians, almost all of whom now back concessions on the issue in order to enter NATO. The failure to enter NATO was a special disappointment for Albanians, for whom the American-led alliance holds both a security and emotive attraction. Many now resent having to pay the cost to protect symbols that mean nothing to them, but mean everything to the country’s majority.

Snubbed at Bucharest, resentment is building among Macedonians as well. Patriotic feeling among the majority Macedonians has hardened. In part, this is the result of calculation by the governing nationalist party, VMRO-DPMNE. Rather than work with the opposition to forge a common front on the name issue after Bucharest, the prime minister called snap elections to be held on June 1, leaving Macedonia barely a month to meet the July NATO deadline to join the alliance in concert with Albania and Croatia.

If the July deadline comes and goes without an invitation to join NATO, then Macedonia’s EU prospects are also dim. After all, Greece has an even more formidable position in the European Union than in NATO, where Macedonia at least can count on the support of the American superpower. This, too, has serious consequences for Macedonian stability. Steadily improving prospects for entering NATO and the European Union have been a primary motivating factor for the majority Macedonian community to embrace both the painful Ohrid concessions as well as the array of institutional reforms mandated by Brussels. With NATO (and EU) entry now formally hostage to Greek approval, the country is suddenly bereft of strategic orientation.

Not only Greek challenges, persistent Serbian challenges to the Macedonian church, and Bulgarian challenges to the Macedonian language and identity create anxiety about the permanence of the Macedonian state. Serbia, with strong Russian support and the backing of some European capitals, continues to mount stiff resistance to Kosovo’s independence. Belgrade and its allies know that many Albanians link Kosovo’s territorial integrity and that of Macedonia. Before Bucharest, the anxiety in Skopje was that Serb-inspired partition of Kosovo would prompt secessionist movement among ethnic Albanians in Macedonia. After Bucharest, the reverse is true: The Serbian-Russian agenda in Kosovo could be advanced by unrest in Macedonia for which the potential remains substantial. In short, any trend toward disintegration in Macedonia would have direct and unavoidable consequences for Kosovo.

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