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

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.
Von Edward P. Joseph

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.

The Greek Objection

The place to begin to understand the name dispute is not ancient, but rather recent history. In September 1995, just as the conclusive negotiations over the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina were to begin in Dayton, Ohio, American diplomats Richard Holbrooke and Christopher Hill negotiated an “interim accord” to end a Greek embargo against its neighbor, Macedonia. Among other things, the Macedonians pledged that their constitution contains no territorial claims on Greece. Moreover, they agreed to state that their constitution does not “constitute a basis for interfering in the internal affairs of another state in order to protect the status and rights of any persons in other states who are not citizens of [Macedonia.]”

This dry passage reveals a key piece of the puzzle: palpable Greek fear that the adjacent Macedonian state -- with an intact, distinct Macedonian identity -- will become a platform for Greece’s minorities to challenge the status quo. Under Greek law and practice, there are no ethnic minorities. Human rights groups like Human Rights Watch have documented systematic harassment and discrimination of those who attempt to express group or cultural rights. Anyone who doubts that such anxieties are the source of the problem need only read the words of Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyannis on the eve of the Bucharest summit:

Let me explain the problem as Greeks see it. When Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia changed the name of his country’s southern province in 1944 from Vardar Banovina to the Social Republic of Macedonia, he did it to stir up disorder in northern Greece in order to communize the area and to gain an outlet to the Aegean Sea for his country.

This policy was also linked with the Greek civil war that at the time claimed more than 100,000 Greek lives, brought untold destruction to our country, and delayed our postwar reconstruction for a decade.

The name ‘Republic of Macedonia,’ therefore, is not a phantom fear for us Greeks. It is linked with the deliberate plan to take over a part of Greek territory that has had a Greek identity for more than three millennia and is associated with immense pain and suffering by the Greek people. 3

The problem is not that Bakoyannis is hyping Greek fears; it is that she is conveying them frankly. The “deliberate plan” she describes is not military; it is anticipated, inexorable pressure to acknowledge the existence of the Macedonian minority in Greece.

The question is why does Greece find this so frightening? According to Greek scholar Triandafyllidou, the answer is in the very construct of the modern Greek nation state:

Since the achievement of national independence (1829-30), the Greek state has engaged in a process of construction in which its ethnic origins have been in remote antiquity. The historical trajectory of the nation has been traced in a linear form and without ruptures or discontinuities from antiquity to modernity. Thus, any changes which have marked the past and the history of the national community have been reconstructed in such a way that the nation is represented as a homogeneous and compact unit. 4

In other words, ethnic minorities, particularly those with competing claims to cultural totems, are incompatible with the Greek concept of nation- and statehood. The Macedonian minority is especially neuralgic for Greeks because it represents not only an imagined “outsider” or “invader” of the nation, but a very real adversary with whom Greeks clashed in living memory. As is clear from Bakoyannis’s article, anxiety about identity and territory have become fused in Greek consciousness, a legacy of the bitter Greek Civil War.

There are ample grounds for Macedonians to be bitter from that era as well. As Human Rights Watch writes, “ethnic Macedonian political refugees who fled northern Greece after the Greek Civil War of 1946-49, as well as their descendants who identify themselves as Macedonians, are denied permission to regain their citizenship, to resettle in, or even to visit northern Greece. By contrast, all of these are possible for political refugees who define themselves as Greeks.... Ultimately, the government is pursuing every avenue to deny the Macedonians of Greece their ethnic identity.” 5

Ironically, the only minority recognized by Greece is the Muslim (Turkish) minority in Western Thrace. The Lausanne Treaty of 1923 (and the associated mass population transfers) established the reciprocal rights of the Muslim minority in Greece and of the Greek minority in Turkey. Despite mass displacement and mass loss of property, more than half a century after the fighting there has been no corresponding arrangement to address claims and regulate the affairs flowing from Macedonian-Greek conflict during the Greek Civil War.

As for the Macedonians, their claim to identity is fundamentally different. Slavs did not arrive into the Balkans until many centuries after Alexander’s kingdom had expired. For Macedonians, the nexus to Alexander is not linear, but based on geography, something inherently shared with Greece and Bulgaria. While geography may indeed tempt some extreme nationalists in Macedonia to maximalist territorial ambitions, there is no serious claim to exclusivity of Alexander’s legacy.

Fixing the Mistakes of Bucharest

In sum, the name dispute is largely asymmetrical, with Greece laying exclusive claim to the Macedonian identity. Exacerbating the problem is another asymmetry: EU and NATO member Greece is substantially richer and more powerful than Macedonia. In the run-up to Bucharest, under US pressure to come to terms, Macedonia for the first time agreed to a different name for international use. It accepted UN mediator Matthew Nimetz’s “final proposal”: “Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)” as its reference for international use. However, Greece flatly rejected it.

