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After 27 years of bitter dispute, Greece and its neighbour, the former Yugoslavic Republic of Macedonia (FYR Macedonia/FYROM), have reached a deal over the latter’s name.
An agreement signed on Sunday at the Greek village of Psarades by the two nations’ respective foreign ministers as the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipiras (below right) and his counterpart Zoran Zaev (below left) looked on, paves the way for the dispute to potentially be put to bed at last. If the deal overcomes the surprisingly numerous opportunities still remaining for it to collapse before its enactment, FYROM will be renamed the Republic of North Macedonia.
What was the problem in the first place?
Ever since FYROM’s independence in 1991, Greek unhappiness at the use of the name Macedonia has plagued relations between the countries and hampered FYR Macedonia’s progression in the international community. To even be granted United Nations (UN) member status, the new nation had to be referred to with the addendum ‘Former Yugoslavic Republic/FYR’, rather than simply as Macedonia. Most international organisations and press outlets have followed the convention set in 1993.
Historical and territorial concerns are behind Greece’s objections. FYROM borders the region of Greece known as Greek Macedonia, while in turn there was the ancient kingdom of Macedon, blurring names even further. Citizens of Greek Macedonia often identify themselves as ‘Macedonian’, while in no way considering themselves related to their slavic neighbours.
There have also been repeated concerns on the Greek side about appropriation of Greek cultural history by FYR Macedonia as the fledgling nation has sought to forge its own identity. Such worries were probably not eased by the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, who governed FYR Macedonia from 2006-2016, pursuing a policy of ‘Antiquisation’. This consisted of the ancient regional figures of Alexander the Great and Phillip of Macedon, whom the Greeks view as part of their own history, being glorified in the naming of public infrastructure and statues across the country.
The two countries did reach an agreement in 1995 on FYROM’s national flag, but the bitter dispute has dragged on. In some ways a diplomatic farce, it has severely impacted FYROM, whose attempts to join NATO and the EU have been massively hindered as a result.
What are the details of the deal and how has it been able to be reached now?
Under the deal, via an amendment to the country’s constitution, FYR Macedonia would rename itself as the Republic of North Macedonia. The language spoken by the people of the future Republic of North Macedonia would be recognised by the UN as ‘Macedonian’, with no footnote attached. The nation’s international alphabetical codes would remain as ‘MK’ or ‘MKD’. However, any vehicle from the Republic of North Macedonia would bear the new license plate coding of ‘NMK’.
FYROM’s government led by Prime Minister Zaev will additionally have to remove references to the ‘Macedonian people’ as an indigenous race, suggesting ancient heritage, and erase references to past struggles to unite all of Macedonia from Skopje to the Aegean Seas, implying grounds for revanchist claims on Greek territory. School textbooks will have to be rewritten.
Making an agreement easier to reach has been the similar ideological stance of the leading governing parties. Zaev leads the centre-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia Party, while Prime Minister Tsipiras is the charismatic leader of the radical socialist Syriza Party, who stormed to power in debt-ridden Greece in 2015. A proposal was put forward to resolve the dispute via the name of the Republic of North Macedonia in 2008. Back then though, Greece was governed by the liberal-conservative New Democracy and the nationalist VMRO-DPNE held power in FYR Macedonia.
Another important factor has been Bulgaria’s holding of the six month EU rotating presidency. Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva helped broker talks.
What’s been the reaction so far?
Both Prime Ministers have warmly welcomed the deal, with Tsipiras describing the agreement as ‘mutually beneficial’.
The international community has also strongly supported it. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has confirmed that a membership invitation to FYROM will be on the agenda at the NATO Brussels summit on 11-12 July. Before that, on June 25, EU foreign ministers are expected to issue an invitation to FYROM to begin negotiations to join the EU.
Fantastic news that PMs @Zoran_Zaev and @tsipras_eu have reached an agreement on the Name Issue. This took leadership & political courage. I urge all political leaders in both countries to recognise the benefits that resolving this long-standing issue will bring🇬🇷🇲🇰
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) June 12, 2018
The main opposition parties in both Greece and FYROM have led opposition to the deal. Tsipiras already had to survive a no confidence vote before its signing.
Could the deal not be implemented?
On Wednesday, the Macedonian Parliament accepted the name agreement, with 69 of 120 members of the Assembly voting in favour. The sole opposition party (yes, you guessed it, VMRO-DPNE) boycotted the vote and have said they will seek clarification as to the deal’s legal nature.
Protests took place outside during the vote (see above). Prime Minister Zaev has committed to a referendum on the name deal, expected to take place in September or October. If FYR Macedonia’s voters reject it, it’s back to the drawing board once more.
If voters provide a ‘Yes’ vote, Zaev’s government of five parties will then proceed to amend the constitution. It’s likely to require two parliamentary votes to amend as President Gjorge Ivanov has vowed to use his veto, but this can be overridden after a law has been passed twice.
Greece’s Parliament will also need to approve the deal, a process complicated by Syriza’s junior coalition partners, the nationalist Independent Greeks (ANEL), saying they won’t support it. On their own, Syriza are short of an absolute majority by 6 seats.