To avert an outright Greek veto at Bucharest, allies inserted a paragraph in the final communiqué that lauded Macedonia’s “hard work and commitment” to NATO values and agreed to extend an invitation “as soon as a mutually acceptable solution to the ‘name issue’ has been reached.”6 To diplomats, the communiqué represented the best alternative to a direct summit confrontation, tacitly acknowledging that Macedonia has met the criteria for membership, and that -- following agreement with Greece over the name -- an invitation could be extended by a simple meeting of the North Atlantic Council at the level of ambassadors. In fact, by ignoring Greek undertakings, NATO handed Greece a victory.7 In Washington, the Greek ambassador exulted: “NATO endorsed our position at Bucharest....The requirement to solve the name issue is no longer a Greek position, it is now a NATO position and a multilateral matter,” he told an audience at Georgetown University.8

Already there are signs that Greece is mounting pressure on Macedonia to buckle and accept its position in advance of a European Commission decision on whether to recommend a date for accession talks this fall. And there are also signs that Athens’ position on the name has hardened as well. Sources with knowledge of the negotiations say that Greece is advancing its demands not only that the new name for Macedonia contain a geographical reference (like “Upper Macedonia”), but that this new name be used in all contexts. Athens’ position on “scope of use” may grow to include bilateral relations with other countries, and even Macedonia’s own internal use (for example, stipulating the use of “Upper Macedonia” on the Macedonian passport). Greece is also resisting Macedonia’s demands that its language and nationality be formally recognized by the United Nations.

There are only three possible outcomes for the dispute: continued stalemate; Macedonian capitulation; or Greek willingness to compromise. Continued stalemate is the most likely outcome because Greece faces no external cost to maintaining its position. Athens’ approach suggests that it sees little incompatibility with its substantial private investment in Macedonia and that country’s continued limbo status.

Macedonian capitulation to the Greek position would mean negating the Macedonian identity. As described above, this would pose serious complications to advancing the peace arrangement with Albanians. It also would only encourage related Bulgarian and Serbian assaults on the Macedonian identity, further straining the cohesion of the country.

Only a fair compromise, one that minimally protects the Macedonian identity while addressing the core Greek demand for a name change serves the cause of European stability. Given the disparity in power between Macedonia and Greece, UN mediation alone is unlikely to achieve this. And given the unwillingness of European capitals to take on the burden of confronting Athens, American leadership is once again essential. That means that NATO, where American influence is greatest, offers the best vehicle for success.

The solution, ironically, lies in embracing -- to the fullest extent -- the Greek assertion that the name dispute is now a multilateral matter. Rather than adopt a counterproductive tone of confrontation, the United States must rhetorically step to the side of the Greeks. Bringing along those allies aware of the risks for Kosovo and Macedonia, the United States should move to convene the North Atlantic Council (NAC) for an urgent session to accept the Greek interpretation of the Bucharest communiqué. But it should not stop there. The NAC must simultaneously ask the NATO Secretary General to provide a “full and complete report on all dimensions of the name dispute” within 30 days. The NAC resolution should cite the requirement in NATO’s founding document “for peaceful and friendly international relations” and related obligations in the charter of the United Nations (particularly on human rights). As a result, the NATO Secretary General will have to turn to an array of organizations and individuals, including the UN mediator, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and private organizations like Human Rights Watch.

In short, NATO would begin to move down the very road toward the examination of Macedonian minority rights in Greece that sits at the root of the Greek objection to Macedonia’s name in the first place. The Greek government would pay a heavy political price for such an outcome.

Of course, Athens will see through the ploy and either attempt to block it or veto. This will be complicated. First, a veto would put its interpretation of the summit communiqué in jeopardy. Second, as in Bucharest, Athens will be forced to accept the unenviable role of spoiler. Unlike in Bucharest, however, it will be deprived of the political benefit of standing up to the US president. The NAC ordinarily meets in obscurity, at the level of ambassadors. Furthermore, the draft resolution will be written to embrace the Greek position on the communiqué, not to humiliate or punish Athens. Third, if it vetoes, Athens will have to rue the costs of having to carry another permanent grievance within the alliance. Already it has the annoyance of constant Turkish objections to alliance meetings with the European Union in the presence of Greek-ally Cyprus. It will hardly boost its case by obstructing a reasonable provision to address the very dispute that it insists is an alliance matter.

In sum, the way out of the name dispute is to recognize both the seriousness of the problem and its root causes, and urgently devise a transatlantic strategy that addresses them. The problem is asymmetrical, both in terms of the Greek objection to the Macedonian identity, and Greece’s power relative to Macedonia. Only by introducing the full dimension of the problem, including the question of the Macedonian minority in Greece, will Athens have an incentive to compromise -- and will more instability be averted.

Edward P. Joseph is a visiting fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.

1) France, which counts on Greece for consistent support on ESDP and its bid for a “Mediterranean Union,” supported Greece in its objections to Macedonia’s entry under its name.

2) A. Triandafyllidou, M. Calloni, and A. Mikrakis, “New Greek Nationalism,” Sociological Research Online, vol. 2, no. 1 (1997).

3) Dora Bakoyannis, “The View from Greece,” International Herald Tribune, April 1, 2008.

4) “New Greek Nationalism” (see fn. 2).

5) Ibid.

6) Bucharest Summit Declaration, issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Bucharest on April 3, 2008, paragraph 21.

7) In late April, Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski wrote UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon alleging that the Greek veto at Bucharest amounted to a “flagrant violation of Article 11 from the Interim Accord, according to which, Greece has legally undertaken not to object to Macedonia’s admission to international organizations.” Crvenkovski also noted that Greece’s position “could have long-term destabilizing consequences in the region of south-eastern Europe.” Reported in various Macedonian print media on April 22, 2008.

8) Ambassador Alexandros Mallias speaking publicly at Georgetown University, April 15, 2008.

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